Woman in Levi's

Eulalia Bourne

Chapter 11

Under The Weather

A poet (Paul Hamilton Hayne, in "A Storm in the Distance,") wrote these lyrical lines:

The leveled lances of the rain
At earth's half-shielded breast
take glittering aim.

I saw a rain like that one time. It was lovely. It was twice lovely, because it was mine, the whole wonder and sweep of it falling almost exclusively on our little place, and nobody was out in it but me.

At this rain view of a lifetime, I had a loge seat in a great balcony overlooking the countryside for miles around. I had seen the skyful of clouds gather into one dark mass heading directly up our canyon. And although you can never be sure until it starts pouring down, it appeared that we were to be blessed with a widely-scattered shower, the only summer kind we get in the semiarid Southwest. I hurried my horse in an effort to get home, batten down the hatches, and give welcome to the rain. It outraced us. At the crest of the high ridge on the south side of the canyon, (the vantage viewpoint of our whole ranch on Pepper Sauce), I stopped my excited pony, who wanted to get to shelter before the rain began pounding his head, and watched the rushing storm-if a passing shower can be so designated.

Ahead of the dark blue cloud, a strong swift wind came roaring like a motorcycle vanguard crying: "Make way! Make way for Rain!" My horse refused to face it, so I grabbed my hat and half-turned in the saddle to watch the sublime display of the rain god putting on his first act of the season. Just as the curtains tore apart for the downpour, the sun broke through a rift in the western clouds to turn the dashing raindrops to silver, filling the wide, deep valley before me with millions of glittering lances, each separate and distinct, each, memory insists, at least a thousand feet long and coming in at a slant. I gloried in the sight. All rains in this country are wonderful, but this one took the prize.

My protesting pony tossed his head and stamped his feet when the heavy raindrops rushed up the hill to strike us, and I loosened reins to let him have his way down the steep trail. We rushed through the wind and the rain and the fresh aroma of damp earth, and the splashing drops pelted the ground and bounced up again in fine spray. In quick glances I saw far below me the tossing branches of the trees around the red-roofed cabin, and the tall, swaying stalks of the green cornpatch in the backyard. By the time we reached home, the shower had passed on, to lose itself in the clouds and mists of the high mountains up the creek. Behind, it left a world refreshed and sparkling clean. All the little gullies ran red with muddy water that broke into high waves over the rocks, and a dark flood roared between the canyon's steep banks and high ridges for perhaps an hour.

This memorable shower came before a drought cycle set in and the world of our great (mostly underground) river dried up. That summer the canyon ran moderately--not disastrously--every Friday for five weeks. There was plenty of water in the well down in the creek bed. All the hills were green with root grass. All the cholla flats were green with six-weeks grass. And the cattle were fat and contented-in spite of the tormenting hordes of flies hatched out by the dampness. That was a good year.

Nobody yet knows what vast atmospheric connivances and disturbances bring good rainy seasons to western plains, mountains, and deserts. Nobody knows how or why a drought begins, or what makes it hang on to become a disaster. The fact is that we still know very little about weather, particularly the sources of life-giving rain. In geography classes, we point out the pictures in the texts and go to the board to draw crude outlines of the water-cycle: the arrows showing evaporation up to the cold layer of air where the moisture gathers and condenses into nimbus clouds which, as more arrows show, return to earth as precipitation. The pupils listen, fascinated. They know well the value of adequate rainfall. They take in the logical words and the simplifying pictures. Then a bright one's mind starts to work.

"But why, Teacher, why does it quit? Why doesn't the water-cycle go on working so that we get rain every summer when we need it?"

Well, I tell them the bit about the horse latitudes, and the gimmick about the mountains knocking down the clouds before they get over the hump to us, as they sometimes do, and-oh, well, never mind. Learn the states and capitals.

It is a pity we know so little about weather. We know what weather does, and how to use it when it is behaving right, but we do not know what it is. We know we have good seasons, and, more often, bad seasons; but what causes them is still a mystery. Now and then we get hints such as the ill winds that ravage the populace and property of the southeastern American coasts as hurricanes, blowing us good, by whirling moisture into the dry Southwest on the outer fringes of their fury. But generally, we know so little about air masses we do not even know for sure why they move from west to east.

Right after World War II, in which weather study and weather forecasting played so vital a part, both science and industry (agricultural especially) were vividly awakened to the latest development in meteorology, and in experiments being carried on not only to forecast weather accurately, but to control weather---how about that! Ranchers, talking together or writing to their newsletters and other publications, were excitedly interested. What if scientific (or artificial) rain-making should really come to pass? What? Elysian fields right here on our bare rockpiles? At least there might be a little something going on that it would pay to know about. The less conservative, nothing-ventured-nothing-gained ranchers in our-dried-up rangeland joined forces, each according to his means, and gambled on the idea of cloud-seeding, sometimes called cloud-milking. I was the only non-masculine member in the deal, and not one of the most hopeful, and probably not one of the most welcome. But was there a choice? Right in the middle of the most progressively daring group, I couldn't let them say the woman had chickened. I eked out my ante. And lost. I didn't get a drop in the new dirt reservoir the federal government so generously scraped out on the waterless half of my state-leased land.

There were clouds. Everybody said: "I never saw so many clouds and so little rain." No doubt the young civilian pilot hired by the association buzzed them according to plan. He kept records and charts of his cloud-spraying activities. And I heard one man (whose ranch was across the mountains) say that he saw the plane fly into a big white cloud which immediately darkened and settled down to rain.

The experiment, however, could not be called a success. For the next few years, there were newspaper reports of cloud-seeding over many parts of the West. But apparently it was too soon. More research was needed.

Rain is the difference between having a ranch and going broke, as plenty of experienced men who were raising cattle in the twenties can tell you. In those days, when it quit raining and prices fell to nothing, many a good cowman had to give up and get a job as dude-wrangler or peace officer. A grand old fellow known to all in this area, a legend in his own lifetime for his champion roping skills and his long service as sheriff of a neighboring county, told me of having to sell out his ranch. Too many dry years sent the prices down to nothing. He borrowed money and fed what he could. Still it didn't rain. He borrowed more money and sent his cows off to distant pastures. But nothing paid off. It meant ever more borrowing as the long drought held. Finally, creditors found a buyer and sold him out for just enough to pay up. "I woke up one morning," he said, "broke-without a cow to my name-but happy. I didn't owe airy son-of-a-bitch a dime in the world."

Times have changed. Things do get better here on earth in spite of communism, imperialism, pro-and-anti-socialism, unionism, corporationism, conservatism, automationism, ignorantism, and plain old stubbornism. As proof, consider the disaster of drought and how its death-dealing sieges can be counterattacked in the present day. It is true that ranchers, living on hope, take chances when they should know better. Before they take over a range, they can ride across it and see signs that little rain falls there. The flora tells the story. Cactus and stunted bushes shield the bareness in areas of meager rainfall. But grass, very good grass, grows under and around these hard-bitten plants when it happens to rain. When nothing has eaten this grass and Indian wheat and filaree for two or three years, a covering mat of dried sprigs looks tempting enough to the cowman (or fool woman) to take a chance on. What if it is a dry season? "It will rain again. It always has."

When it doesn't, and the feed is short, he sells some of his herd if it has rained enough in other parts to keep up the price for cattle. When it still doesn't rain, and a dry winter comes after a dry fall after a dry summer after a dry spring-and perhaps even after a dry preceding winter-all is not lost. He can feed. And keep on waiting.

Dry years used to mean certain death. Some forty years ago the Uncle had a little bunch of cows on his river place. During a serious drought, eighty-two of them starved to death. On the big ranch west of my homestead, old-timers have told me, cattle died that year in such numbers you could walk all around a waterhole on their dead bodies without touching the ground.

Now, thanks to the availability of cottonseed meal (Arizona has many thousands of acres of irrigated cotton fields), and to the success of experiments on new mixtures for feed, the vagaries of the weather are somewhat less critical. With "Booster mix," also known as "cake," "range booster pellets," and "booster cubes," large numbers of cattle can get enough protein and minerals to sustain them in tough times, with what browse and cactus they can get for roughage. The "booster" feeds will not fatten, but will keep the cows in good enough shape to live and bring forth calves.

I have never had a cow die of hunger, but I have seen, others' cows that did. Some self-made cowmen do not believe in interfering with nature when it costs money. They take their losses, and make them up in other ways. They do not have my chicken heart. When I see a cow starving I suffer with her. Before the salt-meal mix was concocted and sold in feed stores, I had some cows one dry summer that hung around before my eyes threatening to die if I didn't feed them. I fed them. I sold my diamond rings and bought cottonseed cake and hulls, which were very expensive. Of course it didn't take long to come to the end of my diamonds, but Old Lize and Old Dulce and their pals held on until it rained.

It is possible now to prepare for dry times, because weather forecasts (compliments of our federal government and accurate perhaps eight times out of ten) are obtainable by all. Not too long ago, long-range forecasts could be had only by those with cash to pay certain meteorologists who ran their own private services. And not too long ago, radio stations threatened to quit broadcasting weather reports unless enough listeners wrote in to make them feel it worthwhile. A few times I bought a dozen postal cards and forged the names of friends and neighbors, hoping to keep the good words on the air.

Living on a ranch, if you miss the weather report your day is ruined. Yet, even as you listen--"mostly clear today and tomorrow with little change in temperature"--you don't take the prediction at face value. You hope it's wrong. Sometimes it is. The wind can change. The clouds come up fast. And somewhere it may shower. Seldom where you want it, of course. Your outfit is too small a target for Old Jupiter Pluvius, who is blind as a bat, anyway. For the first week or two of the season of hope (beginning about San Juan's Day, June 24) you look up as you go about your tasks and see a shower curtain trailing somewhere along the slopes of the wide Valley or along the mountain rims. Somebody is getting it; some poor old cows will be benefited. Maybe tomorrow, maybe someday, it will be your turn.

Weeks go by. You see the clouds come up every day, gather, and toss off a shower up the river or down the river. Your place is still dry as a powder house. The cows fall off. The ground parches. The stunted growth shrinks to gray, bone-dry sprigs. Nothing to do but wait and hope, and get a "crick" in your neck from watching the fruitless skies.

Then it rains right up to your pasture fence and quits at the gate. That's too much! There's no sense in personal malice from the rain gods. "Not fair!" you cry, knowing how silly you are, for the only gleam of justice in the whole universe is that which feebly glows in the mind of man. Nevertheless, the injustice stabs like a knife. You get in the pickup and leave the place, half-superstitiously hoping that if you aren't there to watch, a little puckish cloud may dash in and give you a surprise break. Returning, you pass through two or three cool refreshing showers and try not to get your hopes up. It's bound to be dry at home. You're right. And it's hard to take.

One wretched summer day I was down at the Windmill tending the hungry cattle. I watered the little patch of Johnson grass in the shanty yard while the cows ate their daily ration of range booster, filled up on water and fresh air, and started to lie down in the shade to rest until the shank of the evening. Then I saddled my pony and undertook, with a long, homemade whip, to drive the stubborn critters north along the fence trail a couple of miles to where they might find a bite of something edible which had been overlooked before the feeding period began.

The pep-less cattle were hard to move. They wanted to stick around the water and be spoon-fed. As I poked along, yelling at the cattle and lashing the drags, I saw lightning flashing in the near distance and heard the roll of thunder ever nearer. Glancing over my shoulder I noticed the clouds thicken and come together in violent electric crashes. I wasn't a bit afraid of being caught out in a storm. It had been too long since I had had any intimate knowledge of rain.

But when the wind sprang up I stopped to take notice. The heavy, dark blue clouds were in the south, upriver, and seemed to be moving rapidly in our direction. The cows stopped when I did, and stood motionless on the high, flat ridge about a mile from the windmill, seeming to wait, as I did, for what looked like a sure thing. How could it miss? It was almost up to the south border of our range.

"Come on! Come on!" I shouted hopefully.

I could see the rain pouring down in dark sheets, and smell it, and now and then feel a little lost droplet land on my hand or face. This time it was really coming....But, no, even as I stood in the saddle and leaned to meet it, the storm veered left and rushed off down to the river in a real gully-washer, leaving us high and dry.

I sat back in an agony of frustrated hope and made a fool of myself screaming harsh curses at the indifferent clouds. The trail hugged the wire fence, and I was stopped right beside a thick mesquite post. Crying and yelling at the top of my voice, I hauled off and gave the post a mighty kick. Good heavens! Down it fell flat, having rotted at ground level, and five more tumbled after it like ninepins. In a matter of seconds the ridge was fenceless. The other side belonged to a retired border official who took a dog-in-the-manger attitude about the tall, dry grass that covered that part of his ranch where no cattle of his could run because it was too far from his water facilities. Now, owing to the fury of a strong wind and a woman's kick, his hoarded grass lay unprotected.

The thirty-odd cows and calves and yearlings I had been driving along the bare side of the fence were as astonished as I, but they did not remain long immobile. A cow I called Old Big Dollar-she had a large, round, red spot on her jaw-tentatively stepped over the first wire of the supine fence, then the second, then the third-and there she was where she had been longing to be all summer, in grass up to her knees. In a moment, the rest of the herd were all around her and in front of her, their heads bogged down in grass. It wasn't green grass, but it was headed out and very filling. It would have taken two good cowboys with swinging ropes to whip them back across the fence and prop it up again. And after all, Old Meanie was getting a good rain and my hungry cows had only got tantalized.

For the wealthy, such as my uncompromising neighbor, there are no sure calamities except death and taxes. They need fear no natural disaster--even a long-drawn-out drought. Cattle to them are collateral. They haven't hand-raised them for three or four bovine generations, so individuals don't matter. If a drought hits their range, they can sell their livestock and let the land rest for a comeback. The owner of a purebred Hereford ranch where I buy bulls told me that in thirty years he had dried-up and sold all his cattle on three separate occasions. Or with money enough they can drill deep wells along stream valleys and clear the land and raise adequate feed from irrigated fields. Usually they are ranching for some reason besides making a living: maybe for adventure, or health, or even for business speculation, since western land has appreciated in value at enormous rates in the last decades.

But for us who are in the livestock-raising business the hard way, and must either make it pay or get tin bills and peck with the chickens, there's nothing to it, but to gamble on rain.

What are the odds? What is our average annual rainfall?

A neighbor with a good rain gauge and a range nearer the mountains than mine kept careful account for eight years. According to his records, the best year for volume of measured rain was 1951 with 23.85 inches; the poorest year provided 9.97 inches; the average for the eight years was 17.08 inches.

But as important as the amount that falls is the spacing of the rains. One good year there was only 12.82 inches of rain, yet it was so well spaced that in July he noted: "Grass is as good as I ever saw it this time of year. Plenty of tank water." At the year's end he wrote: "Rained good until September, then turned off dry and did not rain any more. Fair feed, but calves very light." For 1950 he wrote: "Calves fifty pounds light. Water situation terrible." Yet July had given him five inches and started good feed: it was not followed up with August and September showers. His best year for volume he summarized: "Very good grass year. Water situation improved, but not good. Much of rainfall day-by-day light showers quickly evaporating."

The best year for distribution of rainfall had 5.35 inches in July, 2.63 in August, and 2.25 in September. The summary for the year reads: "Very good grass year. Cattle all fat and weighed good. As a whole the best in a good many years." The last year of the record was summed up as: "Most rainfall in July and August that we have on record. Good grass and water everywhere. But cattle not fat. Insignificant moisture in September, so that the grass did not have the strength to it."

Then came the great drought of 1956, when cattlemen met in distress and petitioned governors to request the U. S. Department of Agriculture to declare disaster areas. The federal government came to our aid. I bought barley for one-third of its price, the USDA paying the remaining two-thirds.

Evidently that year discouraged my neighbor, for rest of his nice big record book is empty.

Thus it can be seen that "average annual rainfall" in a dry country, as with most other averages, is non-existent. We are supposed to have two rainy seasons a year. Winter-spring lasts from November to April. The summer season, (of late years generally called our Southwestern monsoon period by local newspapers) is July-August-September, and the greatest of these is September. Whatever green growth may have sprung up from early spotted showers will burn to paper-like fibre without the enriching late summer moisture. Our growing season usually lasts well into November in the southern part of the state.

Rain is a touchy subject in this country. In the "spotted showers" season, ranchers meet, and tactfully, sympathetically inquire about each other's rainfall. There are among us some who might be called rain-worshipers, so excessive is our reverence for pennies from heaven. An early September story that once appeared in the Wickenburg Sun (a weekly newspaper published in the heart of good Arizona ranch country) led with this paragraph from the typewriter of a reporter who knew his public:

"A marvelous, wonderful, stupendous, colossal and superb storm started pouring rain on the parched earth at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday and continued the downpour for two hours."

All in cow country will now please rise and shout: "Give that feller a Pulitzer prize!" For imaginative and accurate reporting of the news as it deserves to be reported, he merits more than pleasant smiles. I hope the ranchers in his area at least bought him a new hat.

Copyright © 1967;. The Arizona Board of Regents.

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The University of Arizona Press, 2/2/97 2:07PM