Honest Questions

Mar 17, 2017

Ainsworth asks, "Are we doing the right thing?” Jonathan Baker's photo of the Sanford Dam asks, "How do we stay true to the land beneath our feet."
Credit JONATHAN BAKER / Canyon, Texas

I’m Jonathan Baker, a writer in Canyon, Texas, and I’ve been asked to talk a little bit about Ogallala Blue by William Ashworth, the latest selection in the HPPR Radio Readers Book Club. The book concerns the Ogallala Aquifer, the vast body of groundwater that exists beneath the feet of High Plains residents and is sometimes referred to as an “underground ocean,” though it’s more akin to a sponge made of permeable rock and silt. When you pass those center-pivot sprinklers spraying water over cornfields in Kansas or cottonfields in Texas, that water is being pulled directly out of the Ogallala. The aquifer is also responsible for all those emerald green lawns in front of the tract houses in southwest Amarillo, and if the courthouse square in your town is as green as an Irish clover field, you can thank the Ogallala.

In my own hometown, when I visit the campus of West Texas A&M University—my alma mater—I’m often struck by how green the lawns are, as if I’ve stumbled onto the quad of some hoary New England liberal arts college. When I was at WT, I studied the American West with professors like Bonney Macdonald and Alex Hunt. And one of the passages we went back to again and again was penned by the Western American novelist and naturalist Wallace Stegner—an essay entitled “Thoughts in a Dry Land.” Stegner begins his essay with a basic primer about how to understand the West: “You have to get over the color green; you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale; you have to understand geological time.”

High Plains people have always taken pride in their adaptability. But in many ways, we have not adapted to this environment. Rather, we have forced our environment to adapt to outside notions of what a “civilized” land ought to look like. In the early twentieth century, High Plains sodbusters converted what was once the greatest grazing land in the world into dryland farms, loosening up the soil and unleashing the Dust Bowl. To prevent another catastrophe, denizens of the High Plains doubled down on their efforts by tapping into the Ogallala and converting this dry land into a verdant garden, the “nation’s breadbasket.”

That worked just fine for half a century. But the Ogallala is a limited resource, and the water won’t last. No matter how much High Plains farmers tinker with low-energy precision technology and subsurface drip irrigation, the water is eventually going to dry up. I keep thinking of that lyric from James McMurtry’s “Levelland,” one of the truly great songs about this region: “Daddy's cotton grows so high / Sucks the water table dry / Rolling sprinklers circle round / Bleedin’ it to the bone.” We’re bleeding this land to the bone. We need “to get over the color green.”

For me, the Ogallala has always been something lingering at the back—or should I say the bottom—of my mind, something like Jung’s collective unconscious. I find myself thinking about it at odd times, this massive vessel beneath us, a dwindling wellspring that connects us all but that we rarely acknowledge. We’re going to have to find a new way to live on the Plains, whether that means dryland farming, no-till farming, or returning to a grazeland economy, I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s going to mean asking some honest questions about who we are and where we live.

In chapter twenty-two of Ogallala Blue, the geologist Ray Brady tells the author, “I think it’s hard to find anything that’s absolutely black or white in real life. [. . .] To me [. . .] you have to evaluate performance and ask yourself, ‘Are we doing the right thing?”

I’m no geologist; I studied English in school. But for me, the first questions we ask have to be, “How do we live in a way that reflects our status as flatlanders?” And “How do we stay true to the land beneath our feet?”