It happened two years ago on Halloween. And then it happened again this Memorial Day. And now it was happening once more — Halloween 2 and another cruel trick from nature gone mad.
Frankly, I’m tired of breaking records. Worst drought. Worst wild fire. Most rain. Highest river levels. These aren’t the kind of records a farmer wants his land to be breaking.
It begs the obvious question. Central Texas is ground zero for unbridled growth in this country. Could the same be true for climate change?
Two weeks ago, after four months without rain, our farm was a dust bin. Here in Bastrop we were caught up in wild fires – another perverse replay of the state’s most disastrous wildfire four years ago. Today the Colorado River is lapping at our back door and we’re watching crops and top soil wash downstream.
Is nature trying to tell us something? Or is nature just acting itself — indifferently following its immutable laws? Yet here is the difference. Humans have entered into the equation big time. Both in numbers and behaviors, we have become a force to be reckoned with; we, too, have a hand in all these broken records.
The farmer knows this better than most. He watches in horror as soil runs off the dirt roads he travels day after day. Dust in the wind. Mud in the river. Undisturbed land doesn’t have this problem.
The farmer living on the river sees the big picture up close. The river doesn’t hide or lie. Like an obedient pack mule, it quietly hauls off all the man-made mess of stuff; here and there it leaves evidence at the farmer’s footstep: a hoolahoop dangling from a banch, a plastic tarp wrapped around a stump, plastic bottles littered like stepping stones across his flattened fields.
Once again, the farmer feels lucky. He didn’t lose his home or his livestock. What he did lose is another layer of confidence in human nature’s ability or willingness to slow down and ask the hard questions.
If, indeed, we are entering a new Age of Extremes, perhaps it’s not unreasonable to expect the unexpected. Yet how can one reason with the tricks of nature in distress; if recent history is no longer our guide, where is that solid ground we consider “normal” and base future decisions?
What do you say to one of your employees who lost her house the first Halloween flood, only to watch it happen all over again exactly two years later? Or to another employee whose family business was flooded in the Memorial Day flood. The store finally opened a few weeks ago and there they were throwing sand bags around it as the waters rose on Lamar Blvd in a perverse trick of déjà vu.
People are getting more than tired. They are getting scared.
A Bastrop friend canceled a long-awaited vacation overseas because she expended so much psychic energy watching the Hidden Pines fire attempt to repeat history. She had rebuilt her home after the 2011 Labor Day fire and wasn’t about to watch it burn down again. The fire may have succeeded if the winds were blowing a little stronger.
Closer to home, the farmer’s neighbor watched his newly expanded corn maze business get swallowed by the river. This spring’s Memorial Day flood grabbed half his goat herd. Yesterday it came back for the rest.
“You just keep going on. One step ahead of the other,” he told the television reporter.
But what if those steps are headed in the wrong direction?
Maybe broken records is what you get from a broken system.
If so, fixin’ time is running out.
Farmers are notorious for their frugality.
New is anathama to them, a drain on their
hard-earned income and often inferior to what they replace. Old and used are
like lost friends, shouting for a second chance.
This makeshift kitchen in our barn is so crowded with lost friends I can barely move. The doors were pulled out of a remodeled mansion in West Lake. The clay bricks beneath my feet were hauled out of an abandoned field across the road. They sat stacked beside the barn for years, waiting for their resurrection.
The sink was found in an old warehouse before it was torn down. The wood-frame windows came from an auction at a Wimberely Farm ($20 bucks a piece whittled down to $15). The countertops were headed to the landfill when a friend remembered we were building a house.
The list goes on and on. Even the table I am writing on was abandoned by another friend who sold out to developers and couldn’t fit it in his U-haul headed to Ohio. Half of old Austin, it seems, is being demolished or renovated, waiting for cheapskates like me to breathe new life into its castoffs.
The cypress shutter that fills in the gap between two windows (also given to me) is my favorite find. An antebellum mansion just off South Congress was sold recently and I arrived late to the auction. Wandering off limits, I peered inside a dilapidated shed out back. It had recently housed chickens, but under a mound of loose hay was buried treasure — the green cypress shutters that once protected the windows — and privacy — of this three story home. As I pushed away moldy straw and cobwebs to assess their condition, the auctioneer caught me poking around.
Are they for sale, I asked innocently?
She was so tired from a thousand questions she simply nodded and said $50.
“Isn’t $50 a piece a little steep?” I asked.
“No, that’s for the whole pile. But you need to take all of them.”
Which is what I did. Eagerly. Voraciously. More than 20, some 8 feet long, all still working, including the one in this kitchen that makes me feel like I’m connected to a sliver of ruined aristocracy.
That mansion was sold to a California couple, for what I’m sure they thought was as much a steal as these shutters. Still, I felt guilty removing them. They were custom-made for this house, one of the first to be built on the south side of the river.
My guilt did not linger any longer than I did after I loaded up my van. This entire house was going to be remodeled – with new windows, undoubtably.
And farmers, of course.
My river rising with morning mist
Must vanish into that vast blue above
But here in its lingering I see:
Liquid dance of phantom skaters
Autumn’s lips kissing sweaty skin
Summer’s heat finishing the race
Like hot thoroughbreds cooling down.
My river bowing to the South
And from the South upstream flying
An eagle’s sun-dipped wings
At 4:30 on a Sunday morning the farmer was taking a hot bath. He had
wrenched his back and couldn’t sleep from all the stress and pain the endless summer season had thrown at him, made worse by the six stitches in his right thumb.
Here in the rustic bathroom of their makeshift barn was not the place he expected to find inspiration. Yet there it stood just a few feet away; a simple wicker basket — for holding toilet paper no less — had finally found its intended place after 12 years of sitting unused on a shelf.
This was no ordinary toilet paper container. The farmer had bought it from an Amish family setting up their wares on the edge of Kenyon College. Back then the farmer was still a writer, and farming was still a dream. Writing about farming for Rodale’s New Farm magazine was getting him closer to making that dream a reality. Going to conferences, like this first national meeting for farm-to-school pioneers, was the peak of his farm dating phase.
The main attraction of these sustainable farming conference were the farm tours. These farms were carefully chosen, like models for a fashion shoot, and he fell in love with each and every one of them, photographing and writing about them in rose-colored light.
There in Ohio, amid the Amish buggies and rolling hills so reminiscent of the Pennsylvania farmlands of his youth, he became love-struck. The wicker basket, its strips of ash woven and decorated by hands that loved their work, seemed an odd yet perfect metaphor for sustainable farming. He brought it home and was delighted that his wife placed it on the kitchen shelf; she also found it too beautiful to sit next to a toilet.
That’s why this morning it took him by surprise. After 10 years of farming everything had lost its luster and appeal, including this basket. Amid the chaos of moving to this second farm, his wife had put it there, unnoticed until now. Finally, this totem to simplicity, this garland from the farmer’s romantic period, was filled up with three rolls of toilet paper.
The farmer’s thumb still throbbed.The bathwater was losing heat. His back felt welded to the tub. Was it possible, he wondered, to experience that infatuation again, that over-the-rainbow anticipation of the dream so close to becoming real? Could the farmer, six months short of 60, fall in love again with the farm he had married 10 long years ago?
By now the roosters had begun to crow. He listened to them, differently from the previous morning. Really listened. Their crowing never waivered with age nor lost its fresh annunciation of a new morning. And so too had his commitment to the dream, his marriage to the farm and the ideals it inspired.
Everything he had done on this farm he had done with his hands. From this claw-foot tub he hauled halfway across Texas to the roof over their heads he hammered together in the heat of the Texas summer. This farm was his art, and he was still creating, even now, on his back, in the tub, next to this basket of surprises.
That was something to crow about.
It was the hot dry winds I remember most, the punishing, otherworldly quality to them, as if record heat and drought weren’t hard enough to endure. And then came the smoke, a massive wall of roiling gray and white that covered the land
For those of us living in Bastrop it seemed the world was coming to an end. It didn’t, of course. The fires burned out. The rains returned. The land and its people began to heal.
This week, shades of 2011 have returned. Fields have rapidly deteriorated to brown and dusty. And that hot southerly wind that began on Monday, so bizarre for mid October, shifted and strengthened with a cold front Tuesday. Then suddenly it appeared, like a ghost in mid afternoon, that plume of gray smoke rising higher and higher as I drove to our river farm. For a moment, I was back in 2011, Labor Day weekend, when all hell broke loose.
The Hidden Pine fire, as it is now called, was tiny compared to the epic Bastrop fire. I say “was.” Two days ago it was only 275 acres and 50% contained. By this morning it had grown to more than 4,000 acres with only 15% contained.
This afternoon, smoke has drifted as far as downtown Austin. Friends call or text to ask if the fire is anywhere near us. No, 10 miles away, I assure them; the smell of smoke filling the barn puts me on edge.
The governor is headed out here for a news conference tomorrow to declare a disaster area. Firefighting teams are also arriving from across the state. No one is taking any chances this time. This county could not endure another 2011.
After all that flooding this spring – nearly a year’s worth in a few months – who could have predicted the valve would shut off and virtually no rain would fall out here since June? I can’t remember a year of more extremes. Record rains followed by record heat. Isn’t this the pattern that scientists have predicted with global warming?
More record heat, low humidity and increased winds are forecasted today. The fire chief has assured Bastrop residents that we will win this battle of the blaze. The war metaphor is so predictable, as if nature has attacked us, an enemy to be subdued. How well the farmer understands this attitude; yet he is constantly reminded, through daily humiliations, that this at-war mindset has helped fuel these fires in ways we are only now beginning to appreciate.
Newfoundlands aren’t bred for Texas but they are Texas-sized and Buddy was not only big, he was gentle, too. He was born a rescue dog who ended up in a rescue shelter, destined, it seemed, for a life both troubled and blessed.
When Erin brought Buddy to the farm he was thin and mangy but we accepted him just the same – his pound-given name, as well as his breed’s reputation for saving fisherman fallen overboard in icy waters. We had recently bought river-front property and Erin was comforted by the idea that Bud could ferry our floundering children from the warm yet swift currents of the Colorado.
Bud never was very good at navigating the river but he excelled in his other traits. He was so gentle that kids could crawl over him like pups and he would lie there, still as a rug, yawning with delight. And he was so big that just the sight of him stepping out of the farmhouse would send strangers back inside their cars.
Yes, Bud was our Clifford, 150 pounds of love — clumsy, overheated, unconditional love.
Which is why it was so hard to bury him this morning.
There we were, the four us down by the river, standing over his grave instead of heading into school, traffic, and record-breaking heat. Buddy would have hated today as he did most days in Texas. Yet he never complained. He would find the coolest spot on the farm, always in our path, of course, and wait it out. Emerging in the coolness of night, he loved to chase skunks – spray and all – or dig up pig parts and bring them tail-wagging proud into the kitchen.
Whether Buddy stumbled into a water mocassin or mistook a rattler for a skunk, we’ll never know. He returned around 9, the black shagging mass of him lumbering from the pitch dark river bottom with what appeared to be a cut above his eye. We wiped the blood off and gave him water and left it at that.
An hour later I returned to the kitchen, to the sound of heavy panting. I tried to wipe his eye but it was swallowed up, along with the rest of his face, by a monstrous swelling that could mean only one thing.
I called Erin, who was still at the city farm. Go get Benadryl, she said. I drove into Bastrop and returned with a bottle and syringe. Getting it in Buddy’s mouth was nightmarish. His head was so heavy by now, his mouth so thick and salivating, he nearly choked whenever we lifted it up. We got a few doses in before he started biting us.
Erin, meanwhile, had called the only emergency vet open on a Sunday night. Yes, they could give him anti-venom – if we knew what kind of snake it was. That uncertainly, plus getting him in the van, driving 45 minutes to Austin and paying a thousand dollars for an uncertain outcome was staking up against Buddy’s favor.
Fighting back guilt and resignation, I checked on Buddy throughout the night. I dreaded going downstairs. The sound of his fierce watery breathing was almost unbearable, as if he had sunken to the bottom of that cold dark ocean of his genes, beyond reach yet right beside me.
It was dawn when I woke the kids up. Buddy lay sprawled on the kitchen floor. His breathing had slowed. He whimpered softly when the spasms came. He had hung on through the night, as if waiting until we could call his name, rub his head, kneel at his side in the morning light until the last breath.
Buddy had survived two car accidents, chronic skin and ear infections, being stepped on and cursed at and made fun of. He bore it all without complaint, gentle to the end.
Erin drove up a few minutes later. Tears all the way around. Then shifting to the task at hand. Digging a hole big enough for our clumsy Clifford, in soil that had not seen rain since spring.
We chose a site close to the river he loved so much. It was the river that had brought him into our lives. And it was the river that had taken him out of it.
If needed, God forbid, Buddy could never have rescued us. And today we were unable to rescue him. We did it once, that first time we laid eyes on him. And again years later when he lay crumpled and broken by the roadside. But not today.
What Bud did do — and do so well — was give us his love. Big, overheated, unconditional love.
We did our best to do the same.