Dust to Dust

Rufe Holland, giving me the deluxe drought tour, was clipping down a ranch road near Junction in his Ford pickup. In the bed were several fifty-pound sacks of government corn; at $100 a ton, it’s half the cost of store-bought feed. Ordinarily Holland’s stock would live off pasture grass, but thanks to the drought there is very little or none. So, like a lot of ranchers in the Hill Country, Holland has been feeding his livestock for more than a year, a proposition that can get feverishly expensive when you consider the appetities of a few thousand sheep and goats and a hundred or so cows. He was on his way to feed some sheep in one of his pastures - land that’s been in his family since the 1880s - talking, one hand on the wheel, the other pointing out the window at the land reeling by. “See those cow chips and rocks? When you get to where all you see is cow chips and rocks, that’s drought.” The cedar and scrub oak were green enough to deceive an outlander, but, like Rufe said, the ground was a different matter - it looked like the moon.

A day later and a little farther north, Bill Brown stopped his pickup in the middle of one of his pastures. He has leased land in the Hill Country near Fort McKavett and Menard for going on thirty years. Except for the scrub oak, prickly pear, and Brown’s drawl, it too could have been the moon. “To be perfectly honest with you, every hoof ought to be trucked off this place, but I’m sitting here waiting–waiting for it to rain.” It was hot and still. What little grass there was looking mangy. Over the bluff lay Brown’s failed hay crop, sizzled by the sun; he had planned to feed it to his cattle this coming winter. While he talked, I stared out the window at his rocks and cow chips.

The great middle of Texas is in a drought. While our extremities - East Texas and even the deserty Trans-Pecos - have had average or above average rainfall, most everything in between is parched and dusty. Stock tanks are dry or else what whater they do hold looks like the rheumy aperture of an old elephant’s eye. The land looks tired out. The drought runs roughly from Childress east to Sherman, south through Dallas to Corpus Christi, then into McAllen in South Texas, and northwest to Del Rio and San Angelo. Down in South Texas, where surface water is scarce and ranches are the size of principalities, some cattle are dying on the range before stockmen can get to them. Around San Angelo, which has similar surface-water shortages, ranchers are paying truckers to haul in water for their stock.

It rains during a drought - just never enough and seldom at the right time. One August day in the Hill Country, where I had gone to talk to drought-stricken ranchers, there was a pleasant morning shower. The rain took the dust out of the air, cheered people up, and, as ranchers say, greened up the turf (that is, the short pasture grass). But in terms of relieving the drought, the rain was next to useless. It had come too late to get the summer grasses going and too early to spur grasses for the onset of winter. It has been like that everywhere the drought has taken hold. So far this year it has rained only 6 to 12 inches - about half the normal rainfall (15 inches on the western end, 25 inches in the east). Some places have been bone-dry for three years, and in the Hill Country a morning shower can’t hide this ominous fact: rainfall has been decreasing steadily now for six years.

This drought is the sixth major one to hit Texas in the last hundred years. The first, in 1886, broke the backs of many new settlers; another struck during World War I; the next came during the Depression (it was called the Dust Bowl). But the worst and longest was the drought of the fifties - in some parts of the state it hardly rained for ten years. It was the worst, that is, until now - this drought is aggravated by economic perils that did not plague ranchers in the fifties. After the fifties drought, many ranchers were able to buy back land they had been forced to sell. But though the prices of the things ranchers produce (beef, lamb, wool) haven’t gone up much in the last thirty years, everything ranchers buy (gasoline, pickups, electricity, and, most of all, land) has gone up a lot. So today when ranchers talk about selling out - and many do - they mean forever; land values and interest rates will seal their fate. About the only thing that ranchers think is better about this drought than previous ones is that now their pickups are air-conditioned.

Texas droughts are so much a part of the fabric of our history, such community property, that it is disconcerting that anecdotes and memoirs about them haven’t been passed down as part of the common knowledge. Our inevitable droughts have marked our lives and will continue to do so just as profoundly as did the Battle of the Alamo or the ballots in Box 13. But it is almost as if we prefer to hide a painful truth from ourselves. We relegate the pertinent facts to history books, almanacs, and master’s theses, but we talk about drought only when there is one. You can find people who will talk about the fifties drought, but that’s only because there are still some people around who remember it. A woman I recently met, now a city-dwelling lawyer, has a vivid recollection of the drought on the small Hill Country ranch where she grew up. It has to do with hunting Easter eggs. Since the grass in the pastures was long gone, her parents had only one recourse. They

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