Book: The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning (2014) by Julene Bair
Julene Bair wants to write a polemic about the way that the high plains farmers and ranchers of western Kansas mistreat the land. She wants to rant and preach–it is lurking there underneath her memoir–but she can’t quite rise to vitriolic blame for farmers when she realizes that “she am one.” She grew up on a farm in northeastern Kansas.
The subtitle of The Ogallala Road expresses the ambivalence that creates a tension throughout this memoir. On the one hand, she wants to reform the water-wasting habits of the farmers of the Ogallala basin. On the other hand, she realizes that her gruff father’s disregard for the long-range future of Kansas’ water supply helped him run a successful farm and support her throughout her life.
Frankly, I am not interested in reading books that preach an environmental harangue. And Bair, although armed with all the devastating facts and figures about the damage done by modern farming practices to the largest natural reservoir of fresh water , realizes she must give her readers some sugar coating on the bitter pill of reality. She does that with graceful and sometimes almost painfully honest writing. She leads us through her relationships with her father, her mother, her brother, her teen-age son, and her land.
The opening of the book illustrates the delightful quality of the writing, simple and true.
They were called the High Plains because they were four thousand feet above sea level. I could feel the altitude in the way the sun sheeted my skin. It was like standing too close to a fire with no means of escaping, unless I dashed back to the car and switched on the air conditioner. Instead, I trudged through wheat stubble that used to be the south end of our pasture, my shoes filling with powdery dirt and my socks with stickers.
Right here on the first page, she lets us know what the book is about. Water is always on her mind. Reading may make you thirsty.
But when I arrived at the Little Beaver, I discovered that the creek was now nothing more than a depression. Runoff from all the newly farmed pastureland had filled it with silt. Weeds grew where there had once been smooth sand, vacant and pinkish tan. In my childhood, the sand had poured sensuously through my hands, each granule having its own color, shape, size, sheen.
She introduces a hot romance, which for the first half of the book seems to be the subject matter. This romance between two mature and independent adults seems to be part of her home coming. He is a Kansas rancher. She has moved on to the intellectual life–urban and literary. The relationship is the first test of whether she is still part of the land where she grew up, or whether she has truly moved away.
Then, when we’ve let our guard down, eagerly following the will-they, won’t-they of the romance, Bair moves into her role as an advocate for the land. It is refreshing to have this message delivered by someone whose life as exposed her to both sides of the issues involved, and who is intelligent enough to realize that there is no simplistic solution. Although I cringe at the over-romanticized view of the first Americans who occupied the land before the early settlers came, her interest in the deep history of the land provides a fascinating framework for problems of modern agriculture.
As she and her brother are faced with decisions about the family land, she faces another great test of where her loyalties lie.
Have you traveled in Kansas? My first experience of Kansas was driving across it on the way from Ohio to Arizona. I recall long straight highways with a grain elevator in the distance marking the next small town of ramshackle buildings stretched between the highway and the railway track.
Since that trip, I have seen a little more of the state and realize there really are some hills in Kansas, and there are areas where the prairie is being encouraged to come back. Bair is optimistic that the land damaged by generations of “I’ll take mine out of the earth and not worry about the future” is reversing and there is hope that the land will be encouraged to heal in the future.
And what has been your experience of going home. Was it like you remembered? Was it disappointing? Did you feel the place shaped you?
The Ogallala Road is one of the more thoughtful memoirs I have read and certainly leave the reader pondering.
Note: My appreciation to the publisher for providing a review copy of the book, but of course as usual my opinions are strictly my own.