It was sometime in the middle ’80s, and I was living in Boston and reading the New York Times more often than was good for me. The first pictures that came out 25 years ago are the same as they were this week. Ethiopia is once again a grim tableau of desiccated cattle skeletons framing families of sunken-cheeked parents and barrel-bellied children. There was no rain, no snow, no water. The drought had a grip on the countryside, and Addis Ababa was teeming with thugs, mystics, ad hoc communists, and warlords with very long memories. It was a cell in the capital or slow death in what had been until recently a bread basket of the Horn of Africa.
Some of us went there to do something, and we wound up sunburnt, profoundly pessimistic, and puzzled by the money and trucks agencies threw at us to somehow accommodate the unmanageable, the unthinkable.
There was only water far away from where you were. You had to go and get it every day. That was what people did; they got water somewhere and took it, in always-leaking goatskins, to the side of an old man dying or a woman giving birth. And then get up and do it again or, like millions, they walk. Walk west to Khartoum or Omdurman and hope the fabled camps that punctuate that trail of tears would provide some food, succor and, above all, a drink of warm water delivered by donkey men, all of whom it seemed to me, were venal, deaf to cries, and dumb when questioned. Empathy, concern, compassion: all were collateral damage in the unbelievable heat.
Everyone prayed in the drought. There were priests and witches and shamans and mullahs and even the odd rabbi leading a tribe into the heart of the Sahara and away from where they had been slaughtered, demonized, and scorned for a thousand years. They prayed in the long lines outside my office (a round mud, wattle, and camel shit little ziggurat called a tucal) and keened and ululated by the shroud maker’s hut. A grave was a pile of rocks and a hasty retreat by the mourners before the carrion birds swooped in to do their bit for the timeless ecological recycling and dispersal of nutrients over the endlessness that is Africa. The corpses of vultures were always found in dry wadis. After they had feasted and flown, the ugly birds needed a drink that was unlikely to be found.
Color is another casualty of drought. Everything that had grown above the earth, afforded shade and a measure of comfort, was all cut down long ago and turned into charcoal that cooked and heated the simplest fare that was sustenance and no more. I planted a hundred trees and hired fifty guards. That wasn’t enough.
It is, minus the sky, a monochromatic, redundant landscape. I started to daydream about the field at Fenway when you walk up the ramp to get slapped with color like Dorothy, newly a murderer, when she busts from the monotonous pallor of Kansas to the psychedelic promise of Oz, where the city seems to be made of color and little else.
On the Central Coast we are in the grip of drought, but we, like all the parched everywhere, find ways to watch and monitor the expenditure of that which we have always taken for granted with our flushing toilets, leisurely showers, and traditional landscaping. We will, in our way, spend more of our time and consciousness looking for water, sequestering it, and doling it out. We will buy trucks, and guys will drive around in them trying their best to do what only El Niño can or will. The “Little Boy” is, from what I understand, already largely in charge of our fate. Consider what we have named the phenomenon. What is more capricious, clumsy, and thoughtless than a young boy who only wants “dazzling action,” according to Pascal? The vast mess is brewing and warming out there and everywhere, and it’s bigger than anything else there is.
We will do all sorts of things because without rain, a healthy snowpack, and reliable reservoirs, we and everything else creep closer to the Lemmings Leap that falls, rather abruptly, into a dusty arroyo in the mean shadow of dead oaks.