National Geographic : 2010 Apr
• in Australia. On top of the Himalaya, glaciers whose meltwater sustains vast populations are dwindling. e snapping turtle I met on my lane may have been looking for higher ground. Last summer brought us a string of oods that le tomatoes blighted on the vine and our farmers needing disaster relief for the third consecutive year. e past decade has brought us more ex- treme storms than ever before, of the kind that dump many inches in a day, laying down crops and utility poles and great sodden oaks whose roots cannot find purchase in the saturated ground. e word "disaster" seems to mock us. A er enough repetitions of shocking weather, we can't remain inde nitely shocked. How can the world shi beneath our feet? All we know is founded on its rhythms: Water will flow from the snowcapped mountains, rain and sun will arrive in their proper sea- sons. Humans rst formed our tongues around language, surely, for the purpose of explaining these constants to our children. What should we tell them now? at "reliable" has been rained out, or died of thirst? When the Earth seems to raise its own voice to the pitch of a gale, have we the ears to listen? from my damp hollow, the Bajo Piura Valley is a great bowl of the driest Holocene sands I've ever gotten in my shoes. Stretching from coastal, northwestern Peru into southern Ecuador, the 14,000-square-mile Piura Desert is home to many endemic forms of thorny life. Pro les of this eco-region de- scribe it as dry to drier, and Bajo Piura on its southern edge is what anyone would call driest. Between January and March it might get close to an inch of rain, depending on the whims of El Niño, my driver explained as we bumped over the dry bed of the Río Piura, "but in some years, nothing at all." For hours we passed through white-crusted elds ruined by years of irrigation and then into eye-burning valleys beyond the limits of endurance for anything but sparse stands of the deep-rooted Prosopis pallida, arguably nature's most arid-adapted tree. And remarkably, some scattered families of Homo sapiens. ey are economic refugees, looking for land that costs nothing. In Bajo Piura they nd it, although living there has other costs, and frag- ile drylands pay their own price too, as people exacerbate deserti cation by cutting anything living for firewood. What brought me there, as a journalist, was an innovative reforestation project. Peruvian conservationists, partnered with the NGO Heifer International, were guid- ing the population into herding goats, which eat the protein-rich pods of the native mesquite and disperse its seeds over the desert. In the shade of a stick shelter, a young mother set her dented pot on a dung-fed re and showed how she curdles goat's milk into white cheese. But milking goats is hard to work into her schedule when she, and every other woman she knows, must walk about eight hours a day to collect water. eir husbands were digging a well nearby. They worked with hand trowels, a plywood form for lining the sha with concrete, inch by inch, and a sturdy hand-built crank for lowering a man to the bottom and sending up buckets of sand. A dozen hopeful men in stained straw hats stood back to let me inspect their work, which so far had yielded only a mountain of exhumed sand, dry as dust. I looked down that black hole, then turned and climbed the sand mound to hide my unprofessional tears. I could not fathom this kind of perseverance and won- dered how long these beleaguered people would last before they'd had enough of their water woes and moved somewhere else. Five years later they are still bringing up dry sand, scratching out their fate as a microcosm of life on this planet. ere is nowhere else. Forty percent of the households in sub-Saharan Africa are more than a half hour from the nearest water, and that distance is growing. Australian farmers can't follow the rainfall patterns that have shi ed south to fall on the sea. A salmon that runs into a dam when homing in on her Barbara Kingsolver's 13 published books include ction, poetry, and creative non ction. Her most recent novel is e Lacuna, published in 2009.