Back in early April, I ran across a book in my daughter's library stack, The Legend of the Bluebonnet, a Comanche story of drought retold and illustrated by Tomie dePaola.
The tale features She-Who-Is-Alone, a little girl orphaned by the drought and resultant famine. She watches the ritual dancers, listens to the singers praying for rain, and awaits the return of the shaman, who has gone to the hilltop to seek spiritual guidance. All the while, She-Who-Is-Alone clutches a doll made by her mother and adorned with blue feathers from her father -- the only thing she has left of her family.
When the shaman returns, he tells the tribe it must commit to fire its most precious possession, scattering the ashes to the four directions. The adults demur, sure that their things are not the most precious, but She-Who-Is-Alone knows nothing is more valuable than her doll.
So alone in the night, she burns it and scatters the ashes to the four winds, awakening to hills carpeted with jay-blue flowers. Her amazed people greet this sign with songs of thanks, and the rain falls. From that day forward, bluebonnets cover the land each spring to commemorate the sacrifice of the little girl now called One-Who-Dearly-Loved-Her-People.
As our own drought has persisted, The Legend of the Bluebonnet has stuck with me, and I have wondered what current meaning it might yield. Myth-guru Joseph Campbell might say that such stories provide a map of the soul, but it is a physical map I'm looking for, a weather map. Most of us tend to think of weather as a secular phenomenon. Few believe that drought is evidence of divine displeasure and that sacrifice brings rain. So what meaning can the story have now?
The sacrificial object, the doll, provides a clue. Being the child's only link to her ancestors, the doll represents the past. Its sacrifice signifies a break with the past, a change of course for the people: They will no longer take "from the Earth without giving anything back." Thus the blessing of rain and the prosperity of the future are secured.
Now, certain sacrifices come to mind, changes we can make representing a deviation from our long-followed course. They won't make it rain tomorrow, but they can help us better use what we have today.
My 100-year-old house was built and landscaped in the dawn of an era typified by moving west and trying to simulate the East. But silver maples and grassy lawns never made any sense here. Our current drought is not a horrible aberration. It is a cyclical low. The rain will come back, but it still won't be enough. Our favored landscaping demands massive irrigation, and what's really insane is that we do it with purified drinking water. Sure, my Victorian house looks great surrounded by shade trees, lawns and roses, but isn't it time to see what it looks like surrounded by native drought-resistant plants?
This is a semi-arid climate. Sure we've got mountain water, but the Colorado and the Rio Grande are so overstressed that they sometimes don't even make it to the sea. How much more can we take from the Arkansas and the South Platte?
People are already talking about rolling back current conservation measures after we run a few more pipes from Pueblo. But The Legend of the Bluebonnet asks more of us than temporary restrictions. It demands that we give up the hubris of believing we possess the land as mere physical material that can be altered at will to suit our pleasure.
The Comanches, in order to survive and thrive, adapted lifestyle to environment. We attempt to adapt our environment to lifestyle. And that's what seems to be our prize possession: lifestyle. So what must we forfeit, if not to bring the rain but to weather the cycles of the semi-arid place we have chosen to live? Long showers, wide green lawns -- the voracious thirst of the American lifestyle itself.
And if we make our break with the past, what sign will come to us, what new flower will blanket the land to remind us of the blessings we receive and the sacrifices that maintain these blessings?
We need a new story, one rooted in local ground with local landmarks that orient us as a people a part of, not apart from, the land.
Brian Mandabach is a teacher and producer of the fledgling public radio program "Lay of the Land." He lives in Colorado Springs.
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