Last summer I was standing next to a great bull buffalo in western Kansas. He was mad and had a right to be. My buddy Joe Kramer, along with other men from Kansas Fish & Game, had this great American bison in an animal squeeze while they took a blood sample and gave him a shot. All this activity was part of Kansas’ effort to maintain a few buffalo in the state. The Westerner’s relationship to the buffalo has been loaded with irony. In 1889 the last buffalo in Kansas was killed, and in 1955 animals brought from the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma were the descendants of 15 animals donated by the New York Zoological Park.
As a few flies buzzed about the bufFalo bull, I was reminded of some other flies, those that Edmund Burke alluded to as he reflected upon the past’s gift to the present. “[U]nmindful of what they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity, [the temporary possessors and life-renters] [w]ould act as if they were the entire masters. . . . No one generation could link with another. Men would become little better than flies of a summer.”
The American West is freighted with the past’s gift of instruction for the present, in its mythology, its seemingly limitless landscape, its severely beautiful nature. At a time when the Laputans reside on the Floating Islands of Washington and Wall Street above one coast and Hollywood above the other, it is imperative that the center, or Heartland, hold steady to moor their experiments. This became clearer to me as I moved up and down the Arkansas River Valley working on a book about the river.
As you travel westward along the Arkansas and leave Dodge City, most of the trees are left behind. You have also passed the 100th meridian. This imaginary line marks the beginning of what once was called the “Great American Desert,” pointing to a land where the annual rainfall drops to 16 inches or less. From the start, few people out here had to be instructed about the value of water, something their cousins east of the Mississippi took for granted, or thought they could take for granted until recently when much of it has been poisoned. I say the travelers west knew about the scarcity and thus the value of water; but this is not to say that they understood the many limitations that this put upon the land. As we know from Wallace Stegner’s book Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, John Wesley Powell’s warnings about the limitations that settlers needed to recognize were largely ignored. If we could have acted on Powell’s advice, as Bernard DeVoto has remarked, “incalculable loss would have been prevented and the United States would be happier and wealthier than it is.”
If you have recently left the eastern United States and are traveling west, or were reared in the East where water and roads shift and turn as they come up against hills and mountains, it is disorienting to go about the West, where so many of the roads are straight lines that seem to disappear forever in the four directions. Mostly the roads cross at a sharp 90 degrees, and from the air, it looks like Descartes had his way. The grid of sections (640 acres) and quarter sections (160 acres) was an abstraction imposed by government offices in the East. If a quarter section was’ good enough for Iowa or Illinois, it must be good enough for anyplace else.
It is this kind of detached planning (from the eastern government offices) that Powell was trying to warn against. He had been out West. He had walked over part of the West and gone down the Colorado River. His idea of the West was grounded in the real thing. He explained that homesteading by a family on 160 acres was doomed; such a parcel could not sustain them. A quarter section couldn’t grow enough stock, and irrigation was impossible for most of the settlers. The sad proof of his rightness lives in the fact that our national grasslands are made up largely of lands bought back from failed homesteaders in an effort to give them a start somewhere else.
My own focus regarding the Arkansas River and its great basin reflected similarities and differences in the natural communities (which are great: alpine in the Rockies, prairie in eastern Colorado and western Kansas, and hardwood forests and bottoms in Oklahoma and Arkansas). I was also interested in how man had related to these communities and to the river, how he had changed these worlds after entering them. A student of the river is confronted with the metal mine pollution very near the Arkansas’ source in Leadville, Colorado; uranium ore contamination of the groundwater in Canon City, Colorado; and the depletion of the groundwater throughout the prairie portion in Colorado and Kansas. For a start. As each part of the Arkansas River’s story unfolded, it resembled other stories throughout the American West, the Western world, and, increasingly, the world. The more you read about and study such matters, the more you encounter the problem of limits. We are told repeatedly that the earth is a finite system, with finite resources, but we are reminded by bumper stickers on the backs of Winnebagos and Airstreams, “We’re spending our children’s inheritance.” Somehow we have lost the idea of limits.
The buffalo has become a symbol for this recognition of a modern devastation. We are told by Peter Matthiessen that there were an estimated 60 million buffalo on the Great Plains well into the 19th century, “probably the greatest animal congregations that ever existed on earth.” The animal is extinct in the wilds now. That is a fairly impressive record no matter how you look at it: destroying the greatest animal congregation that ever existed on earth. This we managed, we must remind ourselves, with merely horses and rifles. Now we have . . . well, probably no need to go into all that.
A large number of people lately feel that the genie has got out of the bottle and he is us. It’s as if you have the buffalo bull by the tail and as he races across the prairie, someone is yelling, “Turn him, turn him.” Such a sense of helplessness has generated an urgency on the part of many for a myth that can engender responsibility for the present and the future. Several essays in a recent issue of this magazine (February 1988) engaged this large question as it pertains to the environment. It is clear that thoughtless narcissism (protecting animals that look more like us), or a detached urban puritanism (one lady was mad about a polluted swamp out our way, and the “pollution” turned out to be duckweed), is not going to serve. Our great grasslands, like our swamps and arctic “wastes,” had until recently been ignored while we went about paving the rest of the country. They were thought to be forbidding, not in the top ten places to go; but now that is changing.
The Arkansas River begins in the snow on Mt. Arkansas at 13,795 feet. If you have trekked from below, you have passed treeline and entered a great mountain hall of the Mosquito Range in the Colorado Rockies. In the high, thin air, with your back to the peak, looking down the amphitheater created by surrounding mountains, it is easy to feel the presencing of the world. If a people were to live here for a long time, perhaps the mountain would take on a divine presence itself and, given enough time, would become a god, like Mt. Fujiyama in Japan, like some in Nepal. It is possible that it was for some American Indians, though this part of the valley is not rich in Indian artifacts. The people who came up the valley in the 19th century were of a different sort. Down river a little was the famous Cripple Creek gold strike. Just over Mt. Arkansas is Leadville, famous for its 1880 gold strike in California Gulch and its later silver strike.
Nestled between the Sawatch range and the Mosquito, Leadville, Colorado, is currently the site of a Superfund cleanup. California Gulch is still in the news. After the first strike the gold miners left ten miles of gravel heaps and cutover land that in turn led to a steady source of mud entering the Arkansas. Then the silver miners left miles of tunnels. In order to solve the underground water problem, the Yak Tunnel was finished around 1906; miles of mine water started draining into California Gulch and then into the Arkansas. In 1953 the federal government constructed the Leadville Drainage Tunnel and it, too, drained into the river.
Most heavy metal contamination of the river was not obvious. But one February day in 1983, a wooden retaining wall collapsed in Yak Tunnel, pouring disastrous quantities of contaminates into the river. One of them, pyrite, sometimes called “yellow boy,” is visible. A pumping station 40 miles downstream that diverts drinking water to Colorado Springs had to be shut down. That brought on a great outcry and a visit from Colorado Republican Congressman Ken Kramer to the EPA in Denver. A study has been made now, and the first part of the cleanup is underway. Stephen Voynick, who has written about hard-rock mining, and specifically about mine metal contamination, has remarked that “metal mine drainage pollution is a national heritage, sort of a deferred payment for the reckless glories of frontier mining.”
Many people are under the impression that once Superfund money is spent on a cleanup, that’s the end of it. Wrong. The US government turns around and sues all of the individual property owners to get the money back, even though they may have acquired the land after the damage was done by someone else. Which brings us back to Burke’s flies of a summer. “Unmindful of . . . what is due to their posterity, [the temporary possessors and life-renters] [w]ould act as if they were the entire masters.” Some of the pioneers could be right messy. They were on the way elsewhere, toward something over the horizon. Perhaps more land, more water, more gold, even something intangible, boundless. After all, shouldn’t a man’s reach exceed his grasp? On the way, however, the scene sometimes resembles the aftermath of recent barbarians whizzing down the interstate, dumping McDonald’s portable, disposable dinner services for ten. Nowadays nature is something to push against, to move around, get out of the way, get on top of.
There is hardly any way to talk for long about the. American West, or certainly about the Arkansas River Valley, without the subject of water and irrigation coming up. Water is on everybody’s mind because there isn’t much of it. Taking a look at what’s happened with water in Kansas and Colorado sheds a little light on the way we do things in the modern world. When the wagons were rolling west along the Santa Fe Trail, they stayed as close as was reasonable to the Arkansas: up on solid ground for the wagons but near enough to fill the barrels with water. If they took a short cut at some place like Cimarron Crossing, they had to get to the next water on the Cimarron River or die from thirst; they also ran a much higher risk of encountering Indians. But most of these people were just trying to get through the Great American Desert and on west of the Rockies where they wouldn’t have to worry about water so much. They left wagon tracks (some are still on a friend of mine’s farm around Deerfield, Kansas), and they left most of the water.
After the Civil War, there was great excitement about settling the plains. The railroad magnates back East touted the plains as a potential Garden of Eden, another one of those abstractions imposed by one world on another. There weren’t enough people in the US to move matters along as briskly as the magnates wanted, so drummers were sent over to Russia and Germany to recruit. No one had paid any attention to Powell about the inadequacy of quarter-section farms, and consequently great numbers of families failed. But some hardy, lucky souls endured.
One way they did it was by using ditch irrigation. This got going in the 1870’s and hit its stride in the 1880’s. More than 400 miles of canals and ditches were built in Garden City, Kansas. To be effective, ditch irrigation requires diverting the flow of water several miles above the land to be irrigated, at the headgates, and then needs a two- to three-foot fall. This works out fine for the valley in eastern Colorado and western Kansas, where the Arkansas falls about eight feet per mile. The canals can are their way through the farms and be released through smaller gates at each field.
But ditch irrigation had its problems early on. By the end of the 1880’s, cyclical drought and increased use of the Arkansas had resulted in the river going completely dry in western Kansas. If there was little snowmelt and rain for that year, the drain on the system ended up at roughly zero. Ditch irrigation has a long tradition, dating back at least to the cradle of civilization in the Middle East, and was used by the American Indians in the West long before the homesteaders got to Kansas. But it has never really been without problems, one of the greatest being increased salinization of the land. The farming communities along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the Hopi in the Southwest either died out or moved on when this happened.
When the center-pivot pump came into being and proliferated, an entirely new element was put into the equation of the river. Water is pumped from several hundred feet in the aquifer below, and is moved very efficiently down a long distribution system, which is on wheels. A whole quarter section can be watered in about 24 hours. The water being used is fossil water, and that’s a lot like topsoil. It takes a long time to accumulate and when it’s gone, it’s gone.
A lot of people are on the farmers’ case for center-pivot irrigation—a lot of people who live in town, but also dry-land farmers and ditch irrigators in the valley. In one water district comprising 13 counties in western Kansas, the Kansas Water Office has predicted that in 50 years, the groundwater level in the Cimarron basin will drop 79 percent, and in the Arkansas basin, 49 percent. The ditch irrigators are mad because they claim the dropping water level is affecting the volume of flow in the river. Before any center-pivot pumping started, the river sometimes down-cut enough to pick up flow from the aquifer itself The people over at Cheyenne Bottoms refuge are mad because there often isn’t enough water to divert for the thousands of birds that use the refuge. (I myself am mostly confounded to see how any thoughtful vision of nature could have averted the advent of center-pivot irrigation. What was more traditional than digging a well to get water for your farm?)
Once the evidence started rolling in that more was going on than merely pumping water out from under your own land, then a different kind of problem emerged. Increasingly, the expensive equipment required by modern “agribusiness” meant nobody wanted to stop once all that money had been invested. Bringing up greed and posterity at that point was like a canary singing in a wind storm. Which is partly to say that we’re never going to get it just right. That’s an Edenist notion—getting it just right, or immanentizing the eschaton, as the Eric Voegelin T-shirts say.
What is to be done? In the case of the irrigators, as soon as they pay off their $50,000-per-rig notes at the bank, they will have to set them over on the back 40 and let ’em rust, because the cost of the gas to run the wells at greater depths will serve as a limit. But that kind of virtue is like bragging on your virginity when you ain’t been asked. Wendell Berry has diagnosed part of the problem when he notes, “Our farms are endangered because—like the interstate highways or modern hospitals or modern universities—they cannot be inexpensively used. To be usable at all they require great expense.”
We need to make an effort to arrive at a principled, articulate stewardship that will help us stop the marauding and the devastation, and cut out some of this “devil take the hindmost” greed for what’s left of the water in the Arkansas River, or the other western rivers that now seem to be regarded only as waters for cities. Colorado and Kansas are having at it in a Supreme Court case, which is to decide who is the greedy one, vice being now what the Court says it is. Meanwhile, Denver, Colorado Springs, Phoenix, and Los Angeles are busy buying up the water rights (might makes rights, right?) and having it brought to them by what is called “transmountain water diversion.” Given the madness in the cities where the young gangsters and drug lords (“lords of the flies?”) seem to be winning, taking the water seems a lot like feral progeny devouring the mother at long distance. Soon I expect we can look forward to a featurette called “transmountain prisoner diversion” where they go to Wyoming. (You remember the news item about certain sheriffs in Wyoming wanting to close their jails because they didn’t have anybody to put in them? They shouldn’t have let this get out.) We’ve already got transmountain nuclear waste diversion in the West. In the face of this, we have Hegel saying that “only the modern city offers the mind a field in which it can become aware of itself” I’m not kidding.
The Arkansas River Valley, which has the ingredients of a community, has broken down into factionalism, a breakdown that reflects a kind of quarter-section vision that embraces no sense of transcendence whatsoever. Thomas Molnar has remarked that “one cannot harness technology without denoting science as a master-concept.” True enough. The times seem readier now, however, to admit that science is not the master-concept it was considered to be in the 19th century. Apocalyptic anticipations drive many, as never before, to reexamine their relationship to nature and to each other. But nobody ever said it was going to be easy.
Farming the grasslands will have to be rethought as an art, rather than as running a factory. Remember when being a physician was practicing an art, the art of bringing about health? Farming must in the long run bring forth health through nurturing healthy creatures from a healthy land. The potential farmer will have to listen to what the land is saying, rather than telling the land what he wants to hear. He might consider the land in the way that Michelangelo considered what figure might be brought forth from a particular stone, rather than imposing, no matter what, an idea hatched purely in his head.
Vincent Scully, writing about the Minoan dance, remarks that instead of celebrating subtle man who finally killed the bull, the unreasoning power of nature, the dance “celebrated both men and women together as accepting nature’s law, adoring it, adding to their own power precisely as they seized it close and adjusted their rhythms to its force.” This is a better story than the one the buffalo bull reminds us of, the annihilation of the largest aggregation of wild animals in the world. Yet we begin again, as we did that summer day in Kansas, releasing him to rejoin his kind.
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