Today, I drove about fifty miles to watch a play especially produced by my friend, King Hill, for the Gem Theatre in Claude. I almost did not go because of high winds and blowing dust. Between 8 and 10 this morning visibility was so low it was impossible to see the horizon. High wind and blowing dust warnings started yesterday. Now, as I write this, these warnings have continued for more than 24 hours. Red flag warnings flash across the TV screen. Thankfully, not quite the dust bowl extremes, not yet anyway.
Originally, a green sea of grass covered all the land where I live in the Panhandle of Texas, the Llano Estacado. Immense herds of buffalo roamed free. This prairie grass protected the land from erosion. Rivers and an occasional canyon interrupted this endless sea, including the Canadian River, Palo Duro Canyon and the network of canyons running into it. Once the Spanish brought horses, Kiowa and Comanche ruled this sea for more than a hundred years. Under a full moon, the Comanche reigned by night raids from Nebraska to Mexico.
What happened? Plows brought by people from the East dug up the grass. These people planted the crops they knew, wheat, corn. They settled in towns and homesteaded the country. They brought cattle and in some areas developed gigantic ranches. Hunters killed all the buffalo except a few the famous rancher Charlie Goodnight and his wife managed to save. Remnants of this southern herd now live at Caprock Canyons State Park near the tiny town of Quitaque, Texas. Those who farmed dry land farmed. In a normal year crops grew, the people prospered. In dry years dust blew because there was no grass to hold the dirt.
Today, giant pumps pull water from the aquifers, the Ogallala, the Santa Rosa. My well is 400 feet deep, some are nearly 900. More and more people move here from other parts of the United States. They want lawns like the ones they had where it rains forty inches a year. It does not rain much here, twenty in a good year, ten in a bad year. These aquifers lose much more water to irrigation in a year than are replenished by rain. Farmers grow corn,wheat, cotton, and milo, all irrigated. In some places where the water became to saline for crops, the pumps sit abandoned.
Today, I drove by miles and miles of dry, thirsty grass, perfect fuel for the wind driven wildfires which sometimes start this time of year. In other places irrigation pivots rained water on immense emerald fields of wheat. I could not help but wonder how much of this water evaporated in the sixty mile an hour wind. As I finish writing this with the TV on weather watching, I see Fire Weather Watch, High Wind Warning, Red Flag Warning flash across the screen. I hear the wind roar and heavy outdoor furniture slide across the patio. I’ve seen wildfires, had a half mile of cedar post fence burned down. All it takes is a tiny piece of cigarette thrown from a truck or car, a flash of dry lightning. They predict three more days of this.
I love the space, the vermillion sunsets, the intense blue of the sky. I watch my neighbors water, water, water their new houses in the country. I think about those pivots irrigating in the wind, and I wonder what will happen when all the water’s gone.