Posted by: trevormeers | June 2, 2012

Moisture, eh?

Moisture, eh?
Throughout the land you hear the old refrain.
Why, yes, we’ll take it!
We may never have this much of it again.
–  Ian Tyson

A real spring rain finally arrived, only a day before June came to finish off lawns that were already taking on the brown texture of August. The rain was the steady all-day variety that makes you want to play guitar in a coffee shop and turns the driveway into a refuge of writhing earthworms escaping the apocalypse.

“We sure need it,” all the old boys at church have been saying. Winter forgot to snow almost completely this year, and spring has hardly brought more than sprinkles that smear the dust around your windshield during the drive home. The dry year has become a point of conversation even for guys who count on rain for nothing more than reducing their watering bill and keeping the greens soft down at the golf course.

For those of us closer to the land, of course, rain never escapes from a conversation. Like Ian Tyson says in the song he wrote in a cabin on the Canadian prairie, moisture always matters out in these parts.

When I moved to Iowa a decade ago, however, I was surprised to hear people here worrying about the rain. Iowa, in comparison to Nebraska, is a rainforest, blessed with a seemingly endless supply of trees and ditches that stay green right through July. Nebraska, on the other hand, was a place designated by 19th-century surveyors as the beginning of “the great American desert.” It’s naturally perfect for short-grass prairie, but not row crops. Some of the richest folks I knew growing up came from families that made center pivots, those giant “walkers” that irrigate massive fields and create the circular patterns that mesmerize airline passengers sipping ginger ale.

A scene from one of the wetter years here in the Skunk River Valley.

Even though our family didn’t have much of a dog in the fight when it came to farming, we obsessed over rainfall like a guy fretting about 1,000 acres of dry-land corn. Partly that was because my dad grew up a farmer and never took his eye off the clouds. Mostly it was because we had horses, which breeds a dependence on the hay market and the fickle, thirsty life of grass.

In high school, my buddy in the suburbs would grumble about a coming storm ruining our plans. “That’s OK,” I’d say, practically pushing a seed-corn cap back on my head. “We could use it.” He’d scowl and say, “Seems like you’re always saying we could use the rain.”

And we could—except when we couldn’t. Because if Nebraska wasn’t cooking up a drought, it was trying to flood us out with thunderstorms that pushed Oak Creek almost out of its banks behind the house. In the famous summer of 1993, my rec-league softball team got in about 3 games all summer, and I paddled a canoe out to get the mail one day just because I could. It was murder on hay prices, what with the mowers having to stay out of the fields and new rains ruining whatever the farmers did get cut. Prices were almost as bad as in dry years.

In Iowa, I’ve learned, the moisture equation usually runs to the overflowing side of the rain gauge. The state is a series of river valleys running more or less parallel between the Missouri and Mississippi. And, as their wide and flat terrain might indicate, river vallies have a tendency to fill with water on a regular basis. That makes Iowans some of the nation’s more proficient practitioners in the art of stacking sand bags and passing bond issues to build flood walls.

Our neighbors headin’ for the ol’ fishin’ hole–which serves as my road to work on a normal day.

Our house sits on the rim of the Skunk River Valley, a flatland five miles across that fills with water like an Iowa basement when it rains pitchforks-and-broom-handles, as the local radio guy likes to say. July of 2010 was an especially strange one, with Noah-esque rains coming at a time when the weather usually turns humid and still (“corn-growing weather” as they call it). After a couple of weeks of successive storms, only one of the four roads leading to our house was still open. And getting to it required a long detour down the interstate to Colfax, where empty semi trailers were peeking from the water along the on-ramp like forgotten pool toys.

One evening we walked as far as we could down the road into the valley and came on our neighbors trolling through the shallows on a four-wheeler. Every once in a while, they would quickly stop, sweep a net over where the road used to be and pull up a small fish delivered from the river, which is normally more than a mile away. It took a couple of months for everything in the valley to dry up, but we all tried to look on the bright side. It should keep the soil nice and moist for next spring’s crops. We’ll sure need it then.



  1. This post left me with a grin reminiscing about how (as you described perfectly) rural Nebraskans discuss & worry about rain/water seemingly ad nasueum. As you are likely aware, both my folks grew up on Nebraska farms/ranches. To this very day my mother will spend what seems like eternity telling us how blessedly thankful they were that it rained the night before (even though they live in a townhouse, in the city, for which their “yard” is a common area of their planned community). Guess it proves the old saying, “you can take the boy/girl out of the country , but you can’t take the country out of the boy/girl.”

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