Of all the ways nature has to kill you, drought may be the cruelest. The desiccation proceeds day after punishing day. The afternoon sun pounds the earth like a brazen hammer. As I write, the temperature here in Perry County, Arkansas has reached 108 degrees.
The countryside is dying. There's nothing green in my pastures except inedible weeds. Even pigweed is drooping. Our pond dried up six weeks ago. The ground beneath is bare and cracked. Up on the ridge, some hardwoods are shedding leaves and going dormant; oaks are simply dying.
When I'd turned my cows into their new pasture last year, they kicked up their heels and frolicked like calves. So much fresh grass! Last week, they tore down a low-hanging limb from the persimmon tree they rest under most afternoons. They herded in and stripped the leathery leaves within an hour, the first green thing they'd eaten in weeks.
Lucky cows. Mine is basically a hobby farm, so I can afford to keep my small herd intact. Because spring came a month early, I had enough hay left over to see them through the summer. Neighbors who operate close to the margin have hauled thousands of cows to the sale barn — animals they'd planned upon breeding. Pastures stand barren and empty throughout the region.
The National Weather Service calls it an "exceptional drought." Nobody I talk to can remember anything like it. 1980 was bad, but the devastation was more limited in scope. What's happening in Arkansas is taking place across the entire middle of the country — a remorseless, slow-motion catastrophe.
Drought wears you out, beats you down, consumes your hope and native optimism. For months, churches everywhere have been praying for rain, mostly to no avail. Friends track what few stray thunderstorms meander across the countryside. Did you get any rain up your way? You neither? Too bad.
Last week we had a great black wall of cloud, thunder and lightning for hours...then three-tenths of an inch of rain. Barely enough to settle the road dust for a few hours. Sometimes it feels as if it will never rain again.
But of course, it will. In our part of the country, rain has tended in recent years to come in great spring and fall floods — six to 12 inch deluges bookending hotter, drier summers.
Pretty much nobody whose livelihood depends upon the weather denies it: the climate hereabouts is changing, mostly for the worse. The underlying fear, of course, is that the scientists are right: that what we're experiencing is the knife edge of worldwide global warming.
People don't much talk about that aspect of it, because the whole thing's gotten bound up with politics, and rural people tend to avoid issues with ideological and theological overtones. Farm Bureau and Cattleman's Association publications tend to be filled with strident climate denialism, and regional newspapers with predictable right-wing boilerplate.
However, it's never clear who actually reads such editorials. News stories find agriculturists matter-of-factly acknowledging reality. They're not greatly affected by abstract arguments like the one between Cal-Berkeley physicist Richard Muller and his rivals within the scientific community.
Muller's something of a self-promoter whose Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project earned funding from one of the Koch Brothers foundations due to his pronouncements about climatology's allegedly suspect evidence. He changed his mind after re-analyzing the data. Now he's concluded the earth's climate is not only warming far rapidly than theoretical models suggested, but that "it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases."
Specifically, that is, due to carbon dioxide from burning coal and oil. The Koch Brothers, heirs to a petrochemical fortune, likely won't be glad to hear of his findings. Not all scientists were thrilled with Muller's about face either. Penn State's Michael Mann, the outspoken climatologist harassed and "investigated" by politicians unqualified to be TV weathermen, posted a bitter acknowledgement on his Facebook page:
"It's great that he's reaffirmed what we already knew. But for him to pretend that we couldn't trust this entire scientific field until Richard Muller put his personal stamp of approval on their conclusions is, in my view, a very dangerously misguided philosophical take on how science works."
Yeah, scientists can be human too.
Down at the coop, meanwhile, farmers may lean Republican, but they've also been heeding agricultural science for more than a century. In Arkansas, there's talk of building bigger impoundments to hold spring rains, and of levelizing fields to irrigate more efficiently. Cattle ranchers are advised to plant cool weather grasses like winter wheat and rye to improve early hay harvests.
Scientists invariably warn against overreacting: drawing sweeping conclusions about climate change from discreet weather events, even the deadliest drought in a century.
But that's not how human beings normally work. Sometimes it takes a disaster to focus people's attention.