Dry Times

June 11th, 2014 20 Comments

Button buck

It’s hard to know to what extent the rest of the country, or the world, is aware of the drought affecting much of the West, but it’s bad. It’s bad throughout all the Southwest, but especially in California. Like an old vaudeville routine, it begs the question: How bad is it?

Objectively, it is severe enough that there is something about it on the news practically every day. These reports feature colored maps with most of the Southwest in some shade of yellow or red, but with almost all of California shown in a dark and dirty shade of brown, a sort of über-red. A few days ago I drove down to the Central Valley, the salad, fruit, and nut bowl of the world, and the giant electronic billboards normally used to warn drivers to “Click It or Ticket,” or occasionally to post an Amber alert, were all lit up with warnings to conserve water. Some of the farmers down there are actually pulling out their citrus orchards: there isn’t enough water to keep the trees alive. The water in the Sacramento Delta that would normally grow oranges is being withheld for a tiny fish, called a smelt, that may or may not be endangered, depending on who you talk to, a decision made by environmentalists with swimming pools who play golf with politicians on manicured courses in Palm Springs.

Anecdotally, there are almost no cattle no speak of left in the mountains in this part of the state; the herds have all been sold off or shipped north. When I go out to clean the pastures, abnormally short and stunted grasses crack beneath my feet, and little puffs of dust rise up around my boots. Even the hardy, obnoxious, and ubiquitous mustard weed is dry and brittle.

But what really brought it home was something that happened the other day when Darleen and I were trimming branches on some of the trees around the house. I was taking advantage of being forced at wife-point to do chores, and I had turned the hose on very low to water two cottonwoods we planted many years ago as shade trees for the horses. Cottonwoods are tough, double-tough, capable of driving their roots deep into the ground for any kind of moisture, but even they need some help in times like these.

I was doing the heavy lifting, piling up the branches into the bed of my truck, tying them down, then off to the local dump. On the way back, after about the third or fourth trip, as I drove up my driveway, I saw one of those steel-cuts of a deer silhouetted in the shade under one of the cottonwoods. You know the kind of thing: yard art cut out of large sheets of metal in the form of deer or elk or horses or perhaps a cowboy leaning up against a wall, charming or tacky, depending on your point of view and on the skill of the artist doing the cutting.

But this one surprised the hell out of me, because I had never seen it before, and I wondered when Darleen had bought it, how she had gotten it home and hidden it without my seeing it, and how she had managed to get it set up under the trees. The damn things are heavy.

I kept driving closer, my brain addled by heat and work, staring at it, until, when I was only about twenty yards away, it raised its head. It was a very live button-buck (a fawn that is old enough to grow its first set of antlers) drinking out of the well around the base of the cottonwood.

I want to delineate the magnitude of this: It was at the height of the afternoon heat, a time when deer normally stay bedded down in the shade to avoid heat stress; the cottonwoods are at least a hundred yards from the edge of the hill behind the house, where the trees and boulders provide shade and shelter; the hill behind the house is south-facing, and in these mountains, only north-facing slopes have any springs or rivulets. Yet this little buck was so desperate for water that he had come a long way down a dry hill and crossed all that open space in bright sunlight just to get a drink. Not only that, but he was so desperately thirsty that when I stopped my truck only twenty yards away, he only looked at me briefly and then went right back to drinking. He drank steadily for about five minutes, occasionally changing his position relative to the water, but never again lifting his head, resolutely ignoring an idling pickup.

The late Roger Ott, a part Cherokee horse trainer, once told me that the plains Indians used to capture wild horses by the simple expedient of posting squaws at every known water hole. Then the young braves would start to chase the horses in relays. The wild horses of course would run away easily at first, but as the day went on the heat began to build they would need water. The squaws would chase them off the waterholes, and this would go on and on until finally the desperate and exhausted horses would stand in a nervous group, uncertain what to do. One of the braves would walk up with a water bag and give the dominant mare a sip, just a taste, of water from his hand, then turn and walk away. And that mare and rest of the band would all follow.

It’s a sign of how bad things are when animals become desperate enough to ignore their own survival instincts in order to follow an even greater imperative. I suspect we have many nocturnal visitors to the horse troughs down by the barn. And I pray our well holds up.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Wow, that sounds bad and is certainly an eye opener. Luckily we are doing well in my neck of the woods in regards to water. It rains every few days, in fact I have been having a hard time getting into some of the local trout waters, such as the Rush and Kinnickinnic Rivers, to fly fish because of poor water clarity due to the heavy rains we have been getting every 4-5 days. I think we have another series of storm cells passing through this evening. Everything here is green.

    It tends to get a little dry around the Midwest come middle of summer, with the farmers always worried about not enough rain.

    Hope the Southwest gets some relief soon, but when it has been that dry for as long as it has, it could take some time for water tables to come back.

    TD Bauer

  2. Anonymous says:

    I have heard about the drought on TV. I have also seen arguments between environmentalist and other people about the drought One man stated that the tactics of the environmentalist were making the drought worse. This man also said that it was ridiculous to ruin a farmer’s livelihood to save a small fish. The environmentalist said that the fish was necessary because if it were not there other fish would be impacted. This was all on TV. By the way I have eaten smelt. It was a while ago and they had these fish in a store. They are a pain to cooks because they are so small. You have to cut the fish open and remove one of the bones. Then you can bread and fry it. This has to be done to each little fish.

    I will also add that I have seen a number of individuals on TV blaming the drought on global warming.

    P.S. Be careful with that heavy lifting. You do not want to have any more injuries.

  3. Anonymous says:


    According to President Obama it is global warming that is causing the problem.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Wow, I won’t complain about all our rain after reading this. In Michigan we have had a lot of rain. It is easy to forget that part of the country is suffering through a drought. A few years ago we had little rain and it was very dry. A lot of farmers lost their crops and the Farmers who grow apples were hit hard. Michigan apples is one the crops that we are know for. The weather was so dry that cities and suburbs put a ban on watering lawns everyday. People were told not to water their lawns every other day. However, compared to what you are going through that just seems to be a minor inconvenience.The other thing that we had at that time were brush fires in parts of our state. I would say that kind of thing rarely happens here so that gives you an idea of how dry it was. It sound like you have some fire hazard where you are. I heard that the California fires were terrible and parts of San Diego lost homes and buildings. So, I hope you are safe where you are.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Hi JP and Darleen! Here in Halifax Nova Scotia our farming area is just outside the city in Annapolis Valley. Its a beautiful piece of country side. One night in the city on the way home from work my husband spotted a red fox in the middle of the city on one of the main drags. I thought that was very unusual. I think he was out looking for food, the fox, not the husband lol. Likewise in my home town of Miramichi NewBrunswick a muskrat was spotted in the downtown area. Again I think looking for food. No doubt that drought is everywhere. Can my husband borrow your “at wife-point” had a good chuckle over that.

    Tena French Halifax, NS Canada

  6. Anonymous says:

    Hello JP,

    first of all it’s good to read that you’re doing well enough again to carry out such hard work.
    But on the other hand I’m really concerned about your report here. It was even in the news here in Germany when there were those catastrophic fires in South California due to the dryness from last winter on. I’m sorry to read that the situation hasn’t improved. The opposite is obviously true.
    In fact all you can do is wait and I must confess honestly that would drive me mad. Maybe you have more longanimity than me. Fortunately you have that well
    nearby your home. To me it’s not unusual to have deer in my garden but the land you live in is so rambling that occasions like this are pretty rare.
    But one must admire the courage and the cleverness of that little ladd!
    Many people would have chased him away but I know that you and Darleen are not like that 🙂
    The anecdote about the Cherokee’s way of taming wild horses reminds me very much of the principle of join-up by Monty Roberts.
    Just by the way: I DO have such a (very little) steel-cut in form of a deer close to my front door. It remained from the christmas decoration. It can be illumined from the backside by tealights and therefore it’s got several holes. I told my friends who preponderantly already sqinted at it the the number of holes is counted and I will discover each new one….. 😉
    But still the drought is a very severe situation and animals and environment suffer the most. Much more than the people. I wish I could say something more encouraging.
    I really do hope for a change coming soon and to read good news from you.

    All the best wishes

  7. Anonymous says:

    Cette sécheresse est une véritable catastrophe. Les incendies qui s’ensuivent sont dramatiques aussi bien pour la faune que pour la flore. Sans oublier ces gens qui perdent leur maison dans ces incendies.
    Ma région est encore épargnée par cette sécheresse, mais depuis quelques années, les orages sont de plus en plus puissants et apportent d’énormes grêles et beaucoup de vent qui détruisent les cultures.
    Heureusement, pour la commémoration du « D Day » nous avons eu le privilège d’avoir une très belle journée estivale. Tous nos grands hommes et femmes politiques ont été reçus dans mon pays sous un grand soleil 🙂

  8. Anonymous says:


    It is a bad spring for America. It is not just the weather that has taken a turn for the worse it is our whole country.

  9. Anonymous says:


    All this talk of rain or lack of rain in California just reminded me of this song. “It never rains in California”.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Two-Cents worth.
    Isn’t it funny (Hmmm) that we (the American Government and private enterprise) can spend Billions of dollars on pipelines for OIL, but NOTHING on pipelines for water? In a year when everything east of the Texas panhandle is under water, and everything west of it is about to go “Poof”, we still haven’t come to grips with the fact that we need to be proactive and take action to ensure our future welfare. I mean, even the Romans had aquaducts, right? But apparently we Americans would rather let our government spend billions of our tax dollars on Disaster-Relief efforts of various kinds, and stand around pointing fingers at who to blame, than to buck up and decide to spend those billions piping flood water to wherever it would do the most good, like irrigation and fire suppression in the western states.
    (sorry for the run-on sentence)
    Okay, Rant over!

    • Anonymous says:

      If someone could make money on a pipeline for water then we would one. OIl equals money.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Over the last month or so we have felt like we were about to grow gills. This coming week, it will be low chance of rain, hot and high humidity. Pretty normal in Arkansas.

    We had the lovely opportunity to have black bear visit us on our small 2 1/2 acres two weeks ago. I had grabbed the camera and obtained some photos of it up in the tree. We think all the rain forced it to cross land rather than use the dry creek bed to make his/her rounds.

    Love your writings!
    Mary Ellen
    Mountainburg, AR

  12. Anonymous says:

    Drought here too of course, though we are getting what I dimly remember as a likely pre- monsoon buildup– clouds forming in late afternoon to wind and heat, then dissipating. We wait.

    Meanwhile quail and doves and deer come into town. As do young bears and lions, following…

  13. Anonymous says:

    Every time we have rain I had wished it would go to California because have been keeping up with the severe drought crisis you and Darleen and all the others are facing through news feeds online. I hope somehow the drought will be lessened sooner rather than later. And sure am glad you had that well for that deer to drink from although know it was not there for that purpose, still am glad it was there. My uncle during a bad year or two a few years back would put out watermelons cut in half for the coons and deer and other animals to eat and get moisture from as there was no water at all in the creek by his house for them.
    Hope you and Darleen have a great anniversary on the 18th know it is a couple days away but happy early 22nd anniversary.
    Nancy Darlene

  14. Anonymous says:

    Hi JP,

    I live in a part of Sydney that is only a coo-ee distance from Sydney’s major water source, Warragamba Dam. In drought years we have seen the damn capacity fall to as low as 1/3 of it’s total capacity. It’s hard to believe when you look at the flooded valley that is now it’s catchment. Only three years ago they had to open the flood gates to release excess water after a couple of weeks of heavy rain.

    Being a city girl, drought has little impact on my life except the minor inconvenience of higher grocery prices and a little brown grass. It is hard to imagine living without that steady flow of water from our taps. Water conservation is a necessary perspective in our curriculum and most students advocate measures to prevent water waste, as long as their back yard pools are full and the local ovals are green for Saturday footy and cricket.

    Maybe a couple of weeks on a farm in drought would wake some of us up.
    Kathy W

  15. Anonymous says:

    Hi Jameson and Darleen

    Just saw news feed of fires in the central California area. I am praying for your safety as well as all the other people and animals affected by this. I don’t know exactly how close to you this is right now as it said 30 miles northeast of Bakersfield. Know you are in my thoughts and prayers and I am sure many others as well.
    Take good care of yourselves and your pets.
    Nancy Darlene

  16. Anonymous says:

    Last year, here in the Southeast, we had MONSOONS like I’ve never seen before–I mean it frikkin’ POURED every day! Everything stayed soaked and moldy all summer, and well into the fall. Sorry I couldn’t have saved and piped the excess out to you guys, as suggested by JK in Wisconsin(a GOOD rant, by the way–makes perfect sense, and I mean hey-we put a man on the moon, right?) This year(so far), just the right combination of rain and dry periods–and I am not taking it for granted! Several years ago(2003, if I’m remembering right) we had THE WORST drought here in North Carolina I’ve ever seen. Even the streams and rivers dried up COMPLETELY–not even a stagnant pool left! The wildlife suffered terribly. My own well held out, and I kept water out in shallow tubs for the wild critters in the woods around my house. A very few springs continued to run deep in the forest, and the areas around them stayed trampled and churned from the desperate wildlife. Just NOT something I ever expected to experience in the normally lush, humid Southeast U. S.! NO RAIN ALL SUMMER that year–not a DROP! Rain only began again in the autumn. Within a year, everything that survived had recovered–Nature is nothing if not resilient! The animals’ desperation for water, that makes them loose something of their natural caution, reminds me of the chapter in Kipling’s “Jungle Book”(always a favorite of mine–one of the first books I ever read, lo, those many droughts and monsoons ago!), where the jungle law permits no killing at the waterhole during drought, and all the animals gathered to philosophize!…..L.B.

  17. Anonymous says:


    This is some important information on heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Even though you are in a drought it is important that you drink enough water while working outside. One of our nephews got heat stroke while working out in the hot sun. Fortunately, he recovered.

  18. Anonymous says:


    This doesn’t have to do with the drought, but it is about the previous blog. What do you do when 9-11 can’t transfer your call and you are being robbed at gunpoint? This man chose to defend himself and his wife with his gun.

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