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Volume 15, Issue 31 ~ August 2- August 8, 2007

Dry, Drier, Driest

You measure drought by degrees

Them dirty spell blues are fallin’, driving people from door to door,

Dry spell blues are fallin’, driving people from door to door.

Them dry spell blues has put everybody on the kindlin’ floor.

–Dry Spell Blues (1930s), sung by Delta bluesman Son House

At last, I see by the daily press, governors and others have finally noticed we’re in a drought and are making plans to ease the financial pain of farmers.

Drought is a word like depression or recession. No politician likes to use it; the word itself might make things worse. Yet one wonders how dry it has to get before government acknowledges that a drought exists. When’s the last time you saw enough rainfall to soak an inch into the soil?

A few scattered areas have had some short and violent storms, but overall things have been like the Sahara Desert: fitting for camel or cactus. We up here in Riviera Beach in Northern Anne Arundel County see everything around us bone dry. We had a big splash of rain last Friday, but it stopped before an umbrella could be opened.

I went outside soon as the skies cleared and stuck my finger in the soil of the garden. Less than an inch down, it was dry, certainly of no use for the pumpkins, cauliflower and pole beans granddaughter Grumpy and I have been nursing, along with assorted flowers and shrubs around the house. We need the kind of rain, 40 days and nights, that prompted Noah to set sail.

Not a Drop to Drink

I’m not one to waste water. The grass, regardless of how brown it turns, doesn’t get a drop, nor does the hedge. They’re on their own. But vegetables, flowers and plants get help, though not by surface hosing. I sparingly use one of those thin pipes that are pushed into the soil at root depths to water the roots. There’s no wasted water to evaporate on the top; it’s down where every drop counts. Yet it seems I’m losing ground.

The two birdbaths filled in the morning are dry by nightfall. Birds don’t drink it all; evaporation under the steaming sun claims most. The birdbaths rate priority. There are few oases around; the waters of nearby Stoney Creek are too salty for them and the squirrels who also sip from the baths. I wonder where the rabbits get their water; even the grass they much on is of dried straw coloration.

I think of the farmers who don’t have irrigation — or who do, until the ponds that supply the pipelines dry up. What it must be like to watch your crops turn brown, your investment in seed, fertilizer, planting and time being wiped out. Only a miracle can keep them out of the red. And this is the year counted on for increased income due to the increasing demand for corn as ethanol fuel.

Things Could Be Worse

The old adage Things could be worse might ring shallow among contemporary farmers wondering where the next payment for the tractor or combine is coming from. But I’m old enough to recall the days when little if any government assistance was available in the bad years on the farm.

The Great Drought, claimed to be the worst in the climatological history of the country, coincided with the Great Depression, also the worst ever in this country. Tens of thousands of farmers who lost their crops subsequently lost their farms — and there were few, if any, jobs anywhere.

The drought started in the eastern third of the nation in 1930 and spread west. It stayed with us for nearly a decade, sending countless farmers west to California. The Grapes of Wrath were everywhere; processions of old automobiles and light trucks were on the roads loaded with as much of a family’s possessions as would fit. It was like the gold rush all over again, but no gold at the end of the rainbow.

As a boy, I remember seeing a few of the jalopies on the road; one stopped at Ella Steere’s small store and gas station. The driver wanted to bargain with Ella; he’d swap a table for a tank of gas for his truck, and for a few quarts of oil would throw in a chair. Ella’s financial situation wasn’t much better. She turned him down, but gave him two gallons of fuel and Cokes for all the family.

I don’t know how far he was headed, but I figure his truck would be empty but for the wife and kids when he reached his destination — if the truck had that many miles left in it.

More vagabonds walked the roads, all their possessions in a bag at the end of a stout stick over a shoulder tramp style, knocking on doors sincerely offering to work for a meal. Mother feared them; we’d hide and leave the knock unanswered.

On the farm, one of the few things I remember about Grandpa Burton — who died when I was six — was him by kerosene lamp sitting at the old roll-top desk doing the paperwork of farming. He looked tired; perhaps that was a day when he and Uncle Jack took the horse and lumber wagon to Sand Dam a couple miles away to fill barrels of water for household, livestock, chickens and the family garden.

The well had gone dry; there was no water for the market crops. But grandma insisted there be water for bathing as often as possible, cooking and the crops dedicated for family consumption. The cistern in the cellar that collected rain from the roof had also gone dry.

Tough as it was, Grandpa and Grandma were lucky. They kept the farm — and its soil. Farther west, those farmers who managed to keep the farm lost much of the valuable topsoil to winds whipping across parched fields. According to T. H. Watkins’ book The 1934 Yearbook of Agriculture, America in the 1930s, 100 million acres of cropland lost its topsoil; 125 million acres then in production were expected to follow suit.

Without topsoil, a farm is not a farm; it can be used for marginal grazing land, if that. The topsoil was blown away in great clouds that could be seen in New York, Philadelphia and Washington. So thick it was out west, it brought darkness in mid-day, wrote a man in Beadle, South Dakota, who added “It was a wall of dirt, one’s eyes could not penetrate, but could penetrate the eyes and ears. It could penetrate the lungs until one coughed up black. If a person was outside, he tied his handkerchief around his face, but he still coughed up black.”

Not So Bad After All

Think of what life in the country was like in those years. And here I am worrying about the grass, bushes, flowers, three pumpkin plants and one each of cauliflower, tomatoes and pole beans. Maybe things aren’t so bad after all.

Enough said.

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