Drought and the Human War on Nature

Lloyd Voges, "Colored in Drought"

Summer temperatures have been climbing steadily in recent years and this year, to make things even worse, the United States is undergoing one of the worst droughts in decades.  Although a significant number of Americans continue to hide their heads in the (very dry) sand, others are starting to realize that scientists know what they are talking about when they link the increase in extreme weather events with global warming.

Leslie Marmon Silko, a Laguna Pueblo novelist, has a non-scientific insight into drought that is worth taking seriously. In Ceremony, her finest work, she shows a World War II veteran suffering from PTSD while around him he witnesses a five-year drought that devastates the landscape.

But the drought is not just a novelist’s metaphor for Tayo’s inner state of mind (such as we see in Eliot’s The Wasteland). As a Pueblo, Tayo believes he has literally caused the drought because, when he was a prisoner of the Japanese in the Bataan Death March and witnessed torrential downpours for the first time in his life, he cursed the rain.

It is understandable why he did so. He was carrying his badly wounded cousin Rocky in a blanket stretcher, and Rocky would be killed by the Japanese guards if Tayo dropped him or slipped in the mud. Here’s the moment when he drops the blanket:

He slid to his knees, trying to find the ends of the blanket again, and he started repeating “Goddamn, goddamn!”; it flooded out of the last warm core in his chest and echoed inside his head. He damned the rain until the words were a chant, and he sang it while he crawled through the mud to find the corporal and get him up before the Japanese saw them. He wanted the words to make a cloudless blue sky, pale with a summer sun pressing across wide and empty horizons. The words gathered inside him and gave him strength. He pulled on the corporal’s arm; he lifted him to his knees and all the time he could hear his own voice praying against the rain.

Although Tayo is under extreme duress, as Silko explains it, one must be grateful to nature in all of its manifestations. As a little boy Tayo is told that he must honor even house flies. When one turns against nature or seeks to dominate it, it reacts with fury.

The point is made through a Pueblo story involving Reed Woman and Corn Woman, which provides a thematic framework for the novel. The novel is interspersed with many such folk stories—they are cultural tools that Tayo and his fellow Pueblos use to understand the changes going on around them—and this one helps them understand both the drought and human complicity in it:

It was summertime
And Iktoa’ak’o’ya—Reed Woman
Was always taking a bath.
She spent all day long
sitting in the river
splashing down
the summer rain.

But her sister
Corn Woman
worked hard all day
sweating in the sun
getting sore hands
in the corn field.
Corn Woman got tired of that
she got angry
she scolded
her sister
for bathing all day long.

Iktoa’ak’o’ya—Reed Woman
went back then
she went back
to the original place
down below.

And there was no more rain then.
Everything dried up
all the plants
the corn
the beans
they all dried up
and started blowing away
in the wind.

The people and the animals
were thirsty.
They were starving.

Although the stories of Reed Woman and Corn Woman go back centuries, when we apply them to the era in which Silko lives we can interpret the parable as the way that American capitalism (and global industrialization in general) fails to honor or delight in nature. Our unceasing search for profit is leading to a very frightening future involving melting glaciers, rising sea levels, coral reefs devastated by rising acidity levels, large oxygen-deprived dead zones, devastated fish populations, rising numbers of hurricanes, and major changes in weather patterns.

 In Ceremony, Tayo undergoes a healing quest for his PTSD and, concurrently, we are shown a set of purification ceremonies that the animals must undergo to placate the angry Reed Woman. Blinded as we are by our current economic difficulties and misled by politicians who refuse to face up to what is happening, we are refusing to embark on that quest. As long as we desist, Reed Woman will continue to withdraw from our midst.

Silko’s novel assures us that, if we begin to develop a reverential relationship to nature, we can mitigate much of its anger. The choice is in our hands.

Note on the Artist: This painting by Lloyd Voges can be found at www.artistrising.com/products/529732/Colored-In-Drought.htm.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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