We startled a
dozen frogs and caught one carp, two bluegill and a bullhead that day. School
was out. It was June 1961. My sister, Becky, and I were 12 and 8. We were
fishing in a tiny stream up the road from our northern Illinois farm. Suddenly,
as we crawled out from under a willow, something let go with a loud honk and
hurtled toward us in the grass. We flattened down on the bank in terror as the
creature took off over us, its wings—seven feet from tip to tip—making great
thwopping sounds as they fanned our faces. Then another lifted off, and
another. Altogether, six great blue herons swept off above us. We stood, peered
through the brush and watched them glide up over the cornfields toward the
We toted our fish
home in a metal pail, put them in the feedlot water tank and spent the summer
watching them rise to the cornmeal that floated off the cows' noses as they
This was June on
the prairie. There was always dew and rain, and the mosquitoes ate us alive
when we picked strawberries. We needed to mow the lawn every few days, and
nesting grackles and robins dive-bombed us when we did. Baby rabbits blitzed
past the dog. The creatures of the woods—white-tailed deer, skunks, raccoons,
possums—foraged in the lush woodlots and streams.
unrelenting drought, coupled with what the human population has done to the
world, is threatening to wreak unprecedented havoc in fields, streams and
dwindling ponds across the country. Fish have died by the tens of millions this
summer. Duck populations are down to about 85% of normal—the pintail duck is
down to 46%. Large flocks of shore-birds—such as sanderlings, whose predrought
population was only 20% of what naturalists consider it should have been in the
first place—are facing starvation and poisoning.
If next summer is
like this one—and most climate watchers say it will be—such fur-bearing mammals
as muskrat and beavers will crowd into remaining waters and fight to the death
for territory. Those are the animals we think of first because we see them the
most frequently. Of the 506 "endangered" and "threatened" plant
and animal species, many beleaguered populations are being pushed to the brink
of extermination by a lack of water.
Kim Chapman, an ecologist in a regional office of The Nature Conservancy, a
private conservation group, says the drought is "a natural catastrophe, one
even our native oak-savanna refuges are barely able to cope with. I can't help
but think that if it looks like this here, there must be pockets of habitats
out there facing waves of extinctions."
summers after the heron, just a few hundred yards from where the water tank
stood, a duck bursts out of the alfalfa. My sister jams her foot on the
tractor's double brakes, sliding the big red Farmall to a stop. There, inches
ahead of the front tire, lie nine blue mallard eggs in a tiny grass nest. She
backs up the rig, leaves a nice patch unmowed around the nest and watches the
hen mallard circle back and land. Much obliged.
My sister and I
remain fond of the wild things that live on the land. Other than that,
everything has changed.
On a visit home
early this summer, I think it is as if our ecosystem were two slides in a
projector. Click—green. Click—brown. Every day, the temperature nears 100°.
Ground temperatures hover around 130°. There is never any rain. My sister's
well pumps great gulps of air along with the water. The lawn has turned to
brown stubble. The grackles are missing. A single robin hammers at the
concretelike earth. There are no rabbits in the yard.
From horizon to
horizon the air has that white-pink color peculiar to very hot days. Everything
looks slightly liquid, rippling. It feels as if we are baking to death. It is a
sad, terrifying, helpless feeling.