"I found the pond lying still and innocent, a receptive, vulnerable reflection of the sky. This wasn't rainwater. It hadn't rained in weeks. My brother Bruce had been managing our farm since our father died—four years ago now, in 1997. He told me he was worried that the ground would be too parched to plant dryland winter wheat this September. No. This pond was what the pioneers and early settlers had called live water. It had found the surface by itself without the aid of rain, or today, a rancher's pump. It came from the aquifer, exhaling into the bed of the Little Beaver.
I dragged a stick, clearing algae away, and laid my palm on the sun-warmed surface. The water wasn't beautiful or bracing or clear like in a mountain lake. But it inspired tenderness in me because it was in danger. How large had the pond been forty years ago, before we started irrigating? Had the creek run all the way from here to the Republican River, a distance of about 30 miles? ... This place ought to have a tall fence around it, I thought. A monument should be erected."
The search for water, both the real ponds and streambeds she remembers from her childhood on her family's Western Kansas farm, and for the Ogallala, the mostly invisible underground aquifer that feeds them, draws Julene Bair back to Kansas after her father's death. Around that search, Bair weaves a powerful memoir that brings alive the haunting beauty of the shortgrass prairie landscapes, and the devastating crisis as the Ogallala Aquifer buried beneath it is pumped dry, removing the life-giving grace of water from that windswept land.
Bair brings the Ogallala crisis home with a spiral back into her past, her tangled feelings for her family and the farm that supports her—a farm that now pumps the Ogallala to harvest the subsidies from corn and soybeans instead of growing dryland wheat and grazing native pasture as in years past. She weaves in the love affair and writes of her eventual realization after he leaves her that what she loved was not the man she thought might be a father to her struggling son and a partner in helping save her family farm, but what he represented: Kansas, the prairie and the culture of the people she grew up, the wind, the space, and beneath it all, that disappearing aquifer.
Bair mines her life as she works deeper into understanding the aquifer, agriculture on the western plains, what draws her back to the Kansas she left as a young single mother, her family, and her choices. The Ogallala Road is a complex story, a lyrical tribute to a place and the human cultures that have inhabited it, as well as a thorough and personal examination of an environmental crisis that, for most of us, remains unseen.
It is this latter thread where the story slows. In explaining politics and water use, Bair sometimes falls into lecture mode, delivering an argument instead of the personal and more compelling perspective. (As a scientist who had to teach herself how to write, I am well aware of how easy it is to tell instead of show.) Overall though, The Ogallala Road is a soaring tale of a woman learning to find and trust her voice, to reconcile with family and land, to advocate for its endangered future, and to embrace her own contradictory journey.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Julene Bair is the author of One Degree West, a winner of the WILLA Literary Award from Women Writing the West. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, and several anthologies, including Home Land, The Great North American Prairie, and Between Mothers and Sons. A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and the Iowa Non-fiction Writing Program, she has taught at the University of Wyoming and the University of Iowa. She lives in Longmont, Colorado. Visit her website.
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