The rain and our helpless wait for it to fall

August 01, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

Just when we'd begun to believe it would never happen, the rains came.

We'd watched the leaves of the corn in the fields begin to furl up and the lawn get so dry it crunched like a carpet of shredded wheat when we walked across it. I felt sorry for the honeybees as I watched the clover blossoms turn brown, like so many burned-up matchsticks.

Then last weekend, we heard it - the thump of the large drops falling off of our big maple tree onto the aluminum awning at the side door and the gentle hiss of the rain soaking into the grass.

Surviving in spite of the drought were the pokeberries and the burdock, whose hook-like seed pods were the inspiration for George de Mestral, a Swiss man who invented Velcro. As someone who has combed numerous burdock seeds out of a dog's coat, I am not as inspired as De Mestral.


In my experience, the weeds that survive a drought have deep roots, which is certainly true of burdock and pokeberries. Thistles, too, have deep roots, and I have eradicated them from my yard by digging them up, root and all, whenever I saw them.

Interestingly, on each thistle root I dug up was an earthworm, clinging to a source of moisture. Worm-deprived anglers, take note.

In a technological age, much of our welfare still depends on the rain, which remains beyond our ability to control, at least on a reliable basis. The horror story most often cited involving man's efforts at weather control concerns Rapid City, S.D., where a disastrous flood occurred following attempts to seed clouds there in 1972.

Although no conclusive link between the seeding and the flood has been proven, more than 200 died. The July 1974 issue of the Journal of the American Meteorological Society reported that the intent of the seeding was to increase precipitation and suppress hail.

In 2005, the Caspar Star-Tribune reported that Wyoming was ready to begin a five-year cloud-seeding program to increase winter snows, which provide a great deal of the state's water when they begin to melt in the spring.

In July 2005, ABC News reported the discovery of a gene that regulates a plant's water use, raising the possibility that many crops grown in dry areas might have a better chance of survival.

That's the good news. The bad news, according to Richard Richards, one of the Australian researchers working on the gene project, is that it might take 10 years to develop those new varieties.

In other words, the possibilities are all in a far-off future. And before they arrive, we might learn that there are undesirable side effects that accompany the new, drought-resistant crops or technologies.

And if we could modify the weather, whose agenda would prevail? The grain farmers, whose corn needs regular rainfall? The orchardists, who have an interest in not having their crops pockmarked by hail? Or contractors, for whom rain delays can be costly? Once someone can turn the rain on or off, I predict rules will be written that will make the average zoning ordinance resemble a child's first reading text.

Water is an important part of Washington County's history. Jonathan Hager built his home over a spring so that in case of an Indian attack, he and his family wouldn't be cut off from this vital resource.

Then there's the C&O Canal, the plan for which was envisioned by George Washington in 1754. After an earlier effort by the Potowmack Company, ground was broken for the C&O Canal in 1828.

The National Park Service Web site notes that the canal was hit with the first of 17 major Potomac River floods in 1829 and ceased operation after another one in 1924.

After World War II, plans to turn the canal and the towpath into a scenic highway were defeated after Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas led an eight-day hike of the 182-mile towpath in 1954.

Now tens of thousands walk and bike on it each year, spending at least part of their time looking at a river that provides life-sustaining water and periodically leaves its banks, demonstrating that at least for now, there's still a lot that's beyond our control.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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