The Worst Hard Time,Ē Timothy Eganís nonfiction account of the Dust Bowl era, seemed like a good book to read in the middle of a drought. Knowing how other people get through difficulties has a calming effect on me, especially when their situation is worse than mine.
But Eganís depiction of small-town families in dust storms and denial had the opposite effect. It got me thinking history might repeat itself.
I donít have much experience with drought. Growing up in Brooklyn, I considered the water supply inexhaustible: brownish gray perhaps, smelling of unidentifiable substances at times, but always free-flowing and certainly not something to worry about.
According to Egan, thatís how Dust Bowl survivors started out thinking about the prairie. Farmers and merchants prospered during the 1920s ó at the very least they supported themselves ó as they expanded into undeveloped parts of the plains.
When the land went dry, the first response was to wait the problem out. Surely things would improve, boosters said, if nature were left to take its course.
The problem was nature was taking its course, Egan suggests, retaliating for the lack of land and water-use management. By the time President Roosevelt made a visit to the area on a rare rainy day, advisers had convinced him not only to bring aid to the disaster-stricken region, but also soil conservation.
I thought about Eganís book as I buried my latest shrub to fall victim to the drought. Iíve stopped watering shrubs and using the sink disposal. I donít leave the faucet on when I brush my teeth, and I donít wash the car. Iím doing everything the governor recommends to conserve water.
Meanwhile, thereís a new development going up down the road. The way I figure it, even if I meet the governorís goal of halving my water consumption, I canít make up for runoff at the construction site or increased demand once residents move in.
Unused land that transforms into an overused and then an exhausted resource; short-term prosperity that turns into long-term destruction; a government reluctant to impose rules that ends up with no choice but to lead the way out of environmental disaster: thatís what Egan describes in the 1930s. If all we do now is stop watering shrubs, thatís what we may see in our lifetime.