JUNE 19, 2014
SWAMP LAKE was an open palm, its fingers extended in a cirque of gray-white granite. To reach the lake, 12 women and I had climbed up to 8,600 feet and back down to 5,600 carrying 40-pound packs. We had walked miles in snow, lightning, sun, and rain along the Lostine River on the Two Pan Trail in Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness.
I was co-leading a women’s backpacking and writing workshop. Each day, after a communal meal, I stood before the women and asked them to write about the land. I gave them prompts and provided readings: Pam Houston’s “On (Not) Climbing the Grand Teton,” Evelyn White’s “Black Women and the Wilderness,” and selections from Mary Austin’s The Land of Little Rain.
At Swamp Lake, sitting around a crackling fire, I asked them to write about women and water. Are women’s bodies and their experiences fluid? I asked. Archetypally, water and women are linked. The sea is the mother of all life. Do you agree? The assignment was an experiment. I wasn’t sure what they’d say.
One rejected the parallel. “Men’s bodies are as fluid as women’s,” she wrote. “Sure, women have breast milk and amniotic fluid, but men have semen. Men have blood and urine just like women.” Another used the prompt to recall a time 10 years earlier when she found her grandmother dead drunk at the end of a dock in Lake Superior. Yet another explored swamps. Our Swamp Lake was spring-fed, pristine, and delicate, the opposite of the swampy stereotype — stagnant, polluted, and possibly harboring monsters. She compared those qualities to stereotypes of women’s bodies.
Julene Bair’s The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning brings together water and women, and, in doing so, it has far-reaching implications for US farming practices, Native American history, water rights, and sustainability. It will be on the reading list if I run the course again.
“He’s a settler. You’re a seeker. Settlers don’t like seekers. They ask too many unsettling questions.” Bair reports a friend’s neat characterization of Bair and her lover, a cowboy named Ward. The romance is twinned with her quest to save the Ogallala Aquifer from irrigated farming in Kansas. But in both narratives, Bair is as much a restorer as she is a seeker. She expends a great deal of energy fixing all manner of things.
Throughout the memoir, we see her sanding, painting, varnishing, wallpapering, welding — even repairing a car engine. After finishing an MFA at the University of Iowa, she drives up to her home in Laramie, Wyoming, and thinks, “Had I really poured the student loan money I’d managed to save into this brown-and-yellow fixer upper?” It takes her eight years, but she “make[s] it beautiful again.” When Ward brings her to his house for the first time, she begins mentally “tearing up the turquoise carpet in the living room.” Once they get into his bedroom, remodeling becomes seduction. Bair muses: “Say things worked out between us and I moved here. First, I would remove the blinds.” Which leads to realization and insight: Ward’s green sink reminds her of the fixtures her parents installed in her childhood home, and, all of a sudden, the affair seems “too shabbily intimate.”
Nonetheless, sparks fly between Ward and Bair. They seem to have great sexual frisson, and they share some core interests such as land and books. Their differences — he has Ayn Rand on his shelves; she quotes the Tao Te Ching — help build narrative tension, and there are payoffs when they open themselves to one another’s ideologies, or when the discourse of his world finds a metaphorical equivalent in hers. “The bitchiest mares make the best mothers,” he says about the horses at his ranch. “Some breeders don’t pay much attention to the dam […] but I think the mother is actually more important.” The comment is not lost on Bair, a longtime single mother. At times, Ward’s conservative politics frustrate her, but she refrains from trying to remake him as she did Stefan, her ex-husband. “I was certain that I could sand off all of Stefan’s rough edges,” she recalls. “I thought I could fix anything.”
Still, Bair’s need to fix things is crucial to her character and to the book’s momentum. The Ogallala Aquifer, North America’s main water source and one of the largest of its kind in the world, is the ultimate fixer-upper. After 50 years of destructive farming, it sits at a dangerously low level, and will require more than renting a belt sander — but Bair is up to the task. She tromps around muddy farm fields, paws through old maps in the Denver library, interviews media-wary officials, gives presentations at conferences, and talks to people from all political walks of life to apprise herself, and the reader, of vital information. We learn, for example, that Americans use between 80 and 100 gallons of water every day. During one season, Bair’s family farm alone pumped 139 million gallons for 700 acres. Half of that went to irrigate cornfields. Moreover, the corn wasn’t used for human consumption but for cattle feed.
Bair sees the consequences up close, lamenting that pesticides have killed off the wildlife and no-till factory farming has stripped the land of color. On one of her visits to Ward’s ranch, he shows her his childhood swimming hole, now a parched alley filled with sand and decaying leaves. “It was hard to believe that the Smoky was once plentiful enough to water thousands of Cheyenne, not to mention the horses they kept in numbers many times their own and the buffalo that had sustained them,” she writes.
Restoration, in common parlance, often entails making improvements on the original, sometimes with mixed results. When Bair relocates to the old family farmhouse with her infant son after her divorce, she installs civilized comforts like a sidewalk and a fence. Yet she also longs for the wild and has an electrician wire a light switch to an outdoor floodlight so she can turn it off to see the unpolluted night sky. Good memoirists have a double consciousness, and Bair is aware of contradicting herself — among the traits that make her a lovable narrator. Her voice is fierce, passionate, and determined, but also impulsive, judgmental, and uncertain. And she is unsparingly honest about her conflicts. She knows that her family’s land was stolen from the Cheyenne and is sucking the Ogallala Aquifer dry, but if they converted to dryland farming, the business wouldn’t make enough money to support her writing career.
Bair’s abundant energy permeates her prose. You can almost see her in her Laramie home, pages spread out on a large farm table, scissors and pen in hand, making and remaking. She’s adept at describing the natural world — Wyoming’s Lake Hattie shifts “at the touch of wind or shadow.” Sometimes, though, she strains: in Kansas, the willows “hug,” the valley “yawns,” and the sun and grass “smile” at one another. She’s at her best when she writes about the wildland she explored in her post-college days, the “pink dawn” in Death Valley and the “liquid ice” in the Desolation Wilderness. Mostly, the narrative flows like the water she writes about, moving back and forth in time and through emotional changes. Occasionally, her pages are overcrowded with thinly described characters, but she makes Ward and her father palpable. Readers of environmental literature will hear echoes of Terry Tempest Williams, Rick Bass, Wallace Stegner, and Rachel Carson in Bair. Yet she doesn’t lean too heavily on her literary forebears. She has written her own tale and coupled it with a story of water that concerns us all.
On the trail at Swamp Lake, my co-leader and I asked the women to write about an unplanned ritual enacted in a natural landscape. We’d handed out “Whistling Swan,” a chapter from Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place,to get them started. Williams, upon unexpectedly finding a dead swan on the beach of the Great Salt Lake, spreads its wings wide, untangles its neck, places dark rocks on its eyes, uses her spittle to wash its beak, and lies down beside it. The assignment turned out to be a favorite. A month after we returned from backpacking, the women read for an audience at a local bookstore in Moscow, Idaho. Many of them chose their pieces about private rituals for the public reading. I’ve always wondered why.
Bair’s memoir gave me one answer. Early in the book, she searches Kansas’s Smoky Valley for a legendary spring, one that may have been used by Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s but has since dried up. Finally, she comes across a small pond, and places her palm on its surface. “[It] wasn’t beautiful or bracing or clear like in a mountain lake,” she writes, “but it inspired tenderness in me because it was in danger.” Some of the most memorable passages in The Ogallala Road are not the spirited action of romance, single-parenting, or restoring the aquifer, but the quiet moments of mindful observation. After all, those spontaneous rituals between human beings and the natural world are their own kind of restoration. Because they are so simple, they heighten our awareness, as well as our desire to live responsibly on this earth.
D.J. Lee, an award-winning scholar of literature and history, has written and edited numerous books. She is currently editing a collection of essays called The Land Speaks and completing a memoir about the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness of Idaho and Montana.