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  • Dry Days
  • Tom Haines (bio)

#VQRTS, #VQRTrueStory, nature, national park, environment, climate change, drought, ecosystems, animals, growth, Great Plains

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[End Page 12]

Great Plains

Purple petals struggle for survival in the grassland of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, as wild a place as remains in the prairie. Beneath the flower's slender stalk, the ground is brown and barren. This spring saw the most intense drought so far this century in North Dakota.

Mule deer, flourishing after a mild winter, wander on thin earth. Ducks, which turn to pothole ponds each spring, choose not to mate. Not a single seasonal hole holds water. Mallards, the most populous breed on the plains, give birth at less than half the rate of the year before.

Cyanobacteria, blue-green algae, lurks at the edge of dried basins. The algae's toxic blooms threaten wildlife and livestock. In farmers' fields, seeds don't sprout. Durum wheat, soybeans, flaxseed, canola, and peas die in dirt.

"It ain't gonna grow in the bins," one farmer says. "We've got to put it in the ground and hope the good Lord will turn the spigot on."

Through May, almost no rain. Hard to fathom in a landscape carved by the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, and buoyed by underground aquifers, that water could get this scarce this fast. The last time the place dried severely, fifteen years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers lowered artificial lakes to reinforce hydroelectric power for the region. When the natural cycle breaks, so too does so much built upon it. Wildfire sparks and spreads: 156 square miles burned in more than 1,400 blazes.

On some June afternoons, rain sifts down in fits, but not enough to nourish roots. When it does eventually arrive in force, water will likely fall too heavy, too fast, flooding. Meanwhile, in the dry air, the flies bite.

So, not far from the staggering flower petals in the preserved pasture, bison wallow. It is a natural habit of the species; the big beasts stomp and roll, trying to soothe bitten skin. This summer, though, there is too much dust. The bison, thirsty too, turn toward blue sky. [End Page 13]

Tom Haines
Tom Haines

Tom Haines, author of Walking to the Sun (ForeEdge, 2018), is a journalist and an associate professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, where he serves as director of the undergraduate journalism program.



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