From the mothers in my family I learned what poverty and drought were like during the 1930s. To them, these were experiences so profound they became proper nouns: the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl.
Not quite 30 years later, when I was a boy verging on gangly teen-ager, a thunderstorm of unusual menace advanced one day from Nebraska toward my grandparents' farm. She had not, my grandmother said later, seen a cloud so dusky since the Dust Bowl, when chickens had been deceived into roosting at midday.
My mother's remembered dark days were most often of the Great Depression, a time coincidental with the multiyear drought, but remembered together. Indelible in her mind had been her classmates who earned a paltry 75 cents a day prying prickly pear cacti from the prairie pastures.
This story, told frequently, explained the plastic straws that accumulated in the kitchen after trips to McDonalds, the brown paper bags from Safeway that were always saved, the pencils that never got short enough to discard. Much later, during her final illness, it explained her indignation when I tidied her kitchen without her consent. Of the several dozen flimsy aluminum pie pans that she had saved, I had appropriated three-quarters to the recycling pile.
A product of the 1960s and '70s, when excesses as well as creativity defined the times, I am only secondarily a product of the Great Depression, of the Dust Bowl, of a drought that that was a benchmark for hard times.
Yet now, that 20th-century drought is being eclipsed. Hydrologists and paleoclimatologists say the drought that quickened in severity last year was measurably worse. In places of the West and Great Plains, it may be the most severe in 150 to 300 years. But instead of dust, this time we had smoke.
One day last year, still in spring, I stood atop a mountain. A behemoth of smoke from a fire called Hayman was eastward. Westward was a fire called Coal Seam. Farther south was yet another, on Missionary Ridge. After shuttling around the state by air, the governor turned toward television cameras and said, "All of Colorado is burning today."
For the governor, a man of instinctual caution, the remark was out of character. Strictly speaking, it was also false. Only a miniscule portion of Colorado was truly ablaze. But he told his gut's truth: It did seem like all the state was afire. After that, the governor was widely ridiculed for discouraging tourists.
In any case, if all of Colorado wasn't on fire, smoke still hung over us the way a sulfurous stink wraps itself around a sewer plant. The norm was late-afternoon sun that cast a diffused orange hue. Once you see forest-fire smoke, you never forget it.
That smoke resulted from fires, fires from drought. Reminders of that drought were constant. Reservoirs shrank, leaving giant shorelines of mud that dried into dust.
When my mother and her mother talked about the Dust Bowl, they focused on particulars. They recalled stories about people losing their way in those great storms, suffocating in the sand. There is also the story of a mother hanging herself in the barn, weighed down from the sand storms, poverty and perhaps more private torments.
So far, nobody seems to have hanged themselves because of this new, worse drought. I explain it by our greater remove from the land. Like me, most Americans are now at least a generation or two off the farm, less directly connected to weather. Drought is less intensely personal, while most pastures and gardens are hobbies, not livelihoods.
But you don't have to run a plow to feel scraped raw by drought. When a July rainstorm drenched one mountain town in western Colorado after weeks of desiccating sun, people pranced outside in the wetness of it. When snow fell so heavily in March that tree limbs broke around my house, I shoveled my neighbor's walk less out of kindness than in the sheer joy of the moisture.
In May, as the temperature again dived toward freezing, I gratefully got out a thick jacket. "Let it rain, let it snow in July," I tell my companion. "We haven't had nearly enough."
Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colo. He writes in Arvada, Colo.