I call it “our drought” to stress its local nature and to distinguish it from widespread, long-lasting droughts in other parts
of the country and world that make last summer’s few weeks
of sparse precipitation here in western Maine seem a mere
drop in the drought bucket, as it were. Californians, who have
watched drought-fueled wildfires rage in their state, would surely be justified in dismissing our drought as an inconsequential
dry spell. But because we northern New Englanders often get
more precipitation than we want rather than too little, it’s not
surprising that a nearly rainless July and August with temperatures consistently in the mid- to high eighties evoke some notes
of discomfort, if not downright alarm.
Our drought this past summer was apparently serious enough
that newspapers felt obliged to write about it. The Bangor Daily
News ran an article headlined “Severe drought hits state for first
time in more than a decade” and informed readers that “Severe
Drought” was not a reporter’s impressionistic assessment of how
dry we were but was instead a classification from the National
Drought Mitigation Center. Severe Drought, on the Center’s
scale, ranks above Abnormally Dry and Moderate Drought but
below Extreme Drought and Exceptional Drought.
But measuring by what I could see around me here in
Temple valley, I would have given our drought a higher mark
than just middle-of-the-scale Severe. Granted, I wasn’t using
any scientifically certified instruments to measure the moisture
content of the soil, nor was I recording streamflow all over
Maine and comparing it to historical records. Granted, too, my
memory is not what it used to be, but from what I could recall, I
hadn’t seen a dry spell worse than this for many a year.
I could, for instance, walk across Temple Stream at a few
places behind our house and barely get the soles of my work
boots wet. When I poked a shovel down as far as it could go in
our usually rich, damp garden soil and turned it over, what I got
was stuff that looked and felt like brown talcum powder. Only
by constant watering – we had a well drilled years ago to back
up our dug well – could we keep our patch of lettuce and parsley
and chard and carrots, our tomatoes and basil and leeks thriving.
Deb, who has a vegetable stand at the outdoor market in
Farmington every Friday, fared a lot worse than we did. She lives
on higher land than ours and has a dug well that could just barely
keep supplying her and her garden with enough water to get by.
We didn’t lack sunny days for haying, but some first-cut
yields in our area were down 20 to 40 percent, and several
farmers decided the sparse, dried-up stuff left in their fields
wouldn’t make a second cut worth the trouble. The folks at
the U.S. Geological Survey’s Maine Water Science Center who
monitor ground-water levels in wells found the lowest levels for
July and August the Center had ever seen in the 30 years it has
been keeping records.
By Robert Kimber
All these dismaying figures cannot, however, be laid only at
the feet of a hot summer with below average rainfall. Last winter’s
measly snowpack was the real beginning of our drought. My
gauge for snowfall is how many times between December 1 and
May 1 our neighbor Ricky plows our driveway. Last winter he
had to come only twice, not his usual five or six times.
Finding silver linings in droughts is tougher than finding
them in clouds, but I suppose the number of mornings Ricky
could sleep a bit later last winter compensated him somewhat
– though I suspect not nearly enough – for his loss of snowplowing income. Similarly, our drought spared me the almost
weekly summer chore of mowing the lawn. By the end of July,
most of our scruffy carpet of grass and dandelions had shriveled
to a brown, bone-dry stubble, and in the few patches where it
was able to find enough moisture to keep itself greenish, it grew
so slowly the lawnmower and I had our most idle summer ever.
Still, that relief from lawn-mowing duty was a benefit that came
at too high a price. I’d gladly have given it up for the sight of lush
green grass and flourishing squash plants.
But chary as nature’s gods were in bringing us rain, they were
more than generous in drenching us with beauty. I suspect there
would be no way to prove a connection between our drought
and what seemed to me last summer’s especially rich evening
displays of sun-tinged clouds and the play of low light and
shadow working their art on the sky and on this little valley, but
as I sat looking out our kitchen windows at supper time, I took
what I saw as a good omen anyway – a sign of a first autumn
rain that might well come on a mid-September night, which it
did. Clouds lined with silver after all.
Really, though, when it comes to droughts, about the only
thing I feel I can be reasonably sure of is that Californians and
lots of other people in this world would be delighted to trade
their droughts for ours.
Robert Kimber has written often for outdoor and environmental magazines. He lives
in Temple, Maine.