Loving a Dry Land

I’m strange. My favorite places to live are all semi-arid, which means that most of the time, they are hard lands to make a living from. “A semi-desert with a desert heart” as Marc Reisner described it, wet years are followed by hard-scrabble half-centuries of dust, fire, and struggling to find water and to keep the wind from stealing that water. And when it does rain, mosquitoes fill the grass, low places become bogs, snakes move uphill and indoors, and people get snappish and moldy on the north side. We’re too used to the very sun we curse, grumble at, and hide from.

But I love this part of the world. I can see weather coming, even if I can’t get away from it. There’s nothing to hide behind once you get away from people and the trees we’ve planted. The Llano Estacado is one giant emergency runway, the few canyons excepted. At night, stars cover the world from here to there, making navigation easier once you know how to sort out which stars you need. Bison and cattle thrive here in wet years, growing fat on the short grasses of the prairie and the medium-height grasses of the playa lakes. The constant wind drives pumps and household wind-chargers, dries laundry, and keeps the mosquitoes at bay. Mold and mildew are uncommon, although turning into jerky and/or getting kidney stones are a constant concern.

In the mornings, meadowlarks and mocking birds, redwing blackbirds, and white-wing doves serenade the world. Wild sunflowers face east, welcoming the sun. In summer, Mississippi kites launch with the first thermals, soaring up and up to find bugs. Larger raptors also linger, Coopers hawks, a few golden eagles in the canyons, vultures (aka “the county hygiene society”) wherever they choose to congregate.

Foxes and coyotes trot among the grasses, blending in as they hunt rodents, grasshoppers, locusts, and anything else that looks edible. Mr. No-shoulders slithers here and there, bullsnakes and rattle snakes and other things that discourage you from putting you hand into holes. The occasional mountain lion and bobcat meander through, and pronghorn antelope race along, diving under fences to get away from the overly-curious.

When rains come, and winter fades, the land can look like knee-high velvet. The wind hisses and mutters over the flat land, bending the playa grasses as it passes. Cloud shadows flow as well, darker patches on greens and browns. Wildflowers appear in pockets, and wild sunflowers loom come late summer. As the days grow short and the rains fade away after the equinoctial storms, the grasses cure, brown, seed-heavy in all their forms. They are rich fodder for cattle, and for flame. March is fire month if the rains do not begin, or if snow has not fallen. Trees are rare and valued, those that can tolerate heat and cold, constant wind and hard sunlight on alkaline soil.

I love the high plains. It’s not an easy place. It’s not a “pretty” place. But it’s home. If I ever have to leave, I will miss the land and the people.

11 thoughts on “Loving a Dry Land

  1. I was raised in Arizona. and lived in Utah, Nebraska, and West Virginia before coming back. I missed the wide open skies, the orange and gold sunrises and sunsets, the blue or slightly bluish mountain ranges in the distance. Mitt Romney was mocked for saying the trees in Michigan were the right shade of green, but I had recently been to the town where I lived as a boy, and I knew exactly what he meant. I tell people “you can take the rat out of the desert, but you can never take the desert out of the rat”. I missed the warm winters and..well, maybe not the blazing summers quite so much. I don’t get out to see the animal life much, but it’s there. Even the snakes and the lizards, the coyotes, rabbits, and javelinas have better sense than to come out in broad daylight when the sun turns the desert pavement with its scanty grass cover into an oven. Then there are the sandy wash beds where water flows maybe two weeks in the whole year. I love the umpteen hundred varieties of cactus, (look, no touch, some of the cholla gets grabby) the mesquite, ocotillo, yucca, palo verde, creosote, catclaw, cottonwoods, scrub oaks and junipers, and the omnipresent rocks that tell stories of ancient eons, if you have the wit to read them.

  2. Beautifully evocative of what we live with out here. Thanks for sharing that.Yes, it IS nice to be able to see the weather coming, unlike the east coast… sigh

  3. What a contrast to my home!
    I live on the Ozark Plateau. It is dissected landscape, but covered in trees. There are hilltops where, on a clear day, you can see every other hilltop for twenty miles…and they are all at the same altitude.
    The steams are clear and rocky-bottomed. Many are fed by springs…this is classic karst topography. It IS a bit disconcerting when someone has a sinkhole open under their house! I have a solution valley in my back yard.
    The perennial joke? “If you don’t like the weather? Wait a minute!”
    Everything is covered with trees, unless an area floods regularly (every heavy rain, in some places), the rocky underlayment is too close to the surface, or man intervenes.
    TXRed would not be comfortable here, but I love my home.

    • I enjoy visiting places like the Alps, the Ozarks, and the Highlands, but I do get a bit claustrophobic when surrounded by trees and steep-walled valleys.

      • I’m the opposite: grew up in a valley surrounded by hills and trees, with mountains in the distance. The first time I visited a large flat area in Texas, the lack of hills made me very uncomfortable. I now appreciate the differences, but it took some time.

      • I have been to Texas (and western Kansas/eastern Colorado) and understand why some people get a little crazy…too much sky and too much wind.

        • One of my German professors suffered terrible agoraphobia the first and only time the prof went west of Lawrence, Kansas. She had to pull her jacket over her head and hide from the sky, even in the car! The group did a U-turn and went back to KC-Missouri and trees.

    • I wonder where in the US that joke isn’t true. (It’s used about Illinois.) 😉

  4. I’ve retired to a small city on the Snake River Plain. This is an artificial agricultural paradise created by the twin miracles of irrigation, and volcanic soil.

    My mom grew up in southern Wyoming. One of her shirttail relatives owned a “starvation” sheep ranch. In this context “starvation” meant that most, but not all seasons, the ranch would make just enough money to keep the family fed, clothed and happy. In a “Beverly Hillbillies” type of moment, the owner decided to drill a well to get a more reliable source of water. Unfortunately the well didn’t produce water, but they did find natural gas.

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