When the rains were late, farmers of old sensed it quickly--in a dry wing, the subtle change in the color of a field, the appearance of a sharp fissure in the soil.
Those of us city dwellers who are almost entirely estranged from the earth can refuse to acknowledge the threat at all. On the margins of our consciousness we note the layers of dust on unwashed cars, the nagging radio ads. Only at the end, when the distant reservoirs are almost dry, does drought begin to make its face known to us. And even then, defiant, we drench our emerald lawns and top off our swimming pools.
In contemporary parlance, that's called denial.
Like any proper natural disaster--forest fire, flood, hurricane, earthquake, avalanche--drought will not be denied. But the shortage of rain is different from other catastrophes. Drought is slow and hestitant, months or years in the coming. And in the beginning it will tease, sending languorous storm fronts dressed in mist to drift overhead and mock those below, and thunderheads full of promise to rise over faraway mountains and then withdraw.
John Steinbeck, one of several authors who have written knowingly on drought, understood the heartbreak of that promise. Before the Joads in "The Grapes of Wrath" are driven from Oklahoma by drought and dust, they are taunted:
" . . . the big clouds moved up out of Texas and the Gulf, high heavy clouds, rain-heads. The men in the fields looked up at the clouds and sniffed at them and held wet fingers up to sense the wind. . . . The rain-heads dropped a little spattering and hurried on to some other country. Behind them the sky was pale again and the sun flared. In the dust there were drop craters where the rain had fallen, and there were clean splashes on the corn, and that was all."
Of course, to residents of Southern California's urban desert, rain doesn't have the significance it does in places where people are obliged to grow food. We can afford to turn a blind eye to a dry year. The important water, the water we use to drink, bathe, wash our imported sedans and cultivate our exotic plants, we buy from parts north and east. The Evian-From-the-Sky that arrives from the south and west is refreshing but unnecessary--though useful for flushing away smog and scouring the oil off freeways.
But ultimately even we will listen up. Too long without water and our carefully insulated social order begins to unravel. The environment will have its way with us.
Not that writers haven't reminded us, over and over, that, once come, drought always shows the same apocalyptic visage:
In the lonely Australian outback of Colleen McCullough's "The Thorn Birds," where it is followed by a hundred-mile fire, "Oh, but it was dry! Even the trees were dry, the bark falling from them in stiff, crunchy ribbons. . . ."
Or in the rich but famine-wracked Chinese countryside of Pearl Buck's "The Good Earth," where ". . . day after day the skies shone with fresh and careless brilliance. The parched and starving earth was nothing to them. From dawn to dawn there was not a cloud, and at night the stars hung out of the sky, golden and cruel in their beauty."
Or even in the fertile central California valley of Steinbeck's "To a God Unknown," where ". . . the desolate land was harping on (farmer Joseph Wayne's) temper. He was angry with the bony hills and stripped trees. Only the oaks lived and they were hiding their life under a sheet of dust."
In many of these stories, as in much of history, drought is perceived as punishment, for evil deeds done or good deeds omitted, for gods unappeased or sacrifices unmade.
At the beginning of Dominique Lapierre's "City of Joy," a Bengali farmer places a grain of rice before an image of Gauri, the protectress of peasants. "Give us plenty of water and return it to us a hundredfold," he recites at an altar that stands at the entrance to the fields.
Despite his prayers, the date promised for the monsoon "came and went without the slightest cloud. Throughout the days that followed, the sky remained steely white." The gods are angry and no amount of incense burned can prevent the famine that finally drives the farmer and his family to the wretched streets of Calcutta for sustenance.
When rains don't come, a more secular culture demands that man take blame. In John Creasey's compelling science-fiction novel, "The Drought," all of Earth's water is rapidly evaporating. The culprit is revealed as radiation from nuclear testing, and a drought victim rages at government scientists come to investigate the shrinkage of a once-huge lake:
"The madmen of Washington (have) played the fool with nature too long. Now nature's having her revenge for these accursed tests, made by accursed men. I can tell you what is happening, I can show you. Come and look!"
He takes them to the dry lake, now "flat, pale grey mud, a few big boulders, a few small boats lying on one side, as in the estuary of a great river at low tide."
In J. G. Ballard's sci-fi classic, "The Burning World" (published in England under the title "The Drought"), the Earth's oceans are covered by a barrier to evaporation that has been generated by vast quantities of industrial and radioactive wastes and sewage discharged during the previous 50 years. "Out of this brew the sea had constructed a skin no thicker than few atoms, but sufficiently strong to devastate the lands it once irrigated."
California's drought has its own trendy villains: global warming, perhaps, or a reverse El Nino, overdevelopment. . . . But if literature is any guide, our dry years are simply part of an ancient cycle. The wet years will come again and when they do, it will be to our eyes as it was to those of Steinbeck's farmer Joseph Wayne when he "saw the first big drops fall, thudding up dust in little spurts, then the ground was peppered with black drops. The rain thickened and a fresh wind slanted it. The sharp smell of dampened dust rose into the air and the first winter storm really began, raking through the air and drumming the roofs and knocking the weak leaves from the trees."
Let it rain.