Remembering Drought

The winter winds are howling and the pond, filled to capacity with autumn rains, is frozen over, spilling long fingers of ice into the old dead furrows of a hundred years ago. Now that Australia is on fire, let us remember that we too can suffer overwhelming drought.

Pond water plants stranded in dry, cracked mud.

The county , never big on rainfall, suffered such a drought only a couple of summers ago and became also vulnerable to fire. The grass, well adapted, simply turns a crispy brown and dies at the surface, hoarding its tiny spark of life somewhere inside its equally dry and withered root. Lawnmowers are forgotten. The pastures are eaten to ground by hungry cattle. With no new grass, farmers have to break out bales of hay for them in the middle of the summer.

Wild geese wandering in confusion over dry barrens where they formerly swam and fed.

It’s not long before crops stop growing, standing about in stunted rows and exhibiting swathes of yellow where desperately seeking roots cannot find a drop of moisture to sustain them. As drought goes on, shrubs and bushes drop curled leaves. Residents watch the sky, cheering on any shrunken gray cloud that might promise a shower but never delivers. Wells run dry. People resort to the vigorous water hauling businesses that will, for a price, send a truck to fill up the water tanks and reservoirs the prudent have installed to get through the dry times.

Hay must feed cattle in the midst of summer. No grazing left.

Eventually, the trees are struck, first the small ones then the great oaks and maples giving up, turning orange and shedding their leaves long before autumn. Dark banks of mud appear in the marshes. My large wetland pond shrinks to a murky puddle where ducks, geese and swans battle to feed on the few remaining water plants that is their diet. The swans are especially hard hit because they are in the midst of molting, unable to fly away in search of food elsewhere. They set out on foot with their hungry, almost full grown young ones but are frustrated by page wire fences, roads and more dry fields beyond. Their plight is very visible, their breasts blackened with mud from when they couldn’t find enough water to swim. Volunteers from the wildlife refuge come for them even though capturing a large, angry swan is no easy undertaking.

Drought reaches the big oaks and maples which can no longer keep their leaves alive.

Eventually, it rains. Grass, first to wither and appear hopelessly dead, puts up green shoots at the first hint of moisture. If showers continue, larger plants will produce fresh buds. An eager mist of green spreads over the land. It isn’t until the following spring that the true toll shows up. There are trees that never again put out new leaves but only raise the stark bare limbs of the truly dead. A drive down any road reveals the casualties in the form of gray skeletons huddled together where the soil was too thin to hold the water they needed to stay alive.

After rain, the withered grass, desperately dry for weeks, is first to come back to life.

Like Australia, our drought lands become a fire hazard. The county issues a complete fire ban with big fines for a bonfire and constant fears that someone careless idiot will toss a cigarette butt into the tindery grass at the roadside or the flammable red cedars everywhere. So Australia, though we do not have the roaring monster conflagrations in our neighbourhood that you do, in our small way, we do understand. Climate change is coming upon us all. Time to get our butts in gear and do something about it now.

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