The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning

The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning

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by Julene Bair
     
 

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A love affair unfolds as crisis hits a family farm on the high plains

Julene Bair has inherited part of a farming empire and fallen in love with a rancher from Kansas’s beautiful Smoky Valley. She means to create a family, provide her son with the father he longs for, and preserve the Bair farm for the next generation, honoring her own father’s

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Overview

A love affair unfolds as crisis hits a family farm on the high plains

Julene Bair has inherited part of a farming empire and fallen in love with a rancher from Kansas’s beautiful Smoky Valley. She means to create a family, provide her son with the father he longs for, and preserve the Bair farm for the next generation, honoring her own father’s wish and commandment, “Hang on to your land!” But part of her legacy is a share of the ecological harm the Bair Farm has done: each growing season her family—like other irrigators—pumps over two hundred million gallons out of the Ogallala aquifer. The rapidly disappearing aquifer is the sole source of water on the vast western plains, and her family’s role in its depletion haunts her. As traditional ways of life collide with industrial realities, Bair must dramatically change course.

Updating the territory mapped by Jane Smiley, Pam Houston, and Terry Tempest Williams, and with elements of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, The Ogallala Road tells a tale of the West today and points us toward a new way to love both the land and one another.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Mark Bittman
A story of land, water, relationships and love, The Ogallala Road is…polished, touching and engaging…Bair's mournful tale is told with resignation, honesty and heartbreak, but also with strength and joy as she shares memories of her experiences with a lover, two husbands…her parents, her brothers and her son…this is a book by a tough, restless, energetic, admirable, principled Kansan who also happens to be a fine writer. Her voice is a welcome one.
Publishers Weekly
12/02/2013
Nostalgia for the family farm in arid western Kansas vies with a deep consternation about the draining of the Ogallala Aquifer by crop irrigation in Bair’s (One Degree West) ardent, deliberative narrative. The work returns to fateful events in the year preceding the reluctant, yet seemingly inevitable, selling of Bair’s parents’ farm in 2006: then in her early 50s, Bair was raising her teenaged son, Jake, by herself in Laramie, Wyo., where she had quit her job at the university in order to write fulltime. She meets a sexy, caring Kansas rancher, Ward Allbright, an event that seemed marvelously providential despite his conservative views; the two begin to plan a future together, taking over the Bairs’ 3,500-acre dryland wheat and irrigated farm. The farm was largely being managed by her Bair’s brother, Bruce, and required vast, unsustainable quantities of water from the fast-draining Ogallala Aquifer (she estimated that more than 4,000 gallons of water was needed for every bushel of corn harvested). Farmers used this sole source of water without any sense of its being finite. After researching geological maps that showed its perilous depletion, Bair began to speak publicly and write about the dire situation. Bair’s thoughtful work underscores the dilemma now facing farmers on the High Plains. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
Praise for The Ogallala Road

“A story of land, water, relationships, and love . . . Bair witnesses many changes from her birth in 1949 until the turn of the twenty-first century, a time when the small American family farm and many of its supporting towns were pretty much overwhelmed by industrial agriculture. . . . Her mournful tale is told with resignation, honesty, and heartbreak, but also with strength and joy. . . . This is a book by a tough, restless, energetic, admirable, principled Kansan who also happens to be a fine writer. Her voice is a welcome one.”
—Mark Bittman, The New York Times Book Review

“A narrative that a number of readers greatly enjoyed . . . Bair balances several themes: inheriting part of a Kansas farming empire and returning to live on the ancestral land; becoming an eco-activist when she realizes that her farm and all around it are draining the gargantuan, life-giving Ogallala aquifer beneath her feet; and getting romantically involved with a neighbor of decidedly different political views.”
Elle, Elle’s Lettres Readers Pick, April 2014

“Bair’s way with words is beautifully descriptive and one senses a deep connection to the land. The Ogallala Road is a wonderful mix of reminiscing one’s personal journey and history back to their roots, so to speak, concern for man’s impact and depleting of the land’s limited natural resources, and a poignant, sweet little love story with a bona-fide cowboy. . . . Julene Bair shares her heart and will touch yours with this powerful book.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“Bair’s voice is fierce, passionate, and determined. . . . Readers of environmental literature will hear echoes of Terry Tempest Williams, Rick Bass, Wallace Stegner, and Rachel Carson. Yet she doesn’t lean too heavily on her literary forebears. She has written her own tale and coupled it with a story of water that concerns us all.”
—Los Angeles Review of Books

“The book takes on a narrative drive that goes beyond the usual environmental book. Will they fall in love? Will they find a way to keep the farm without draining the aquifer, like farmers had been doing for decades? . . . . But that’s a reckoning that is yet to come for Julene Bair, the farmers in Kansas, or for the rest of us who live on what was once one of the greatest grasslands on Earth.”
—Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Bair connects her life’s journey to the larger tale of the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer in Kansas and other Great Plains states. The book beautifully blends personal and societal concerns. . . . The internal conflict that drives the book—Bair’s family is among the many irrigators whose farming methods contribute to the depletion about which she is deeply worried—is writ large throughout the states where irrigation is common. On the one hand, huge volumes of water are necessary to grow the most profitable crops; on the other hand, the aquifer simply cannot survive the current levels of depletion indefinitely. Bair delineates the challenges clearly, and doesn’t shy away from the complications and contradictions in her own life.”
The Gazette (Cedar Rapids/Iowa City)

“Some readers of this splendid book will revel in Bair’s able descriptions of landscapes, such as Kansas wheat country, the Kansas of her imagination (unfarmed grassland), the Wyoming mountains, the Mojave Desert and Death Valley (from experiences she had while living in California). Other readers will find themselves compelled by the descriptions of relationships Bair had with men along the way. All readers will be enthralled by Bair’s descriptions of her relationships with her two brothers and of her love for her son, Jake—from birth through his teenage years.”
—Prairie Fire

“Bair’s loving prose on the places she’s lived and visited make this memoir worth picking up. . . . Her descriptions are made all the more lovely by a plainspoken Kansas sensibility that brings the reader back to earth in good time.”
—Boulder Daily Camera

“Bair’s memoir is a moving and honest account of a woman trying to reconcile parts of herself that seem irreconcilable—daughter, mother, lover, landowner, environmental advocate. In searching for unity within herself, she discovers what she truly values.”
BookPage

“A combination of nature writing, environmental concern, and love story . . . Bair’s contemplative praise of the high plains and the western deserts, her yearning for a father for her son and her lament for a dying way of life will strike chords for diverse readers.”
Shelf Awareness

“In this thoughtful consideration of life at a crossroads, Bair tackles questions about single parenthood, romance, and the monumental task of determining the future of the family farm. . . . She recounts her long concerns with the demands farming places on the land, especially the Ogallala aquifer. . . .  Bair’s measured approach to her family’s ultimate decision about the farm provides a thoughtful look into America’s heartland. Book groups should find much to discuss here, from love to family to the big questions we all must face about how we live now.”
Booklist (starred review)

“Nostalgia for the family farm in arid western Kansas vies with a deep consternation about the draining of the Ogallala Aquifer by crop irrigation in Bair’s ardent, deliberative narrative. . . . Her thoughtful work underscores the dilemma now facing farmers on the High Plains.”
—Publishers Weekly

“A gifted writer describes the ebbs and flows of the arc of a romantic relationship while exploring her own bond to the American heartland.”
Kirkus Reviews

The Ogallala Road is a story about love, family, and the unraveling of the earth. But more than anything it is about what it means to be shaped by a place, to love it so much its waters run in your veins like your own blood. Like Wallace Stegner, Julene Bair writes about people inseparable in every way from the land.”
—Peter Heller, author of The Dog Stars

“Bair elegantly weaves heart and earth, love and the place where it is born. You can taste the water in this book, and the thirst when it is gone.”
—Craig Childs, author of The House of Rain and Animal Dialogues

“A fierce mother, a dutiful daughter, an eager lover, Bair has plowed fields, driven tractors, and worked her father’s land. She has witnessed an erosion of values that has brought the American heartlands to the brink of environmental calamity. The Ogallala Road is her moving story of love and loss, denial and reckoning, and the emergence of a new kind of hope.”
—Ruth Ozeki, author of A Tale for the Time Being and My Year of Meats

“Folded into an eloquent appeal for the preservation of the nation’s most vital source of fresh water, this wonderful book is also the most poignant remembrance of a prairie love affair—a small and finely-crafted masterpiece.”
—Simon Winchester, author of The Men Who United the States and The Professor and the Madman

“Bair explores the deepest of questions about time and place, expertly weaving together her family story, the history of the land and water, and her own struggles as a parent, daughter, and lover. In the end she makes a plea for integration of our personal lives with the life of the earth. This book is both an engaging memoir and an act of environmental advocacy.”
—Mary Pipher, author of The Green Boat and The Shelter of Each Other

“Read this book carefully. Ponder Alfred North Whitehead’s insight: ‘The essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things.’ Ask yourself what you would do if you were a farmer on the High Plains of Kansas. Julene Bair has given us a profound account of a dramatic tragedy.”
—Wes Jackson, founder and president of The Land Institute

“Absorbing and keenly intelligent, The Ogallala Road is a brave, unflinching examination of identity, home, and, as Bair aptly observes, ‘the price the land paid for our comfort.’”
—Maryanne O’Hara, author of Cascade
 

Kirkus Reviews
2014-01-09
A gifted writer describes the ebbs and flows of the arc of a romantic relationship while exploring her own bond to the American heartland. Bair (One Degree West: Reflections of a Plainsdaughter, 2000) explores her inner emotional life in this spare memoir that eventually becomes equal parts Robert James Waller romance novel, William Least Heat-Moon road show and agricultural exposé memorializing the painful legacy of the independent American farmer. The author begins with her memories of a childhood on the farm in remote Kansas. Returning home after years in metropolitan San Francisco, Bair felt like a stranger in a strange land until she met Ward, a laconic, closeted intellectual rancher who ignited a fire in this single mother. In subsequent sections, we experience Bair's combative relationship with her son, Jake, to whom Ward represented a potential last chance at a father figure. Coming home, Bair worked with her family to preserve the large industrial farm that had become their family legacy but was faced with the harsh reality that their livelihood contributes to the rapid depletion of the Ogallala aquifer, which supplies over a quarter of America's irrigated land with water—not to mention the fact that the farm's fate was being decided on the eve of the ethanol boom. Bair offers an unblinking look at a woman's place in a patriarchal culture. "A father for Jake, a farmer for Dad," the author laments. "That's why the time I'd spend helping Dad during Jake's toddlerhood had seemed so healing. I had proven I could be that farmer if I wanted to, and Dad had accepted that I could. I rejected all those sexist implications, asserted my own truths, became equal in my own right, but look at me now." A lyrical but somewhat distracted narrative that can't decide whether it's a love story, a meditation on our lives on this planet or an attempt to follow Upton Sinclair into the depths.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780670786046
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
03/06/2014
Pages:
288
Sales rank:
721,618
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Praise for The Ogallala Road

“A story of land, water, relationships, and love . . . Bair witnesses many changes from her birth in 1949 until the turn of the twenty-first century, a time when the small American family farm and many of its supporting towns were pretty much overwhelmed by industrial agriculture. . . . Her mournful tale is told with resignation, honesty, and heartbreak, but also with strength and joy. . . . This is a book by a tough, restless, energetic, admirable, principled Kansan who also happens to be a fine writer. Her voice is a welcome one.”
—Mark Bittman, The New York Times Book Review

“A narrative that a number of readers greatly enjoyed . . . Bair balances several themes: inheriting part of a Kansas farming empire and returning to live on the ancestral land; becoming an eco-activist when she realizes that her farm and all around it are draining the gargantuan, life-giving Ogallala aquifer beneath her feet; and getting romantically involved with a neighbor of decidedly different political views.”
Elle, Elle’s Lettres Readers Pick, April 2014

“Bair’s way with words is beautifully descriptive and one senses a deep connection to the land. The Ogallala Road is a wonderful mix of reminiscing one’s personal journey and history back to their roots, so to speak, concern for man’s impact and depleting of the land’s limited natural resources, and a poignant, sweet little love story with a bona-fide cowboy. . . . Julene Bair shares her heart and will touch yours with this powerful book.”
—San Francisco Chronicle

“Bair’s voice is fierce, passionate, and determined. . . . Readers of environmental literature will hear echoes of Terry Tempest Williams, Rick Bass, Wallace Stegner, and Rachel Carson. Yet she doesn’t lean too heavily on her literary forebears. She has written her own tale and coupled it with a story of water that concerns us all.”
—Los Angeles Review of Books

“The book takes on a narrative drive that goes beyond the usual environmental book. Will they fall in love? Will they find a way to keep the farm without draining the aquifer, like farmers had been doing for decades? . . . . But that’s a reckoning that is yet to come for Julene Bair, the farmers in Kansas, or for the rest of us who live on what was once one of the greatest grasslands on Earth.”
—Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Bair connects her life’s journey to the larger tale of the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer in Kansas and other Great Plains states. The book beautifully blends personal and societal concerns. . . . The internal conflict that drives the book—Bair’s family is among the many irrigators whose farming methods contribute to the depletion about which she is deeply worried—is writ large throughout the states where irrigation is common. On the one hand, huge volumes of water are necessary to grow the most profitable crops; on the other hand, the aquifer simply cannot survive the current levels of depletion indefinitely. Bair delineates the challenges clearly, and doesn’t shy away from the complications and contradictions in her own life.”
The Gazette (Cedar Rapids/Iowa City)

“Some readers of this splendid book will revel in Bair’s able descriptions of landscapes, such as Kansas wheat country, the Kansas of her imagination (unfarmed grassland), the Wyoming mountains, the Mojave Desert and Death Valley (from experiences she had while living in California). Other readers will find themselves compelled by the descriptions of relationships Bair had with men along the way. All readers will be enthralled by Bair’s descriptions of her relationships with her two brothers and of her love for her son, Jake—from birth through his teenage years.”
—Prairie Fire

“Bair’s loving prose on the places she’s lived and visited make this memoir worth picking up. . . . Her descriptions are made all the more lovely by a plainspoken Kansas sensibility that brings the reader back to earth in good time.”
—Boulder Daily Camera

“Bair’s memoir is a moving and honest account of a woman trying to reconcile parts of herself that seem irreconcilable—daughter, mother, lover, landowner, environmental advocate. In searching for unity within herself, she discovers what she truly values.”
—BookPage

“A combination of nature writing, environmental concern, and love story . . . Bair’s contemplative praise of the high plains and the western deserts, her yearning for a father for her son and her lament for a dying way of life will strike chords for diverse readers.”
—Shelf Awareness

“In this thoughtful consideration of life at a crossroads, Bair tackles questions about single parenthood, romance, and the monumental task of determining the future of the family farm. . . . She recounts her long concerns with the demands farming places on the land, especially the Ogallala aquifer. . . .  Bair’s measured approach to her family’s ultimate decision about the farm provides a thoughtful look into America’s heartland. Book groups should find much to discuss here, from love to family to the big questions we all must face about how we live now.”
—Booklist (starred review)

“Nostalgia for the family farm in arid western Kansas vies with a deep consternation about the draining of the Ogallala Aquifer by crop irrigation in Bair’s ardent, deliberative narrative. . . . Her thoughtful work underscores the dilemma now facing farmers on the High Plains.”
—Publishers Weekly

“A gifted writer describes the ebbs and flows of the arc of a romantic relationship while exploring her own bond to the American heartland.”
—Kirkus Reviews

The Ogallala Road is a story about love, family, and the unraveling of the earth. But more than anything it is about what it means to be shaped by a place, to love it so much its waters run in your veins like your own blood. Like Wallace Stegner, Julene Bair writes about people inseparable in every way from the land.”
—Peter Heller, author of The Dog Stars

“Bair elegantly weaves heart and earth, love and the place where it is born. You can taste the water in this book, and the thirst when it is gone.”
—Craig Childs, author of The House of Rain and Animal Dialogues

“A fierce mother, a dutiful daughter, an eager lover, Bair has plowed fields, driven tractors, and worked her father’s land. She has witnessed an erosion of values that has brought the American heartlands to the brink of environmental calamity. The Ogallala Road is her moving story of love and loss, denial and reckoning, and the emergence of a new kind of hope.”
—Ruth Ozeki, author of A Tale for the Time Being and My Year of Meats

“Folded into an eloquent appeal for the preservation of the nation’s most vital source of fresh water, this wonderful book is also the most poignant remembrance of a prairie love affair—a small and finely-crafted masterpiece.”
—Simon Winchester, author of The Men Who United the States and The Professor and the Madman

“Bair explores the deepest of questions about time and place, expertly weaving together her family story, the history of the land and water, and her own struggles as a parent, daughter, and lover. In the end she makes a plea for integration of our personal lives with the life of the earth. This book is both an engaging memoir and an act of environmental advocacy.”
—Mary Pipher, author of The Green Boat and The Shelter of Each Other

“Read this book carefully. Ponder Alfred North Whitehead’s insight: ‘The essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things.’ Ask yourself what you would do if you were a farmer on the High Plains of Kansas. Julene Bair has given us a profound account of a dramatic tragedy.”
—Wes Jackson, founder and president of The Land Institute

“Absorbing and keenly intelligent, The Ogallala Road is a brave, unflinching examination of identity, home, and, as Bair aptly observes, ‘the price the land paid for our comfort.’”
—Maryanne O’Hara, author of Cascade
 

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