- Ian Thompson
Chahto is the Choctaw Word for "Drought"
Updated: Aug 27, 2022
For people who depend on the productivity of the land for their livelihood, drought is a fact of life. When drought gets bad, life may get rough. This is a reminder of humanity's dependence on the land. This dependence may be more directly visible for some people than for others, but it's a connection we all share, ultimately.
As the title of this post says, chahto is the Choctaw word for drought. Having been dry land farmers for more than 2 millennia, dealing with drought has been built in to Choctaw traditional culture. The Choctaw ancestors planted their corn fields in fertile soil with high levels of organic matter. Their shallow method of tillage was almost equivalent to no till. They inter-cropped different types of plants together in these fields. Each of these are techniques that sustainable farmers today use in order to protect their crops from drought. Even with the best of techniques, though, droughts bad enough to cause the total failure of the Choctaw corn crop sometimes happened. The traditional foodway was flexible enough that families could head to the woods, streams, or Gulf for less drought-impacted resources, but droughts had some impacts that couldn't be mitigated. For example, according to Choctaw oral tradition, the last bison herds disappeared from the state of Mississippi during a particularly bad drought. Choctaw communities had Omba Ikbit, Rainmakers. These specialists offered prayers and boiled certain herbs into steam to ascend up as vapor and seed the clouds. Euro-Americans of 200 years ago loved to make fun of the Choctaw Rainmakers, but here just a few years back when we had our last bad drought, the Choctaw Historic Preservation Department received several requests from local non-Indians to "send out the Rain-Dancers". It's easy to smile at the irony, but then again, we are all connected by our dependence on the land.
This summer, Nan Awaya Farm has been in extreme (D-3 level) drought. Our last somewhat significant rainfall (only 2 tenths of an inch) fell in the first week of June. Since then, we've had 66 days over 90 degrees and 29 days over 100 degrees. One afternoon, a local weather station recorded a heat index of 129 degrees. Wringing the sweat out of our shirts before 9am and avoiding heavy work during midday have not been the most convenient things, but this summer has also provided a good opportunity. Summers with dozens of days over 100 degrees and long periods with no rain - this is what all of the scientifically based projections are for our region's future climate. This summer's abnormally high heat and abnormally bad drought will be normal here in a few decades. Looking beyond the short-term headaches, this summer has been a real-world opportunity to see how our efforts to restore this landscape stack up against the conditions of the future.
For weeks after the rain shut off and the temperatures started to climb, it was gratifying to see the grass in our pastures just keep on growing. The main management strategy that made this possible involved grazing techniques. We generally don't allow our animals to graze off more than half of the forage height before we move them into another pasture in our rotation. Not grazing any more than this prevents damage to the roots, and allows the tops of the plants to grow back as quickly as possible. Leaving a lot of forage height also helps to shade the ground. As the soil temperature rises, more and more of a plant's moisture goes into transpiration rather than into growing. Shade on the ground helps prevent that. Seeing forage plants grow with the temperature over 100 degrees this summer was gratifying, because it meant that management techniques were keeping the soil temperature cooler than the air temperature. The use of these grazing techniques over several years has allowed forage plants to expand and start to grow healthier root systems in our pastures. Those roots help hold onto moisture and organic matter, and create habitats for microbes that build drought resiliency into the cool soil.
As the drought worsened, forage plants eventually did run out of water and start to go dormant. It happened first with the introduced pasture grasses planted in the uplands by previous owners. Among the natives the sandbur and purpletop went down first, followed by the broomsedge bluestem. Big bluestem and Indiangrass, two of the dominant native grasses that we've focused on reestablishing, proved to be pretty drought resilient. The little bluestem, switchgrass, and eastern gamagrass were even more so. Even in the area where we did our summer burn, leaving the soil with no almost insulation from the heat at all, the eastern gamagrass sprouted back up in lush green. The sideoats grama did well too. We learned that it's strategy is to seed a little earlier than most of the others. By the time the drought had most of the other grasses completely dormant, the sideoats already had a year's worth of seeds hanging from its stalks. Another thing we learned is that patches of deep-rooted dominant prairie plants, be they grasses or forbs, held out weeks longer against the drought than individuals growing alone in a sea of short-rooted plants.
As the drought continued to worsen in the uplands, even most of the native grasses eventually went dormant. The last holdouts of green are in the pastures we had burned this winter. Here, the grasses have more vigor than elsewhere. As we've cleared overgrown areas, we've intentionally left trees at regular intervals, for habitat diversity, to provide shade for the bison and horses, and to help protect some areas of forage from the brutal summer sun. This summer proved the practical worth of this technique, at least in our part of the world.
Eventually, drought reached a point in the uplands where there was nothing more our management could do. After we moved the animals off of an area, the forage would just keep decreasing, due to the sun burning up ephemeral native grasses (like purpletop), and due to swarms of grasshoppers eating anything green in their path (A healthy prairie has more weight in grasshoppers than bison and you can't fence them out). Weedy forbs, like ragweed and goatweed that dominate in overgrazed pastures, also happen to be very tolerant of drought and grasshoppers. With pasture grasses mostly dormant and unable to compete, these weedy plants took over. This made it look like we'd over-grazed, even in areas the animals hadn't touched in years. Even the "pristine", unfenced prairies of old occasionally burned up in drought and left animals starving. Fortunately for us, 1/3 of Nan Awaya farm is in lowland wet areas. Many of these have never dried up, or quit producing forage, but they're not enough to support the herd on their own indefinitely.
The management techniques we've been blogging about for years are having a real positive impact, but there is still more we can do to prepare our land for the future. Right now, a lot of the dominant prairie plants that we have been establishing on the farm are isolated individuals. If we can get these to fill in to create diverse plant communities with interwoven roots, we'll build weeks more drought resiliency into our upland pastures, along with all of the other ecological and cultural benefits. We'll increase drought resiliency some more if we can increase the proportion of little bluestem, switchgrass, sideoats gramma, and eastern gamagrass, along with more diverse native forbs. Hairy grama is a western native grass that I've seen growing on prairie remnants within as close as 50 miles of here. It requires very little water. This winter when we seed, we'll add hairy grama into the mix. It will probably get dominated by taller grasses most years, but in drought years, it might just shine. Perhaps this summer's ultimate lesson for us is that observation, knowledge, and hard work can accomplish an awful lot, but eventually situations can reach a point where even our best effort fails. There's a message here in terms of how important it is to stop contributing to climate change before it surpasses our ability to adapt. There's also a message here about faith.
This morning, it rained, a wonderful hard, soaking rain. Amy and I immediately headed outside in the downpour and jumped in puddles. We made it down to a quickly swelling creek in the bottomlands (this post's title image), and got in. We grabbed onto the tough rushes with each hand, laid out horizontally, and let our bodies bob in the swift and rising current for more than an hour. I don't remember the last time I've had so much fun. The first real rain we've had in three months, the first real baths we've had in.... After while, the buffalo herd came to join us across the fence. One of the calves lowered its head down as if to challenge a second calf, who responded by jumping two feet straight up in the air like a video game, then bucked like bronco and ran off - they were having fun in the rain too. One inch of rain falling on one acre of ground represents an incredible 27,154 gallons of water. So far today, Nan Awaya Farm has received just shy of 10 million gallons of rain. Only time will tell if the drought of 2022 is broken, but this moisture sure is welcome.