The Drought

Jul 25, 2012

by

For years we’ve had beavers on the land, and so far the risen water and the beavers together have killed five acres of bottom land on our already small farm. I’ve broken the dam several times and found it rebuilt and stronger within a day. I’ve tried trapping them out winter and summer to no avail. Late one night a few years back I made the last turn up the gravel road to our place after four hours of eye burning, butt numbing driving from the city and very narrowly missed running down a beaver seated on his tail in the moonlight. I stopped, watched him for a few seconds in the rear view utterly undisturbed and at home in the dusty red glow of my break lights, put the truck in reverse, considered the ease of this solution and wrestled with the Great Beyond.

I didn’t make any noble decisions, and I didn’t get a sign. I just couldn’t do it. So after a minute or so I slid the truck into first and drove up the hill. The beaver never moved, never even looked up at the truck. Within a week all the beavers were gone out of the swamp, and they stayed gone for three years, and the bottom land began to regrow itself. I drained the swamp, cut some standing dead wood for the home fires, and pictured corn in the reclaimed field until early last fall, when the beavers came back and rebuilt their marvelous and immense dam and started mowing down the brush along the creek bed. Neighbours noted the rising water in the field, offered advice and sympathy the way people do when there is serious illness in the family. Nothing rivals beavers for changing the landscape irrevocably except humans, the same way nothing rivals sickness for changing life irrevocably except dying. Mostly because of harvest fatigue and my teaching schedule, I never got around to fixing the beaver trouble.

This spring the runoff from the mountain, which usually lasts ten thunderous days and nights, lasted two, and the signs were everywhere to be seen, even during the rains of early June, that there wouldn’t be water this year. We planted anyway, but the old timers were already shaking their heads. I write this to you after five weeks of punishing heat and no rain. Only lately have the radio people begun to admit that the weather that pleases campers, cottagers and tourists is killing everything that feeds them. There’ll be little feed for livestock this winter, food prices for humans will rise, and no farmers in my area can see the bottom of this right now. Most fields around me for miles are the colour of bleached sand.

My fields of blue corn, red potato, peanut and chard are burnt at the edges, but they’re mostly green. There are two reasons. I’ve had a dozen or so scholars from our Orphan Wisdom School as undeclared apprentices in the Redemption Business, which is what we call farming in played out alluvial till, and they’ve tended to the crops every morning before the sun climbs over the granite mountain to blaze the fields. The other reason: every morning they haul by hand buckets of rank smelling, mineral rich, coffee coloured beaver water from the swamp to the fields, the same water I’ve tried to drain away for years, and every day there is reprieve. It wasn’t my prescience that granted us this water, nor is it any hope or prayer answered. I credit entirely the beavers and their Gods, and have a real gratitude for my late fall fatigue which I didn’t have then. My plans, my whole take on the beaver dilemma failed, and because I failed I have corn again this year, and so we can feed the scholars that attend our school this summer the way we’ve done summers passed.

I ask you to consider this: Our corner of this world is in bad shape, largely thanks to what we’ve done to it during my lifetime. We could withhold our labour and our Amen until the Great Solution to the gathering troubles shows itself, when the corporations humanize, the seed supply naturalizes, the chemically dazzled soil revitalizes, and all but the most egregious – and maybe them too – are forgiven and converted. We’d be sincere, principled paralytics. Or we could start, minus the reassurances. We could proceed without feeling safe, without certainty, without any promise of return, without any clear handle on the Big Story, without hope. I hereby declare by the power vested in me by no one at all that hope is no longer needed in order to put our shoulder to the wheel of the world for the sake of a better day. And faith, that blanket coverage insurance policy that promises moral victory before there’s any work done, I also declare tried and found wanting.

We could plant without faith or hope or water, without the promise of water, in the jaws of a drought – which may be the way of the coming days – and keep up our end of the Mystery. We could start a school dedicated to teaching the orphaned wisdom of our time. Or some of us could join one. With luck our most efficient and relentless planning might be unhinged by some other partner in the Mystery, our well meant scheming checkmated and life going on anyway.

All blessings on your wrecked plans and your hope-free days. And may it rain, should that serve.

Stephen Jenkinson

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