Back in early June, when 100-plus highs were already passé, two farmers were talking about trees.
“This could be one of the worst die-offs in Texas history,” said one of them as he surveyed the thinning tops of an old stand of hackberries.
“Worse then the 50s?” challenged the other.
“Well, I wasn’t around then, but some of these trees were,” he answered.
One of those trees offers shade to Bobby Barton’s old general store in Utley. The 200-year-old post oak is so stressed its more gray than green. A big cedar had fallen over in his front yard. The dying hackberries were too numerous to count.
Barton, whose family has farmed for five generation here, recalled many a horse and wagon backing into the tree during the years his parents ran the general store and post office until 1967. That was the year his mother retired and his father locked the door for good, leaving everything inside frozen in time.
Trees are kind of like that store. Their history is stored inside their trunks. Droughts, fires, floods, good years and bad – all are preserved in their tell-tale growth rings. And if they grow very big or very old, they become monuments to human history, too. Some of the photos of ancient Texas trees currently on display at the Texas Capital Visitors Center’s “Living Witness” exhibit were the site of Indian treaties, famous speeches, marriages, and historic meetings.
One can only wonder if they will survive this historic drought.
Each morning as the farmer drives out to his farm in Bastrop, he notices more patches of brown and gray across the landscape. In fields that are overgrazed, he notices greater die-off, as if the bare brittle ground has created its own heat-island effect. Whole ridge tops have lost their green canopy, a scale of decimation he has not witnessed since the great gypsy moth invasion of the Eastern forests in the 1970s.
After months of struggling to keep his vegetables alive, the farmer has cut the season short and plowed in most of his crops. The season has been as bad as 2009, maybe worse because he still hasn’t recovered from that ordeal and now he’s saddled with a nagging fear, resignation even – this may be only the beginning of something long and infernal, like the notorious 50s.
Or worse. Climatologists call it aridification: the slow yet steady creep of desert-like conditions. Long-term projections predict that Central Texas is headed in that direction. Flying to Dallas recently, the farmer pressed his face to the window and stared down at vast stretches of parched land. He felt slightly horrified. The land looked dead from up there, not just brown but huge swaths that were gray, the color of decay. Was aridification already here to stay?
Each week as customers come to the farm to pick up their vegetables, they share his concerns. How are you growing anything? Did you get that shower the other day? Isn’t this a little scary?
The farmer nods and says he’s thankful to have fulfilled the expectations of his customers. The end of each vegetable season promises a new beginning, a clean slate and a revived hope that the weather will change come fall.
For the dying trees, a new beginning is harder to envision. Surely, the dead make room for the living; young saplings are greeted with sunlight where once there was only shade. But for now and the near future, the farmer will be surrounded by ghostly trunks and fallen limbs. Many of these big trees have become like friends and he’s not ready to say goodbye. So he does what any farmer is inclined to – turn on his pump and send water their way. His contribution amounts to a trickle compared to what used to come from above, but he feels a little better for having tried.