Selected Essays by Julene Bair–
As the daughter of a western Kansas farmer who began irrigating out of the Ogallala Aquifer in the 1960s, I realize what a financial boon irrigation has been. Few people worried then about the aquifer’s depletion, although, as far back as 1899, a government topographer sent to survey the High Plains concluded withdrawals from the aquifer “of an amount sufficient for irrigation would rapidly result in exhaustion of the stored supply.”
These were called the High Plains because they were 4,000 feet above sea level. I could feel the altitude in the way the sun sheeted my skin. It was like standing too close to a fire with no means of escaping, unless I dashed back to the car and switched on the air conditioner.
“In his book The Great Plains, the historian Walter Prescott Webb explained how the pioneers, who’d migrated from wet, hilly, forested places, adapted to the dry, flat, treeless realities of the plains.”
Where We Write—Kansas
“‘I know it is Dad even from the back, because of how he sits the tractor—not with panache, the way a showy cowboy sits a horse, but with the acceptance of mud. His shoulders are curved downward in his wool-lined denim jacket, his brimmed field hat square above his thick neck.’ That’s how I describe my father in my memoir, The Ogallala Road. My son probably has similar memories of me. It took me ten years to write the book. Anytime he came into my office, there I would be, sitting at my computer, shoulders hunched, as forward focused as a draft horse wearing blinders.” [print only, May/June 2014 issue]
“In my dream, a little girl stands in a dim room beside a row of women. The women, dressed demurely in cardigans over dark shifts, sit erect in straight-backed chairs, their hands folded in their laps. The girl moves from woman to woman, asking, ‘Do you have any magic?’ Each in turn smiles indulgently at the girl. ‘Oh my! Why no, dear.'”
“If, like me, you grew up on family land, then you will know what I mean. The land contains you, and you can’t really differentiate between what it is and who you are. Yet you can leave, because your family will always be there, keeping you one with the land. You don’t realize they are performing this service or that you need them to.”
“Imagine you are a farmer in the center of the country, where it seldom rains enough. Now imagine that a well driller came to your farm and told you that he could bore a hole deep into the ground, and that forever after you could pump out as much water as you needed to grow your crops. That is exactly what happened on the Great Plains in the mid-20th century. The wondrous resource containing all that water was the Ogallala Aquifer.”
“Many environmentalists applauded when President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline plans. But Kansas writer Julene Bair wants to know why it took a major pipeline to draw attention to the crucial Ogallalla aquifer. She asks whether that attention will last, or dry up as quickly as it materialized.”
“Several inches of month-old snow sheathed the fields, and there’d been a fresh dusting the night before. Ground blizzards swirled across the interstate. I dialed in my hometown radio station. The man who’d owned it for as long as I could remember listed the closings caused by ice and near-zero March cold: livestock auctions, a senior get-together, even I-70. Had I left my home in Longmont, Colo., 10 minutes later, I would not have gotten through.
“But once again, folks,” continued the voice from my childhood, “if you’re looking for some good farm equipment, drive on out to the Harold Bair farm sale.”
“Used to be you could see the place from miles away—not only because my grandfather built a grand house in 1919, but because he chose the highest land around. High Plains Farm, he painted in white letters on our red barn. Now all you can see is the silhouette of a pivot sprinkler.”
“While touting his plan to wean us off foreign oil, Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens makes no bones about being heavily invested in the natural gas he wants us to use in our cars. Nor does he deny the wind generated on his 200,000-acre wind farm would inflate a fortune accumulated selling fossil fuel. But he says little of his intention to market fossil water.”
“My father farmed in Kansas and envied those lucky farmers in the wetter states to the east of us, who could grow 200-bushel corn and other lucrative crops like soy beans and sugar beets. He had to satisfy himself with wheat, a drought-tolerant crop first brought to the States from a place in Russia much like ours. There, they called such arid places “steppes.” Here, we called them plains.”
Bleeding land, heating Earth for a fill-up
“The magnificence of being.” In 1877, that’s what the early plainsman Richard I. Dodge reported feeling on the open grasslands. Unfortunately, by the 1990s that ecosystem had become one of the world’s most threatened. In Kansas, where I grew up, crops had replaced about 70 percent of the prairie. Some Midwestern states lost nearly 100 percent. The federal government encouraged all that sod busting, first with the Homestead Act and then with farm subsidies, which made it more profitable to grow crops than to graze livestock.” [not available online]
“Here I am, at night, in a thick mist. Here I am ten years after leaving this place. I sit in the passenger seat of my boyfriend’s Land Rover and stare through the windshield at a padlocked gate with a neatly painted sign attached: THE ROCK HOUSE. My son Jake leans forward from the back seat, where he’s ridden for the last ninety miles, dwarfed below the mountain of camping gear Bryan packed. “Do not disturb anything,” he reads slowly. “I live a mile west of here and am watching you through bin . . . binoculars. Carl Faber. Who’s Carl Faber?”
Julene’s Work Also Appears in These Anthologies–
This collection of 22 essays brings together some of the best–and most insightful–writing on ranching in the West. Through the eyes of poets, ranchers and conservationists, Home Land explores the region’s changing landscape and how, in an age of huge corporate-owned ranches, the small rancher can survive.
“This collection honors literature that best conveys the natural heritage of a region stretching from Alberta and Saskatchewan south to Texas and from the Rockies east to Illinois.
It includes songs and narratives of Plains Indians, 19th century settler stories and modern-day essays and poems about coyotes, meadowlarks, farm life and efforts to restore the native prairie. The collection features new voices as well as well-known Western writers such as Willa Cather, Georgia O’Keeffe and Carl Sandburg.”
“The second volume of women’s writing from the heart of the American West brings together writers from 16 U.S. states and Canadian provinces to reflect on their friendships with other Western women. In a region where time and space are large and solitude is a fact of life, they tell of the beauties, ironies, rigors, heartbreak, and humor of life and how it is uniquely enriched by friendships past and present. The voices in this volume — unsentimental, unflinching, and utterly unforgettable — take readers into the fields, kitchens, barns, and souls of nearly 150 women and reveal a vital part of the real western American story.”
“This is the first anthology in which women writers attempt to answer the question that all mothers of sons have contemplated: “Who is this male child who came out of my body?” Or, as a pregnant Mary Gordon said when her doctor told her she was having a boy, “Oh, my God. What am I supposed to do with one of them?” From the earliest days of nursing to the goodbyes of college and looming adulthood, these mothers collectively explore the delights and frustrations, the deep and often conflicted emotions, they feel in their roles as mothers to their male children. Between Mothers and Sons resoundingly and unflinchingly celebrates the journey we are all making with our boys.”