I’m going to make a confession and I hope you won’t think less of me.
Occasionally – not all the time – but sometimes, when I’m in NYC, I let the water run while I brush my teeth. I watch the water run out of the tap and over my hand and watch it swirl into the sink and then I hold the toothbrush under it and think about how plentiful the water is there, where it actually rains sometimes.
There. I admitted it. Mea culpa.
I never, ever, do that in California. Here, I brush, brush brush until the end and then reward myself (and Dodger, that orange scoundrel of a cat, who is frequently perched at the edge of the sink waiting for a drink) just a trickle of precious water.
Because, in case you haven’t heard, we are in the midst of a multi-year drought. According to The Los Angeles Times, the National Weather Service confirmed this month that “the last five years have been the driest ever documented in downtown L.A. since official record keeping began almost 140 years ago”. I could have confirmed that by looking at our lawn. Well, what used to be our lawn. Dirt is the new grass:
Back in the day (think way, way back…) the beginning of summer was defined by the first day warm enough to wriggle into a swimsuit and race out to the yard to run through the sprinklers. This was in the Midwest, where we were surrounded by rivers and lakes and winter blizzards and torrential summer storms that frequently sent us scurrying to the basement on tornado watch. We were too poor to have a swimming pool, but we neighborhood kids felt rich as Croesus – whole afternoons spent on the back lawn racing back and forth through the oscillating wave of droplets, skidding until our knees were stained green with the sopping wet, matted grass. We watched the summer heat rise, simmering, through the rainbow prisms spun from the backyard sprinkler. Low tech fun. We were also sometimes allowed to run wild through those summer rainstorms, complete with thunder and lightning, so it’s possible some benign neglect was involved. Angels watched over us. Great memories.
Honestly, I never gave a second thought to water. It was on that list of things I used to take for granted, a list that seems to get shorter every year. Civil discourse got checked off a while ago. “Public safety” has become an oxymoron. A dear friend who suffers from asthma reminded me the other day she can’t justify having “breathing” on her list.
As our fifth summer of drought unfolds, “water” has long been struck from my take-for-granted list. My morning walks are dustier and dryer than ever. Fire is an ever present danger, especially in the early evenings when the Santa Ana winds kick up. We hear sirens wailing in the distance and brace for bad news.
I watched a coyote trot down the street the other day – in their quest for food and water (and for my chickens!) all semblance of their sequestration from humans has disappeared. I had to admire the way his brindle coat blended in perfectly against the dull brown landscape of our drought-parched neighborhood. He was very thin. I actually felt a momentary pang of sympathy for the predator.
The coyotes, with their camouflage and their tenacity, will survive this tribulation. But our lawns are gone, we’ve lost at least one tree, and the CE is frantically trying to juggle the Solomonic decisions about what remains of our landscaping.
That is the paradox of California. So bountiful: according to Slate.com, the state is responsible for the lion’s share of our national produce: “99 percent of artichokes, 99 percent of walnuts, 97 percent of kiwis, 97 percent of plums, 95 percent of celery, 95 percent of garlic, 89 percent of cauliflower, 71 percent of spinach, and 69 percent of carrots (and the list goes on and on).” And yet so thirsty. In East of Eden, John Steinbeck’s epic love letter to the Salinas Valley, he wrote about the two faces of California:
“I have spoken of the rich years, when the rainfall was plentiful. But there were dry years, too, and they put a terror on the valley.”
There is a terror now on the valley. And in the mountains. And along the coast. Our sprinklers went on a few mornings ago, that meager ration allotted just to keep a few things alive. I was momentarily transfixed; enthralled by the sound of that trickle of water spitting out to keep our box hedge alive. A sound so rare, so enchanting, I could not step away, literally drinking in the sound of water in the pre-dawn light. Joni Mitchell, in a typical stroke of genius, called it the hissing of summer lawns. How I would love to lay on a lawn of green, green grass and listen to that sound.
I daydream about rain, and about planting the dahlias and foxgloves that used to frame our entryway. Perhaps a crop of milkweed in the back for Monarch butterflies. More fuchsias for the hummingbirds. Maybe someday there will be water in our fountain again and I will hold my hands under the flowing water and sit with my eyes closed and listen to it for hours and hours. And I will take nothing for granted.