Creeping Drought

[I've been on the road, visiting an extraordinarily large number of relatives. Perhaps I'll philosophize on that and them in the context of "we are all getting older." But west Texas and Oklahoma just scream drought, so this first.]
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There is a great drought settling on the land. “We are looking at conditions that rival the dust bowl … earlier this year we were even drier than during the Dust Bowl.” That said by Jack Carson, spokesperson for the Oklahoma Agriculture, Food and Forestry Department. Oklahoma. Okies, get it? Leaving their lifeless farms for California during the greatest drought in recent U.S. history. Oklahomans should know a drought when they see one.

This quote was from a front-page story on the front page of the June 15, 2006 “The Oklahoman.” Even with such important placement, something about the headline just didn’t have the feel the sort of “big” story we have grown used to. It was, “Residents told to cut water use.”

So is this really a big story? Are the newscasts leading every night with “Worst drought in 75 years pounding southwestern states?” Not happening. Probably because droughts don’t pound. They creep and sneak up on you, faking you out with feints of little rain showers that barely dampen the ground, giving you false hope. Creeping, sneaking and feinting just don’t make hot news stories. Stories that go on over long periods of time test our patience and challenge the restless souls of journalists. Droughts are really long stories. A drought might not attain catastrophic impact until it has lasted several years, and even then the catastrophe happens in slow motion.

News is over-the-horizon radar. If it’s not “on the radar,” it’s not news. It gets on the radar by being “live” or at least extremely current, and usually things are changing fast. The radar screen is full of this kind of news, enough to fill the airwaves, the news pages, the Web and – heaven knows – the cable news channels, zipping around our brains so fast and so thick that we almost can’t see a slow-moving news story, no matter how big it is. In news biz think, it just doesn’t punch through the clutter.

Now, imagine yourself living on a farm well out from a small farm community in pre “electronic media” days and one that didn’t even have a weekly newspaper. No Web, no TV, no radio, no telephone, no telegraph and the only news was what you heard from your neighbors and fellow church goers and the occasional passing traveler. And the big city newspaper came by train a day after publication to a town three days away by horse and wagon. Basically the only timely and credible news was what you personally witnessed or heard about from a trusted (and nearby) acquaintance. This was the situation for a lot of people not so very long ago, say 150 years back. Great grandparents’ time for some of us.

Imagine that there is a great drought settling on the land. You know, because you are witnessing that it’s uncommonly dry at your farm. Several of your ponds and water holes have dried up and your cattle are suffering from the long walk they must take to reach the few remaining muddy drinking spots. Your crops are drying up and you worry that what you have stored from last year might not last until the next planting is harvested. The well you and many neighbors dug ten years ago has barely enough water in it to half fill the bucket every several hours. Things are so bad you are considering whether you might have to abandon your homestead and move to where the rain still falls. All of your neighbors are suffering the same fate.

Then a traveler comes through on horseback, traveling light and moving fast. He’s been “up north” only a few weeks ago and he is full of new (to you and your neighbors) information and willing to deliver the news in detail in exchange for a meal and a place to sleep for a night. There is still some news clutter. The traveler presents his newscast:

There might be a war soon in Europe. There’s a terrible diphtheria outbreak in New England. The federal Congress is going to put some new taxes on imported tobacco. Things are awfully dry everywhere he’s been so that things are “drying up and blowing away” all along his route of travel and a grass fire wiped out eight farms before it stopped at the almost-dry river.

Guess which event is the “lead story” to you and your neighbors. Which one gets the most questions and requests for elaboration?

These days, with the flood of news that’s almost drowning us, the big story is only occasionally the big story for more than today. Breaking!! news is frequently treated like it’s bigger than the genuinely big story. The drought story is not Breaking!!, but if we aren’t mindful it may actually break some of us.

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