Now two weeks into spring, Dry Creek canyon looks fairly normal, and though the creek isn’t running much, it’s enough for the colorful Wood Ducks to gather and discuss their futures on its banks. Skiffs of popcorn flowers and orange patches of fiddleneck claim our pastures along the road, green and growing since we moved the cattle higher-up the hill a month ago, back when the Sierra snow pack stood at 26% of normal, hoping to save whatever feed our low ground might produce until later in the season. The Blue Oaks are leafing out, the quail are pairing-up, the House Finches are making a mess beneath the rafters—it’s really spring again.
But two weeks ago, it looked pretty bleak on Dry Creek with less than 7 inches of rain since October, with sixty days of no precipitation in December and January, short grass and stressed cows. Two weeks ago we were discussing which cows or replacement heifers we might have to sell, as high-dollar alfalfa hay to carry them, for who knows how long, was well-beyond consideration. I found myself reciting ‘drought of seventy seven’ in my head as I made my rounds to check the cows, calves and grass.
it was dry in the fall of seventy-six
and the cows were a calvin’ in the dust.
nothin’ to see but acres of chips,
a drought year where cowmen went bust
their hides were rough ‘n just cover’d bone,
‘n ribs caught most of your eye,
spindly calves seemed to wander alone,
as if lookin’ for a place to die.
cows were bringin’ two-bits a pound,
a hundred bucks less than the spring,
all ya could do was throw hay on the ground,
and pray to God it would rain.
their toes would clack like castanets
in the cloud that’d boil ‘round your truck,
the bawlin’ skeletons and weak silhouettes
would bring tears to the drought of good luck.
reckon ma nature’s showed me who’s boss
as she’ll do some time and again,
but she’s never caused me half of the loss
that politicians create with a pen.
(Dry Creek Rhymes, 1989.)
Not much of a memorizer, it’s fortunate that I can’t ever remember all of the vivid stanzas, but with such real visions and memories branded indelibly in one’s brain, conditions and circumstances that look similar make the bleak look bleaker—like the opposite of ‘ignorance is bliss’. Though a nightmare with impacts to our calf crops for years after, I’ve considered myself lucky to be exposed to the Drought of 1977 early in my career, having seen some of the worst and survived it. Nevertheless, I also know how bad things can get.
But with the miracle of rain, it’s remarkable how resilient this ground is. Even with three and half inches, we’re still short of our normal precipitation, but for a week either side of the vernal equinox, it’s brought this ground back to life, and into such a heady spring fever for everything alive, we’ve nearly forgotten how tentative our future looked just two weeks ago.