Recently, as the USDA Drought Monitor showed Iowa and the rest of the Midwest slipping further into a deepening summer drought, I struggled to stanch the wellspring of painful memories released as I recalled for a younger friend the dry years of the late 1980s. An early teen back then, I watched helplessly as the otherwise sturdy rural adults around me wilted under the same conditions that withered our crops, giving me an early lesson in why some farmers, when asked how their drought-stricken crops are doing, will cast their eyes to the ground and say, “We’re thirsty.”
The drought of 1988 was an eye-opener for me. Granted, my multi-generational farm family had experienced our fair share of market collapses and weather scares in my first 13-14 years. But 1988 was the first time I realized the land couldn’t provide 100% of the time. Always before, my grandfather’s perennially pessimistic prophecies that each harvest would be our last had proven to be so much Chicken Little, with our corn and soybeans somehow yielding in the end. But this — the worst dry spell since the Dust Bowl — was different. As I watched that mostly rain-less summer sap our emotional health and financial reserves, for the first time I felt imperiled, too.
35 years after those life-changing El Nino years ruined nearly half of the U.S. corn crop, I’m realizing once more the difficult lessons that dry weather uniquely teaches. For the first time in decades, I see ghostly impressions of foundations razed long ago emerging beneath the thinning grass at the edge of our barnyard, bringing to mind the buried lives of forebears whose struggles I’d forgotten to remember. In my knee-jerk urge to mow that which is dormant, I realize our zeal for cutting grass is about much more than maintaining a respectable lawn — it’s about cultivating what beauty is ours by consolation. I see how the crop geneticist’s gift for creating indestructible hybrids cannot completely save us. And I notice how sustainable farming practices like no-till provide a small but significant margin in lean times, helping soils retain necessary moisture. Conditions in the field suggest as much, with the no-till crops maintaining a disproportionate amount of vigor when compared to their more conventional neighbors.
Perhaps most of all I remember how profoundly parched weather impacts our individual and collective psyche in a region with a genius for growing things and a sincere delight in seeing them thrive. Back in the 1980s, I tuned in each week to hear the state climatologist pontificating on the deteriorating conditions. How could he stay so calm reading such ominous tea leaves? So matter-of-fact? He sounded like a homegrown version of the great and powerful Oz, and I envied his soothsaying style even as I resented his scholarly distance from our plight. “Hey!” I wanted to scream at the radio, “We’re hurting here!”
3 decades later, I desperately want the current drought to end, regardless of what revelations it may bring. Surely no lesson is worth the collective suffering of humans, plants and animals. But until the drought-busting rains come and we dance, I’m resolved, at least, to listen.
Zachary Michael Jack is a 7th-generation rural Iowan and great-grandson of soil conservation writer Walter Thomas Jack.