By Ed Meek
The sense of loss that necessarily pervades Running Out is balanced is by Lucas Bessire’s lyrical prose, whose consistently crisp beauty serves as a welcome respite.
Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains by Lucas Bessire. Princeton University Press, 236 pages. $27.95
If the flood of articles, news, and books on the climate crisis have become overwhelming, a volume that is well worth concentrating on is Lucas Bessire’s Running Out, an eminently readable nonfiction narrative (a finalist for the National Book Award) about the author’s return home, to the plains where his father owns a ranch and farm that sits atop a body of water called the Ogallala Aquifer. This underground source of irrigation runs all the way from South Dakota and Wyoming, through Colorado and Kansas to Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. A fifth of the wheat, corn, cattle, and cotton in the US comes from farms and ranches in those states. And that source of water is running out.
Initially, Bessire traces his own roots five generations back in Kansas. Then the story focuses on his return to the family spread to confront what the townsfolk refer to as the depletion of the aquifer. At the same time, the writer attempts to patch up his relations with his father, who accompanies him on investigative visits to those who manage the irrigation and those who work the land. On this journey, Bessire explores the region’s history, taking note of our shameful dealings with Native Americans and wanton destruction of what was once a rich environment populated by millions of buffalo, antelope, wolves, and birds. He learns that “southwest Kansas is a front line of the global water crisis.” According to Bessire, “most of the major aquifers in the world’s arid or semi-arid zones are rapidly declining.”
An anthropologist by training, Bessire expertly examines what has brought the territory to this fateful point. Our attitude toward water turns out to be similar to our unbounded perspectives toward fossil fuels and animals and topsoil. It’s “drill baby drill” as Sarah Palin said, until the wells run dry. Running Out notes that “over a single three-year period between 1871 and 1874, between three and seven million bison were killed.” It turns out that 1872 was “the pivotal year for settler colonization in southwest Kansas.” Prior to that this was Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne territory. US troops were told to “kill every buffalo you can” because “every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.” Once the food source of the native tribes was eradicated, they could be herded onto reservations.
Fast-forward to our current era when “corporate profits are a key part of the aquifer depletion puzzle.” Bessire points out that “Southwest Kansas is home to some of the nation’s largest corporate feeders, beef and poultry-packing plants, slaughterhouses, dairies, milk-drying plants, and hog farms.” This includes massive feedlots of cattle, millions of hogs, plants that produce corn ethanol and bio-diesel. Businesses worth billions.
At the same time, the farmers and ranch owners are libertarians. “People have the right to do what they want with their land” a local rancher says to Bessire. Of course, this hands-off perspective is exploited by big business and the rich and powerful. In his book Up to Heaven and Down to Hell (Arts Fuse review), Colin Jerolmack shows how this belief aids and abets the devastating effects of fracking in Pennsylvania. Locals can make decisions that hurt the community, but neighbors are divided on whether it is within their power to dissent and demand ameliorative action.
In Kansas, the decisions regarding irrigation are made by the Groundwater Management District who, as representatives of the landowners, are committed to “a situation of controlled decline.” The emphasis of the GMD, however, is not on conservation but on business, and this emphasis often comes at the expense of water. There are some landowners who are attempting to cut back on water use, but they are in the minority.
The sense of loss that necessarily pervades Running Out is balanced is by Bessire’s lyrical prose, whose consistently crisp beauty serves as a welcome respite. “I stepped out of the barn in the cool morning…dogs wagged around my legs. Red cattle lazed by green tanks after watering. Songbirds trilled. Irrigation motors droned. The sun hung just above the eastern horizon. I felt its light warmth brush my skin.”
Running Out is also about Bessire’s return to his father’s ranch after leaving years before. He feels a sense of responsibility for the actions of his ancestors. He realizes that, as he was growing up, he had little idea of the damage that was being done. Like many of us, he is only now awakening to the effects of burning fossil fuels on our environment and our unwitting complicity in the pernicious process. It is the same epiphany that many are having about what systemic racism has done to Black Americans, or how destructive neoliberal policies have been on the working class.
Bessire does not see an easy way out of the mess we’ve made, but he finds inspiration in his grandmother’s struggle to develop as an individual and his father’s assistance in digging for information for the book. He wisely observes that “trying to respond to a planetary crisis begins with a critical reckoning with the terms of my existence, complicit and otherwise.” First, we must have the courage to face the grim reality of what we and others have done, and then figure out how to address it.
Ed Meek is the author of High Tide (poems) and Luck (short stories).