When, as a young woman, I had the good fortune to stay for a few days in the home of a Hopi farming family, I saw many similarities between my host, James, and my own father. Both men had spent virtually every day of their lives outdoors, tilling soil and caring for crops. And they both did this in a dry place—in James’s case the northern Arizona desert, and in my father’s, the high, dry plains of western Kansas. Although my father farmed with big machines and James still planted by hand, they were both proficient dry-land farmers, meaning they had to be expert at nurturing the moisture in their soil.
James’s dry-land methods involved planting his corn, beans, and squash far apart and channeling rainwater alongside his crops. My father’s methods involved fallowing his wheat ground every other year and keeping as much organic matter on the surface as possible while also preventing weeds from sapping the moisture that accumulated during the fallow periods. When planting, he carefully adjusted his machines’ depth, placing seeds just deep enough to tap into the subsurface moisture. But that began to change in my late teen years, when my father drilled his first high-capacity well into the Ogallala Aquifer. He didn’t seem to worry what effect irrigation would have on the aquifer.
James, on the other hand, would never have considered drilling a well to water his crops. He didn’t even have a house well. In fact, I had traveled to the Hopi reservation with a friend who was helping the villagers publicize their objections to the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ intention to drill a well in the village. From the Bureau’s point of view, this would entail much needed modernization, but James and his neighbors were certain that pumping water and storing it in a tower would give them too easy access to water, which would lead to waste, and eventually dry out the spring that trickled from the side of the mesa on which they lived.
It is hard to imagine two more different cultural approaches. The Hopi, having lived in that part of the Arizona desert for over six-hundred years, were so concerned for their future in that place that they were willing to lie down in front of bulldozers to prevent a small municipal well from going in. Meanwhile, my father and other High Plains farmers, whose families had lived in that region for about one-hundred years, were pumping and drilling as if there were no tomorrow, in the process, almost guaranteeing that there would not be.
Ever since my visit to the Hopi Reservation in the early 1980s, I have wondered what accounts for these two cultures’ radically different relationships to the water on which life in their respective dry places depends.
What are your thoughts? I invite you to leave a comment on HPPR’s “Our Turn at this Earth” web page, or on my own website. If leaving public comments is not your thing, use the contact form. I’d love to hear from you!