‘The Ogallala Road,’ by Julene Bair
By MARK BITTMANAPRIL 25, 2014
A story of land, water, relationships and love, “The Ogallala Road” is the 100-year history of a farming family in Kansas as well as the second of Julene Bair’s memoirs. The first, “One Degree West: Reflections of a Plainsdaughter,” was well received, but this new one is more polished, touching and engaging.
Kansas, specifically western Kansas, is one of the book’s main characters. It is here that Bair witnesses many changes in the period from her birth in 1949 until the turn of the 21st century, a time when the small American family farm and many of its supporting towns were pretty much overwhelmed by industrial agriculture. It was then that farming went, as Bair puts it, from “intense labor that broke men’s and women’s backs to intense pillage and poison that broke the earth’s.”
Bair’s mournful tale is told with resignation, honesty and heartbreak, but also with strength and joy as she shares memories of her experiences with a lover, two husbands (who are given relatively short shrift, but not to the story’s detriment), her parents, her brothers and her son. Bair’s father grew up in a sod house and lived on and worked the land on which Bair was raised. It was her father’s generation that saw machinery and chemicals take the place of nature’s wisdom and manual labor, a transition that happened while Bair herself was growing up.
Julene Bair Credit Stephen Collector
Western Kansas isn’t in the Corn Belt, with its rich soil and abundant rain. It’s wheat country — amber waves of grain and so on. In many years, the wheat does well with little natural rainfall, which is typical. That rainfall has, however, long been augmented by water drawn from the Ogallala Aquifer, the country’s largest.
In the days before cheap power from fossil fuel, farmers could use only as much water as a low-tech windmill could pump. But in recent decades, powerful pumps have begun to take up so much water that the aquifer can’t recharge. And if that continues, it will die. The culprit is corn, which could never be grown in Kansas without modern irrigation systems. Some years ago, Bair tells us, her family’s farm used as much water for its 80 acres of corn as is used for the remaining 600-plus irrigated acres. That corn would not have been profitable without subsidy checks. “They’re paying us to throw away water,” she complains. (Corn is fine, of course, but subsidizing its use for obesity-causing syrup, pointless ethanol and wasteful animal feed has led us to a bad place.)
Bair illustrates her argument by describing the trap her father and her brother Bruce couldn’t escape. (Bruce, who took over management of the farm after her father’s death, isn’t portrayed entirely sympathetically. “Who needs rain when we’ve got the government?” he asks sarcastically.) Both men might have been happy sticking with their traditional wheat-and-sheep operation, which Bair paints as almost idyllic. As a girl she went to a one-room schoolhouse — when “farm schools” still ruled the prairie — and it sounds from both her books as if her childhood, a time of home-sewn “Betty Crocker housedresses” and sour-cherry pies, was symbolically, even enviably, “American.”
But when subsidies made “mining” water profitable, you were leaving money on the table if you failed to grow corn. In western Kansas, Bair reminds us, the “true local religion” is “not Christianity but production agriculture.” As she describes it, farming soon became a process of destruction: killing weeds, rodents and insects; killing the soil with chemical fertilizers; and, of course, killing the aquifer, all in the name of maximizing yield. If you didn’t pump as much water as was your right, your right was reduced. “Use it or lose it,” said Bair’s father, who, she adds, “fully expected that his rights would one day be curtailed by the government, and he was O.K. with that.” We’re still waiting for effective government of the aquifer.
Throughout the book, Bair is searching for water, and for love. (Really, she’s in love with water, so much space is given to describing it and how it makes her feel.) Like many adventurous people her age, Bair moved to San Francisco in the late 1960s. Then, inspired by years of camping in Death Valley and its environs, she retreated to a “little rock house” in the Mojave National Preserve, trying to write, bringing her water from two miles away, rebuilding her car engine and the house itself, driving miles to a pay phone that often didn’t work. All of this provides grist for a colorful, fascinating (and arguably irrelevant) interlude. An impulsive and short marriage produced her son, Jake, and drove Bair back to the farm — and eventually to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Much of “The Ogallala Road” focuses on Bair’s struggle to make fellow Westerners see the danger of the “planned depletion” of the aquifer. She also describes the tensions among various family members as hard decisions are made about the future of the farm. And then there’s the story of her ill-fated affair with a genial, sexy, mostly respectful, somewhat malleable, Larry McMurtry-reading but more-or-less Republican cowboy who shares her interest in the natural history and settling of Kansas. (Their second date is spent in the rare-map room of the Denver library.)
Bair’s personal quests are at least in part resolved; dealing with the tragic effects of industrial agriculture is, of course, another matter. And, perhaps with that in mind, “The Ogallala Road” moves into a final phase that’s more journalism than memoir, reporting on the successes of the few farmers who, for example, raise organic wheat or grass-fed beef. Here Bair becomes a little preachy, and although her message is fully in tune with my own beliefs I do think this disturbs the rhythm of her prose. Still, this is a book by a tough, restless, energetic, admirable, principled Kansan who also happens to be a fine writer. Her voice is a welcome one.
THE OGALLALA ROAD
A Memoir of Love and Reckoning
By Julene Bair
278 pp. Viking. $26.95.