This summer has been hot and dry. The seeds I planted in the spring had a hard time germinating because the soil temperature went from cold to very hot so abruptly. Their struggles continued as sunny day after sunny day sucked moisture from the prairie soil until it cracked. Out in the pasture, the grass stopped growing and began to dry to bronze and amber. The only thing that wasn’t stilled by drought was the wind, endless in its whispers and howls.
Even the short grass in the yard is yellow and sharp. We watered it a little at first, but it’s too hot and dry to justify that now, so the kids can’t run barefoot without complaining: “The grass is hurting me!” The only green left on the ground is burdock and dandelions, which somehow still manage to thrive. Even the leaves on the trees are beginning to yellow around the edges though we are a long way from autumn.
In the last few weeks, we’ve watched storm after storm rise up on the western horizon, the clouds in the distance a deep blue reaching all the way to the ground, threads of bright lightning sizzling through them. But the rain never reaches us. It always shifts north or south, leaving us with only a few sprinkles – barely enough to settle the dust.
Finally one evening a storm begins to build, the winds growing stronger by the second. The kids and I go out to watch the sky while the man of the ranch watches the radar. “Looks like there might be hail,” he says, so we move bum lambs into the barn and vehicles under the cover.
When the rain arrives though, it is gentle, making a playful patter that reminds me of my childhood spent in more subtle climates. The kids ask to go out with their umbrellas.
“Why not?” I say. The clouds overhead are soft gray, not the deep blue or sickly green of thunder or hail. It is still barely more than a sprinkle as the kids run out beneath their umbrellas, laughing and shouting. The momentum builds slowly as they play, the drops growing fatter and falling faster until it is the lush, steady rain we Dakotans dream about but rarely experience. Instead of a storm, we’ve gotten a warm summer shower.
“Put down your umbrellas!” I yell to the kids as I leap barefoot out the door, “We are going for a rain run!”
“Rain run! Rain run!” We chant as we splash around the gravel circle between the house, barn, and shop. Sharp stones poke at our toes, but the thickening mud softens our footfalls so it barely hurts.
“Puddles!” the kids shout, and quite suddenly the dusty divots in the yard are a rapidly expanding chain of narrow rivers and tiny lakes.
“Rain run! Rain run!” We sing again as we circle, our toes sinking into the mud, our calves and ankles splattered brown.
The rain begins to slow, the drops scattering like mist. A lemon-yellow glint seeps through the thinning veil of gray and just like that the clouds move on. We watch them passing over our neighbor’s pasture to the east. The kids run to the biggest puddle and begin their work — digging, splashing, rerouting its current down the driveway, piling up rocks to build a tiny island — and I return to the kitchen to start supper.
We all go to bed that night with feet a slightly darker shade of tan than our legs, a faded ring of dirt just above our ankles. Of course, we should have washed them off, but I couldn’t bring myself to remove the christening of mud. (And the sheets needed washing anyway.)
Across the prairie, the moisture lays like a blanket across the grass, soaking down slowly, mending the cracked soil, softening the brittle stems. In our beds, the mud seeps into our dreams, softening them as well.
Eliza Blue lives on a ranch in northwest South Dakota. She’s a musician, mom, author, and shepherd. She writes a column for newspapers in her region and produces audio commentary for South Dakota Public Radio. You can learn more about Eliza on her website.
Listen to Eliza Blue on the Rural Assembly’s Everywhere Radio with Whitney Kimball Coe: