Ogallala Road

The Ogallala Road; A Memoir of Love and Reckoning, by Julene Bair.  Viking, 2014.

I was delighted to discover this exceptional memoir about how powerfully our loved ones shape our lives, be those loved ones family members, lovers, or the land we call home. Here the prairie landscapes of western Kansas come alive in exquisite beauty, along with an unsettling concern for the future: the huge Ogallala aquifer beneath them is being pumped out at an alarmingly unsustainable rate to irrigate crops that could never be grown there otherwise.  It’s not a case of outside developers coming in to exploit the land’s resources, as happened in Appalachia, for example.  On the prairie the long-time residents who love it the most are responsible, whether they fully realize it or not, for robbing their descendants, and many species of indigenous wildlife, of a future there.

As I read I was reminded of another skillful and moving book I loved about the prairie ecosystem: PrairyErth, by William Least Heat-Moon.  But Julene Bair has the advantage of having grown up on the land she describes, telling the story as only a native can do.  She went away for some years, then returned to the farm with a young son to raise. She develops an environmental awareness that puts her at odds with the locals.  Later on, her family must decide what to do with their land after the patriarch dies, his son is ready to retire, and none of the younger generation wants to farm.

Bair combines the sensibility of a poet with an activist’s command of the facts, but neither side runs away with the narrative.  The prairie is not just a place on the map to her, but inhabits her mind and heart, allowing her to persuade readers to care more deeply.

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