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Reflections On The Rain

Michael Hillman

Well its finally raining out. Thank God. Last month when the editors asked me for a humor article, I didnít have the heart to tell them that with our trees wilting, our fields brown, and the well dangerously low, humor was the last thing on my mind.

IĎll be the first to admit, Iím surprised at how my perspective on country living has changed over the past few months. Having grown up in the suburbs, water was never an issue. Depressing pictures of shriveled up crops, emaciated cattle, and dust storms were always over-shadowed by concerns over whether it was better to wash my car in or out of the shade.

However, when the first thing you see in the morning is your neighbor walking through shriveled up corn fields and the gardens you toiled over earlier in the spring is now only barren patches of clay, your perspective on what really matters in life changes. Suddenly that report youíve been working on for months doesnít really matter anymore. You come up with excuses not to attend meetings or take trips, dedicating the time instead to watering parched shrubs and wilted plants.

When I first toyed with writing an article about the drought, I had planned to open it with ĎOK, who in Emmitsburg pissed God off?í While that may sound sacrilegious to some, it nevertheless did appear that God had it in for us. I canít begin to count the number of rain storms that I watched pass south, north, and west of our farm.

While the gutters of the streets of Thurmont were overflowing, we baked in bright sunshine. As tourists rushed for cover from sudden downpours in Gettysburg, we hauled water. It was as if some invisibly hand was trying to send us a message. Clouds would roll in and over us, dumping their precious cargo just over the horizon, far enough away to be of no use, but close enough to be seen, as if to add insult to injury.

In spite of it all, we survived. Not only did we survive, but we survived something historic, a once in a hundred-years drought. In years to come, with wells once again flush, who among us will be able to resist the temptation to spin tall yarns about this drought?

The warning signs came early. Many of the old-timers expressed concern over the mild winter, rightly predicting a long dry summer. Those of us used to turning to the Weather Channel for forecasts paid these students of Mother Nature little heed until it was too late. The April showers that were supposed to bring May flowers, didnít. By June, the ground had turned so hard that even weeds were struggling to survive and many a weary eye was cast toward the sky. By the 4th of July, most ponds were bone dry, as were the small streams that crisscross the countryside.

While the loss of the surface water indeed impacted recreational activities, such as fishing and swimming, it was devastating to the wildlife -- some more than others. The great predator birds that hunt on the plains at the foot of the Catoctins simply had to beat their wings a few times more times. For the songbirds, the finches, the wrens and the blue birds however, locating water soon became a struggle for survival. The drought took its heaviest toll though on Godís creatures that rely on scales or legs to move. Timid snakes, who usually raced away at the sight of humans, ignored everything and everyone on their long, slow crawl to hopeful sources of water. By the time August rolled in, I would not have been surprised to see mice and other small pray, walk side by side with their nemeses in search of the one commodity they both needed.

The hardness of the ground prevented many a ground dwelling insect from reaching the surface. The cicadas didnít come to sing their song this year, nor did the frogs or just about any other creature that comprise the nightly orchestra. Nights were quiet, very quiet, too quiet, as if the land itself didnít know what to say.

Throughout it all however, people pulled together and not only helped one another, but also helped those that couldnít help themselves. Everywhere one looked, birdbaths appeared. And when it became apparent that one would not do, a second soon appeared.

Animals, which would usually have elicited fear and loathing, such as possums and groundhogs, were ignored and allowed to go on their way. Sometimes we even helped them in their search for water by the judicious placement of a bucket or old bowl filled with the precious nutrient.

Our understanding for the plight of animals was never so well demonstrated as on the day traffic came to a stop while a driver patiently wait for a mother possum to shepherd her young across a busy street. Obviously headed to a nearby pond, she frantically moved back and forth amongst her wayward charges, much as any mother would do. When she had successfully managed to get the last into the brush, she returned to the road and looked both ways, as if to thank us for our patience.

With a weary eye on low wells, many an individual followed an age-old tradition of hauling water from local creeks to nourish gardens and shrubs. It wasnít hard to imagine our forefathers one-hundred years ago leading horse drawn teams to the same spots where we now parked fancy new trucks. Where they would spend hours hand filling containers of every shape and size, we paced away the minutes as motorized pumps effortlessly filled huge plastic tanks.

In spite of our mechanical marvels, we still took the time to stop and talk to each other. Neighbors who barely new each other, soon where on a first name basis. Everywhere you went, the drought was the one universal link that bound us all together. We even laughed at the very thought of one day having to think of something else to talk about.

What, I wonder, could have been the conversations in those days gone by. While we fret over wells that are measured in the hundreds of feet, they fretted over hand dug ones measured in the tens of feet. While we fretted over the loss of shrubs and flowers, and some, over loss of entire crops, they fretted over the loss of long held family farms. In fact, the records do show that during the last great drought, many of the old names that had been fixtures in the area since the founding of Emmitsburg, disappeared. Like the growth of a tree after a drought, part of us died back then, replaced by new growth, new names, which eventually overgrew and hid the devastation brought by the last 100-year drought.

On our farm, as severe as the drought was, we only had one casualty -- an old silver maple. But it wasnít just any old silver maple; it was silver maple planted in 1925 by Jim Schealy. I often wondered, if he wondered, if anyone would remember who planted it. Yes Mr. Schealy, we do remember you, and we thank you for the trees that have shaded our home through these many years.

Next year, when the last of Mr. Schealyís mapleís goes to seed, Iím going to plant one near his grave. Thanking him for shading us through this long hot summer. Let it rain.

Read other stories by Michael Hillman