Drought years teach stoic optimism

rainbow in South Dakota

This morning I woke to a flickering, tapping sound. My eyes creaked open to see the pearl-gray of first light seeping beneath the curtains. 

Everything looked as it should, but my ears still felt confused. Was that sound the scattering flight of birds? No, too rhythmic. Was it the settling sighs of our old house’s wooden joists? No, it was too consistent. Perhaps the clattering brush of branches brushing against the glass? Almost right, but there are no trees that close to the house. 

I stretched and turned to check the time. Whoa, almost seven? 

“That’s strange,” I thought. “That’s way after dawn, why is it still so dark?” And then it hit me. It was raining. 

Dry weather

After a lifetime spent in places where rainfall is plentiful, I was totally unprepared for the realities of living in an ecosystem where drought is common. Similarly, as a suburbanite and then urbanite, the rain was something I only thought about when dashing down city blocks, soaking wet because I’d forgotten an umbrella. 

The first few years I lived in the western Dakotas, rain was plentiful. Or rather, plentiful for this region, west of the Missouri River, where average precipitation is less than 13 inches annually. To me, having just migrated from Minnesota, it still seemed pretty dry, so I didn’t realize I was actually experiencing extraordinarily “wet” years. I liked it though. 

People living in the desert brag about their “dry heat” which isn’t nearly as hot as “wet heat.” I would argue the same is true of “dry cold.” Even when the temperature plummets to double-digit negative numbers here, I swear it doesn’t feel as cold as every single winter day in Minnesota. And the endless sunshine offsets the short winter days. 


The first few summers were also glorious, with just enough precipitation to keep the grasses green through July, at which point they ripened to gold, gleaming and brilliant against the bright blue of the rolling horizon. When we hit our first drought year since my arrival, I was a little surprised, but I’d been warned and took it in stride. 

When that year bled into a second, when our neighbors started selling off their breeding stock, when my normally unflappable husband became glued to the weather app on his smartphone, compulsively checking and rechecking to see if there was a rain cloud anywhere on the radar, I realized I didn’t know the first thing about living through drought. 

In the almost 12 years since I arrived here, I’ve now experienced several cycles of drought, but this past year has been the driest yet. Pastures we let rest all last summer still look overgrazed because nothing’s grown in so long. Business at the local sale barns was steady all winter — usually a slower time — as folks ran out of hay. 


Now that spring is upon us, and we’ve had barely more than a few inches of snow, sales are bigger than ever. A lot of people, us included, know they won’t be able to have anything out on grass until we get some substantial precipitation because there won’t be any grass. My husband’s already sorted off the cows he will have to sell if the weather doesn’t change soon. 

The morning rain on the window won’t necessarily reverse any of that. A few steady drops, enough to turn the top layer of dust back into dirt, isn’t going to give us a summer’s worth of growth. But it’s a start. 

Laying in bed, listening to the soft patter, I realized that living through drought — and the end of drought — has given me a stoic optimism that city life never could. Today might be the day this round of severe drought ends. Or, maybe it won’t end for another year. Either way, this rain means tomorrow there will be new green grasses where before there was only gray. 

I think of that now, imagine the roots drinking in the softness and awakening, just a little, to the world and all her possibilities. As long as there is green grass, there is hope.


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Eliza Blue is a shepherd, folk musician and writer residing in western South Dakota. In addition to writing her weekly column, Little Pasture on the Prairie, she writes and produces audio postcards from her ranch and just released her first book, Accidental Rancher. She also has a weekly show, Live from the Home Farm, that broadcasts on social media every Saturday night from her ranch.



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