Water has always been a part of my life. My knowledge of it has steadily increased due to the influence of family and place. As a kid growing up on a farm in Woods County, Oklahoma who had grandfathers, Ed Guyer and Fred Barker, who enjoyed taking the grandkids fishing–I developed an early awareness of water; water for swimming, fishing, and livestock.
My grandfather Fred Barker was well known as a “water witch”. He built his own machine to drill water wells that were driven by an old combine engine and a truck transmission. After his death, my dad and I drilled a couple of wells with that rig. I have heard many stories about my grandfather finding water with a forked willow stick where it was desperately needed, and others had failed to find it. I remember watching him do this and picking up the willow stick and discovering that I, too, can find water. I still can’t explain it, but I know what I can do. In using this gift, if that is what it is, I developed my own ideas about the direction water moves underground in this area. My knowledge of water in this place increased a bit more.
Water is constantly moving. On this land, there are two extremes of soil type. We have deep coarse sand, and we have fine tight red clay. Water moves through the sand rapidly, and water runs off the clay fairly rapidly. The missing link to slowing down the movement in both cases is organic matter. It is difficult to improve the organic matter in these sand and clay soil types. Grazing management is the key, but improvement comes slowly.
It is amazing that the management needed to improve biodiversity is the same management that improves organic matter and the water cycle. The same choices that improve the grass improve the water. The opposite is also true, the choices of overgrazing and bad farming are detrimental to the water cycle, mineral cycle, energy flow, and biodiversity. The knowledge of what to do to improve these processes is increasing every day. But just as good and true knowledge is increasing, so are the distractions, the agendas of corporations and governments, the misguided research that only seeks to sell products, and the coffee shop where innovation often goes to die.
The good knowledge that is increasing today is only being used by a very small percentage of those managing land. Most simply are not paying attention. But water moves on. The water cycle is a naturally occurring phenomenon that does not wait for man. Nature does the best she can. It doesn’t matter if we are ignorant, or foolish, or what the other agendas are all about.
Water is constantly on the move. Ocean waves, evaporation to clouds, falling as rain, moving through the soil, transpiring through plants, flowing down the rivers, back to the sea: all of this happens no matter what we do. But our choices of tools and actions have an enormous effect on how the water cycle actually plays out.
As a rancher in a mostly arid environment, I need water to grow grass. I need this moving water to stay on my land for as long as possible. I choose to have a canopy of plants to break the force of falling raindrops, so they can soak in instead of run off the land. I choose to have plant material on the soil surface for the same reason. I choose to have a diversity of plants, so I can have a diversity of roots and a diversity of soil microbes. Learning to understand the ecological processes of water, energy, minerals, and the dynamics of biology: and how my tools and actions affect them on my land was literally a watershed event for me.
In spite of the ignorance, mistakes, and willful disregard of the past, water still cycles. Now we know how to do better. We will continue to make mistakes. That’s okay–if we pay attention, we learn faster that way.
Knowledge of place and a sense of place only come with time and history. As a friend of mine once said, “The first thing you have to do is…you’ve got to learn where you live.”
Kim Barker is a rancher-stockman who lives in Waynoka, up in northwest Oklahoma, where he is mentoring his youngest daughter into the ranching business.