Every Drought Ends with a Good Rain

Goose Creek October 2008
Image by fred1st via Flickr

This selection is from Slow Road Home, written in August 2002, a lament during one of the worst droughts in living memory for the old-timers who live in our part of Floyd County. Hundreds of wells went dry that year. We’ve never since seen the creek dry up completely. But it’s getting mighty low, and we’re concerned, but hopeful.

The cool breeze is welcomed today, a respite from the unrelenting heat of summer. But the wind and sun are also the enemy because they carry away what little moisture remains in the pasture grasses, forest and creeks. More than that, even the underground waters that are the source of streams like Nameless Creek are silently ceasing to flow. More water has evaporated from tree and soil to the thin clouds overhead than has fallen from sky to earth during the past three months.

No current moves the surface of the creek, though minnows still stir the shrinking pools in a claustrophobic frenzy. They struggle to find edible specks in what little water remains in the shallow depressions here and there along the drying creek bed. We are in the midst of a sad and awful drought. There is a tendency to take the malice of this dry, parched weather personally, but we should keep the cycles of nature in perspective.

Our valley is a tiny crease carved by water in the more recent stages of Appalachian mountain erosion. The core of the Blue Ridge formed nearly a billion years ago when land masses collided, lifting up a massive bulge of fire-hardened rock. It is difficult to conceive now that these green and gentle mountains began as a rocky dome, higher and more craggy and hostile than today’s Rockies.

Millennia passed like seconds on nature’s clock, and water in unbelievable floods has worn away the old rock, one granite grain at a time. Time and water have done their work and smoothed away the roughness of these old mountains. Fragments of those ragged summits of stone now lie in pasture rock-conglomerate, beach sand and delta soil. All that remains of that former high magnificence are these soft and rounded, green, moist and water-worn remnants we call our Appalachian mountains.

One has only to dig down a few inches over by the barn to know that river cobbles by the tens of thousands have been left there in the sandy soil, washed long ago down Nameless Creek, whose waters meet Goose Creek not a hundred feet from where I sit.

These two creeks tumbling down from those ancient mountaintops have cut against the resistant rock of the east ridge of our valley, then the west, then back again–each time widening the valley floor by imperceptible inches in hundreds of years–an unthinkably long time to our mortal perspective, a flash of time in a million years of eternal wind and sun, frost and floods.

Floods are cataclysmic, sudden, drastic and evident in their consequences. Drought like this is chronic and insidious. It drains life invisibly, quietly, leaving no record in the sands of geology’s time.

But it is an abundance of water that has carved the hollow of the creek bed and made the valley wide–not water’s absence. It is an abundance of water that has nurtured the broad-leaved forest that covers these mountain hillsides and allowed them to persist in this leafy biome. Drought has not formed this landscape, and it seems reasonable to have hope that it will not subdue it now.

We will miss the rains for a few more weeks, for maybe one more season, or two. But we must learn to see the cycles of wet and dry as the land sees it, and be patient. If history is any lesson, water will tell the story.

Note: This appeared in last week’s Floyd Press, while things were still dangerously dry. I just checked the rain gauge in the garden: 3.75 inches. And it’s still falling, still soaking in more than running off–the sustained, mostly gentle rain we’ve been needing. And contrary to my fears yesterday when the creek was going up so fast, we WILL be able to get across the creek on the board (which we rescued before it was swept downstream) to tend the &$#!! chickens. 

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I was just reading that entry last night in my new book!

    I’ve really enjoyed the book so far as it is a dream of mine to be able to move up to the mountains. I was really happy to see it was even signed!

    It sounds like you guys agot a lot more rain than we did down here in S. Carolina. Hopefully we can get rid of this drought too.


  2. I’m happy that you’ve gotten rain. We are so dry they don’t even mention drought anymore. I wonder – at what point do you stop saying we’ve “below average rainfall for the year” and switch the averages to reflect what is going on a 20 year shortage?