In 1988, the Twin Cities went six weeks without rain, from mid-May to the early July. Usually June is one of our wettest months. We had bought our 1912 house several years before; it was bare of greenery except for a boulevard Ash Tree. I was appalled: I grew up in South Carolina where lush foliage shades everything. The only grassy swards in Charleston were parade grounds: pebbled Marion Square in front of The Old Citadel where we lived in former barracks which looked like a medieval castle, and the new Citadel’s parade ground where we watched Citadel cadets fall into faints from the heat. Our Saint Paul house needed softening to make me believe it was home. I started planting trees: two silver maples in the back, a white pine seedling at the rear of the property, blue spruce seedlings front, side and back, and in the front a Russian olive and a sunburst Locust.
New trees need regular watering for the first five years of their lives, the kind of coddling we give our children until they run away and start their own kind of trouble. Day after day blue impenetrable skies sailed across, and the nights were clear and starry. Once a few huge drops splattered the back deck: coins I wished I could spend on inches of rain. Instead I turned the hose to low flow, and moved it every day to a different tree. The water bill mounted. A watering ban was instituted already in the suburbs.
Day after day, the grass browned; I kept watering the trees. Though exhausted, I could not let a single tree die. Each tree had become a living thing, a member of my family, a part of myself. Eventually I began collecting rinse water from the basement wash, lugging pails of water out the cellar door to the yard. One pail took care of a single small tree and I had, let me see, nine new trees, plus the boulevard Ash, which of course became “my tree,” not the city’s. A pail of water was sufficient to get a fledgling tree through half a week of heat and drought, but the big Ash needed a slow hose for at least an hour a week. Plus I had planted various perennials, and pots of annuals–for color in front and back: pink, red, lavender impatiens; deep purple petunias, reminiscent of my North Dakota grandfather’s porch where their scent signaled lazy summer afternoons playing with my dolls; and spiky poker plants.
I’m not a hefty sort; little upper-body strength. I could barely carry the pail of water up the cellar steps and out into the yard. But I was obsessed and determined. My love for the trees grew as boulevards, yards, parks around me scorched. It’s never been so bad since, though over the last decade rainfall in the Twin Cities has run lower by six inches than “normal.” Yet rain has never been as persistently absent as it was in 1988.
That drought taught me attention and conservation. Though I surely used more than my share of water, I learned to pay attention to ways we wasted water inside. I advocated shorter showers to my obsessively clean husband. I began to collect water in dirty bowls to use again and again in that scraping operation before the dishwasher. I insisted that we not flush liquids but only solids. Lately I’ve championed “grey water” legislation for the State of Minnesota. Grey Water means recycled but relatively uncontaminated water. To recycle the water from showers and washer rinses would require simple plumbing changes in our houses. But plumbers need training in this adjustment and the State must be ready to certify their expertise. To institute such a change for the entire state of Minnesota would require an act of the legislature. Other states–Arizona, California, New Mexico, Montana–have made this change. Here, it will take a while–after all, we live in a land of 10,000 lakes, as a water department employee scoffed at me once when I chided him for letting water flow from a hydrant. We will have to overcome a lot of resistance. Not everybody has been as stringently educated as I was by the 1988 drought.