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'The Ogallala Road': the water way of Julene Bair

"The Ogallala Road" is a new Viking Penguin book.
Courtesy of Viking Penguin

World Water Day is March 22, and a book about the journey of one water conservation activist would be quite appropriate.

"The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning", is a new book by Julene Bair. Bair finds herself in a time of life where she has developed an acute sense of place. She's Kansas born and bred, comforted by the high, very blue sky of the western high plains, and the small patches of grassland that remain. Yet her sense of place is expanded to her place in her family, her place in nature, and her place in history, and these are in conflict.

"There's an expectation to honor the memory of the people who worked so hard to make a living on the land," she said in a recent interview with Examiner. "But allegiance to family and society are different from an allegiance to nature. In order to make money from the land, we destroy it."

As one who opposes that destruction of the land for higher crop yields and more money, Bair is concerned with those who follow us in history. However, it's also clear in what she writes that she cares about what came before. When she sees the grassland and high sky, soon after she begins to recall the buffalo and Native Americans that were there.

These are truly a writer's sensibilities, and Bair does not disappoint. But her strongest connection of all is with water. "Perhaps because I grew up in a dry place, I have a deep and abiding relationship with water," she said. "My passion for mountain lake swimming has followed me throughout my life, and when I can have water and desert together, that's my sweet spot."

In order to use modern intensive farming methods in dry western Kansas, farmers like Julene Bair's father Harold have turned to irrigating extensively from the Ogallala aquifer, a large deposit of water underlying parts of eight states. This aquifer contains water deposited long ago, and isn't easily recharged. Much of this transition away from non-irrigated dryland farming took place during Julene Bair's childhood. "Dryland farmers are true artists in nurturing water in the soil. That's what made my dad who he was. Lack of moisture drove his day." A land swap during Julene's teen years changed that. Acutely aware of the depletion of the Ogallala aquifer, and her place in that depletion as a part owner of the farm after her father's death, Julene must face some decisions.

As the subtitle suggests, reckoning comes. The book is also about relationships, as so many successful books are, and the love that drives them. Love of the land, the people who are part of it, and the quiet, abiding love in familial relationships that are constant and yet broken. That story will be best told in Julene Bair's own words.