Rain, sweet rain

rainbow in South Dakota

Here on the short-grass prairie our “average” yearly precipitation is 13 inches. I put the average in quotes because it can be a whole lot less or a whole lot more, and the difference entirely defines the year for those of us laboring on farms and ranches.

All winter long, no matter how treacherous the weather, every time it snows, someone is bound to say: “Well, we need the moisture.” Once the snow melts, we immediately start worrying about drought. Elsewhere the saying goes: April showers bring May flowers. Here, it could be amended to: May showers bring HAY.

For two years in a row it didn’t snow and it barely rained. The fields were uniformly gray and brown; the prairie lay dormant, and the trees leaned listlessly in the dry wind. I’ve never wanted to live in the desert, but suddenly that seemed to be where I’d arrived. It was a long two years.

Then, in one 24-hour period last May, it rained four inches and the whole prairie changed overnight. We got only a little more rain the rest of the summer, but it didn’t matter. The grass grew tall. Our half-corgi pup, Jovi, would get lost in it, jumping up on his hind legs and yipping to try and find his way back to me when we took walks. The greenery in the draws was so dense and riotous they were almost impassable, and wildflowers we’d never seen before came into bloom.

“How is this happening?” I asked my husband.

“WHEN it rains is as important as how much it rains,” my husband replied.

It seemed unlikely we’d receive that kind of abundance two years in a row, but we had plenty of snow this past winter, so we knew we’d get a green spring. Once the moisture soaked in, however, the greening stalled. The prairie waited, thirsty, and we started checking the 10-day forecast every morning, hoping to see the rain cloud symbol.

Precipitation was predicted last week on several different days. In these parts that usually means it will rain one of the predicted days–if we are lucky. The first day of predicted rain came and .2 inches fell. “Not bad,” my usually stoic husband said with a smile.

The next night it rained again, but only about .1 inches. Still, it was better than dry wind. Thursday morning it started to sprinkle again. It was supposed to rain all day, so my husband stayed home from fencing only to have the rain stay south. By evening we were resigned that .3 inches might be it for a while, until, just before bed, it started to rain again, this time harder. I read bedtime stories in a near shout over as rain beat the roof and windows like a thousand hammers, thunder and lightning crashing right overhead.

Of course, I’m in the middle of lambing out my small flock, so when I got up at 1 a.m. to go check on everyone I discovered the rain had slowed to gentle showers, but was still steady. After walking through the little pasture and finding that no one was laboring, I stopped by to check the rain gauge. In the dim light from my cellphone’s flashlight, I had to squint and rub my eyes over and over to make sure I was reading it correctly. The next morning rising at dawn I thought it must have been a dream, but no, I hadn’t dreamed it — it had rained THREE INCHES!

And it kept raining. All told we got over six inches, almost half the yearly average in just a handful of days.

I’ll admit, checking on and worrying about the flock through approximately 50 straight hours of hard rain was not my favorite experience, but this morning the sun came out, and it was all worth it. The grass has already doubled its growth, the trees are fully budded out, and the flowering bushes are beginning the sweet-scented blossoming. Best of all, there will be enough for everyone to eat this summer and fall, and that is the sweetest gift of all.


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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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