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A Dry and Thirsty Land
Penny Ward Moser
September 12, 1988
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September 12, 1988

A Dry And Thirsty Land


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"It happened so fast," my sister says. She and my mom have run the family farm since my dad died in 1980. "We planted and then...." And then nothing.

Saving the mother mallard and her clutch of eggs became a brief bright spot in a generally depressing week. We worried about her. In her own way, the duck had become a victim of the drought. If it had rained, my sister would not have been mowing that hay. The hay was on "set aside" land, that is, land the government pays farmers not to plant in commodity crops in order to curb grain surpluses. When the drought threatened crop failure, the government "released" the set-aside land, as well as land in long-term conservation programs, so that farmers could, cut hay to sell or use as feed for their own livestock. Across the Midwest millions of acres of set-aside land, which double as wildlife cover, were being mowed and baled off the parched earth.

News of the drought rolls across the TV screen as we sit after supper. More than 1,300 counties in 30 states are being declared disaster areas. The commodity market is berserk. The Mississippi River is dwindling to impassable. People are having their water shut off as a penalty for sprinkling their lawns.

For us, the story missing from the news is the one about those who cannot turn on a water faucet at all. What is happening to all the creatures that suddenly find themselves losing the water they need to live?

"What I can't figure," Becky says, "is where that mother duck is going to take those babies once they hatch."

We see no great blue herons in our streams this summer. There are barely any streams at all. The muskrats' underwater tunnels are high in the banks above the water. The beaver, whose bank house on the Paw Paw golf course pond is also high and dry, has disappeared.

Hanging over a culvert along the road, we watch some minnows wriggle over mud shallows looking for a deeper pool. Then the minnows reverse direction, pushing over the mud again, back to where they had been. This is the deeper pool.

Two days later the local news shows some people with buckets, knee-deep in mud, trying to move suffocating fish from shrinking streams and ponds. I have heard a report from Wisconsin, in which that state's department of natural resources estimated that 40% of the trout in the waters it supervises have died—certain kinds of trout are unable to survive when stream temperatures rise to 74° or more. There is worry in many states that if this keeps up, sports fishing and tourism are going to die along with the fish.

Toward the end of the week we checked the duck. We don't know how we'll do it, but we are thinking that if we catch the hatchlings, maybe we can help them find enough water to survive. We never get to try. All that is left in the mangled alfalfa are a few crushed shells and the overpowering smell of a skunk.

"I suppose," my sister says, "that the hen fought to save the eggs."

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