Plains Windmill-Shutterstock

[A prairie windmill. Image from Shutterstock.]

Julene Bair’s memoir of romance & eco-tragedy on the prairie.

The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning by Julene Bair. Viking, 278 pp.

Bair’s mournful tale is told with resignation, honesty and heartbreak, but also with strength and joy as she shares memories . . . [T]his is a book by a tough, restless, energetic, admirable, principled Kansan who also happens to be a fine writer.—review by Mark Bittman in the New York Times Book Review

Bair Ogallala Road

We read literature to escape, if only briefly, our own subjective silos. We yearn to piggyback upon someone else’s experience of life. And we seek, as well, clarity: the meaning someone has harvested from her existence—also the order and beauty in that restless act, that hero’s effort to distill coherence from the quotidian.

Here is a story; here is its wisdom.

The wonderful thing about this fine memoir, Julene Bair’s recent The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning, is that it shines so brightly in both dimensions. Here is why books remain quietly important. Why they’re still honored in an age of louder, less personal mass media and of jittery, flash-in-the-pan social media.

The Ogallala Road opens with Bair on a quest for water, which she loves, this child of a thirsty landscape. She’s roaming beside a creek in the High Plains of western Kansas, trying to assess the effects of irrigation. She’s researching an essay. And then she meets, trespassing on his range, the Marlboro Man.

Not exactly, but Ward is rather iconic. A cowboy, not a sodbuster; a horseman, not a tractor jockey. In some ways, he’s very different from her dirt-farmer father, but like him he epitomizes Kansas itself. He’s also read her first book, the essay collection One Degree West: Reflections of a Plainsdaughter. He’s handsome, sure, but the fact that he reads seals the deal.

Julene, 53 at this point and twice divorced, is long single. Sparks fly between this feminist environmentalist trying to make amends—with Kansas, with its remnant prairie and streams—and this macho cowboy just looking for a sweet ride across Earth’s trampled face. (Politics be damned: this thing between women and men never ends.) You wonder if it’s too late for her son, though; a boy who has always openly craved a father figure, he’s become a rebellious teenager. (And by the way: the High Plains of Kansas haven’t been this well described since Truman Capote ventured west for In Cold Blood.)

Second, you ask—and you can’t help but ask because of Bair’s intent, her narrative craft, Can this progressive woman find lasting love with a Republican cowboy cum livestock equipment salesman?

You read on to see. Bair addresses this aspect in an interview with Map of Kansas Literature:

This book has the “narrative arc” that New York editors and agents always emphasized when I tried to sell books there in the past. I was annoyed by that supposed necessity to write narratively, when much of experience is interior and less linear, but over the course of writing The Ogallala Road, I began to honor that more and more, making choices according to the story’s pulse. You can’t really engage hearts without a story, and you can’t open minds without first opening hearts. I think it was D. H. Lawrence who said that the purpose of the novel is to expand sympathy.

Julene Bair

[Julene Bair, High Plains girl.]

As the romance proceeds, Bair weaves in backstory. Her father having died, she has co-inherited 3,500 acres, the family farm in dry western Kansas, and quit teaching writing to help manage it. As a lover of wilderness, she’s tormented by an old guilt. To grow crops, especially corn, her family and other dry-land farmers from America’s midsection are depleting a vast underground water system. The Ogallala Aquifer stretches from South Dakota to Texas. Farmers are pumping, each year, forty times more liquid than the aquifer needs to recharge itself. Year by year, they must pump from deeper and deeper levels.

The scope of this environmental tragedy is what Bair makes clear. The Ogallala Aquifer is the most plentiful source of groundwater in America. Once upon a time, her family and other plains farmers raised livestock on native prairie grasses; using windmills, they and their horses, cows, and sheep sipped sparingly from this unseen river. Later they broke the sod for wheat, which could be planted to take advantage of late-winter and early-spring precipitation. But then government agriculture subsidies—necessary because of America’s cheap food policy—encouraged farmers to grow crops that needed more water. Especially corn, which the government is now encouraging more than ever for ethanol.

We’re all complicit in this. But Bair, and not just her Dad anymore, suddenly was among those actively fueling the conflagration. She dimly remembers, from girlhood, the older, slower, sustainable High Plains realm she desires. The one of the Native Americans and of the first white agrarians who replaced them.

In 2001, the year before she met Ward, she recalls, her family pumped 200 hundred million gallons of water from the Ogallala Aquifer. In one of the book’s compellingly dramatized backstory sections, she portrays her discovery in the mid-1970s, after she’d moved back home for a few years, that her family had pumped 139 million gallons. She’d just emerged from a stint of living in the Mojave Desert and was keenly aware of water’s centrality to life. Outraged, she did the math on her kitchen table: it took over 4,000 gallons of water for every bushel of corn they’d harvested.

Bair confronted her father, who was unmoved. Though they had barely made any money when they sold the corn, federal subsidies put them $10,000 in the black. As a practical businessman, he trusted the government to limit his rapacity, to save the aquifer from him and other farmers. “Don’t despair,” he said. “Big Daddy will put the plug in before it’s too late.”

Use it or lose it! my father used to say whenever I complained about how much he drew out. Kansas, like most dry western states, had a law requiring that those holding water rights take advantage of them to their fullest, or lose what they didn’t use so someone else could access the water before it flowed, or seeped, into the next state. It hadn’t occurred to early legislators that water could be lost through too much use. Now the law was codified by long practice and the rights holders were powerful vested interests with political clout.

Ogallala Aquifer

Like every American there and elsewhere, she was deeply compromised; unlike most, she knew it. She portrays herself when she moved back home from the Mojave at age 26: no money, no health care, pregnant, a failing marriage to an abusive man—another cowboy. The aquifer, in the form of Dad’s largesse, kept her head above water. Years later, in The Ogallala Road’s foreground narrative, she still yearns for change, a larger awakening so that she’s not alone in enacting more thoughtful land use. As it is, if she convinces her brother, who now manages the land, that they should quit pumping, they’ll likely just go bankrupt. Thanks to the Ogallala Aquifer, she’s able to write full time, partly about its ongoing destruction.

Watching this dilemma play out amidst several dicey human stories, you gallop through The Ogallala Road. Bair keeps the narrative’s reins taut: the fate of the aquifer; the fate of her family’s land; the fate of her unruly son; the fate of her romance.

Her memoir’s environmental aspect hit me hard because after reading it—twice—I happened to read Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, which makes clear certain implications of Earth’s ongoing and rapidly worsening crisis. Our planet, with its greenhouse atmosphere of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and water, naturally traps solar energy; pollution has caused the atmosphere to seize much more. Picture planet Earth as a terrarium with an added heat lamp, which greatly increases evaporation. More energy is trapped in the system, and the weather is getting more violent.

In this new world, wet areas likely will get much wetter; dry places much drier. Average temperature-increase figures can seem trivial because they’re spread over an entire year, including winter, but summers already are getting much hotter. 2014 is forecast to be an El Nino year, when the Pacific Ocean, 40 percent of the Earth’s surface, heats up. And thus 2014 (some say 2015) is expected to be the hottest year in recorded human history.

When the Ogallala Aquifer is gone, what will that mean for people there and for the rest of Americans living in the wake of climate change? Will we truck water into the High Plains so people can live there? Or, with rising fuel prices, and having also drained the lakes and streams that interact with the aquifer, will we abandon the region for thousands of years?

The Ogallala Road, in showing one woman’s and one family’s cruel ecological and economic dilemma, is clarifying and important. It sounds a warning bell, but it is not helpless. Bair is not a helpless person and offers some ideas; she’s a doer, surely a legacy of her father, that dominating, driven, beloved, exasperating, workaholic farmer.

None of us alive today started this fire—the excessive timbering, plowing, draining, and coal-burning—but very soon everyone must help extinguish it.

[Bair has written an Op-Ed for The New York Times, “Running Dry on the Great Plains.” There’s an essay by Bair, “She Poured Out Her Own,” at Terrain.org, about the plight of the Ogallala Aquifer. Next: An interview with Julene Bair about writing her memoir and the aquifer.]

Plains Irrigation-terrain.org

[Irrigation on the High Plains. Image from Terrain.org.]

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