Growing concern over this season’s low-levels of snowpack in the Sierras has brought numerous comparisons to California’s lowest recorded snowpack in 1977. This summer we may be once more “under the sky that deafened from listening for rain” as Gary Soto wrote in his 1977 poem “The Drought.” Californians need to place drought literature at the top of their reading lists because it provides us knowledge of our past and visions for our future.
The Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton wrote, “man uses his old disasters as a mirror.” Natural disasters such as drought allow humans to see more clearly their relationship to Earth and its natural forces.
The classic American novel of drought is John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” which describes farm families fleeing the Great Plains’ Dustbowl in the 1930s with false hopes of an Eden in California. Steinbeck’s novel helps readers to see the environmental, economic, and human costs of drought and the great migrations that major droughts can cause.
The term “dustbowl” is increasingly being used to refer to California’s Central Valley. Former Inlandia Literary Laureate Gayle Brandeis recommends Alan Heathcock’s “Scenes from the New American Dustbowl” with photographs by Matt Black, published in the online magazine, Matter. Reminiscent of Steinbeck’s travel literature, the fiction writer Heathcock turns to nonfiction to tell the story of farmers along California’s Highway 99.
Drought drives home the value of water. Joan Didion’s essay “Holy Water” from her 1979 collection “The White Album” reminds us to reconsider the complex and distant sources of California’s water. Didion says, “the apparent ease of California life is an illusion, and those who believe the illusion real live here in only the most temporary way.” The megadroughts of prehistorical California, like the 240-year-long one that began in 850, make Didion’s words sound prophetic.
For the definitive history of water resources in the American West, read Marc Reisner’s “Cadillac Desert,” commonly described as an illuminating look into the political economy of limited resources. For a more in-depth look at the history of the Colorado River, which Reisner called the “American Nile,” read “Contested Waters” by water historian April Summitt of La Sierra University.
The Nebula and Hugo award-winning author Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Water Knife,” now available for pre-order, presents a near future dystopia where Nevada, Arizona and California fight over the water of the Colorado River. Early reviews describe it as a science fiction thriller with a realistic portrayal of an all too probable future.
“Water Knife” may also be classified as climate fiction, cli-fi for short. Climate change concern drives this emerging genre’s increasing popularity in literature and film. Often described as a cousin of science fiction, climate fiction typically focuses on the results of climate change in the present and near future. J. G. Ballard began the cli-fi genre with a trilogy of novels in the 1960s , including “The Burning World,” which tells the story of a global drought caused by industrial waste. The novel was later renamed “The Drought.”
Should we as humans see ourselves essentially in conflict with nature? Do Southern Californians misconstrue natural disasters “by a way of thinking that simultaneously imposes false expectations on the environment and then explains the inevitable disappointments as proof [of] a malign and hostile nature,” as Mike Davis argues in “Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster?”
The academic field of ecocriticism, which examines how nature is portrayed in culture, prompts careful rethinking about the relationship of humans to the environment. “Readers should ask how could individuals and societies inhabit their world more sustainably. Literature can help us articulate the dangers and imagine the solutions,” says Lora Geriguis, associate professor of English at La Sierra University and host of the Natures conference, which annually draws ecocritical scholars from around the world.
Children can also use literature to cope with drought. Larry Gerber’s “Adapting to Drought” gives readers in grades four to eight a basic understanding of the science behind droughts as well as suggestions of how to take action. They might also enjoy Karen Hesse’s Newberry Award winning free-verse novel “Out of the Dust” that tells the story of Billie-Jo trying to survive during the dustbowl years of the Depression.
Teens looking for something beyond the myriad of dystopian novels should check out “We Are the Weather Makers: The History of Climate Change.”
If drought worries you, crack open Ruth Nolan’s “No Place for a Puritan” to the excerpt from Mary Austin’s “The Land of Little Rain.” “If one is inclined to wonder at first how so many dwellers came to be in the loneliest land that ever came out of God’s hands, what they do there and why stay, one does not wonder so much after having lived there. None other than this long brown land lays such a hold on the affections.”