When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area 10 years ago, I bought a pair of rain boots. I wore them once. The area is currently experiencing what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls a “severe drought.” In the past decade, California has experienced two spells of “exceptional drought,” the agency’s highest drought rating. The effects of such conditions are visibly apocalyptic: magpie rue trees, empty orchards, horizontal stripes etched into the shores of lakes and reservoirs. Hillsides of bright orange pines killed by beetle infestations herald long and intense fire seasons.
I did, however, discover floods at a local flea market. Digging through a box of old photos recently, I turned over an early 20th-century postcard to find three women in a rowboat, wearing long dresses and neat chignons. They are accompanied by a little boy, and the four of them float nonchalantly down a residential street. As a photo historian, my first step was to try to identify the image. Where and when was it taken? Who were these stoic women? While researching them, I found something surprising: a trend in visual culture that extends well beyond California. Drought and floods may seem like two sides of the same coin, but the first is much less documented than the second.
In state museums and archives based in California, I discovered a veritable deluge of flood images – over 7,000 of them representing that state alone. But when I searched for corresponding evidence of drought, the archives found very little. Only a few dozen photographs showed the drought in California.
The discrepancy in the visual record is particularly striking during a summer when parts of nearly every state experience abnormally dry conditions. In much of the West, water is scarce even in normal years. The lack of drought images suggests and contributes to historical amnesia. But rather than planning for dry conditions that, due to climate change, are likely to become far more frequent and deadly, Americans seem unable to even remember them.
Around the world, the landscape itself records our long history of flooding. The recent flooding is easy to see in the high water marks, which trace the edges of the tide with deposits of soil and seeds. Sometimes people commemorate these marks, carving in stone and marking the lines with dates, like a child’s growth chart drawn on a door frame.
The floods have also been widely depicted in sketches, engravings and paintings, as well as more recently in photographs. Water is an attractive subject for the artist. Japanese artist Hokusai depicted water in all its forms and in all seasons in his woodcuts. Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks are full of drawings of rivers, rains and rough waters. The sudden and bizarre flood disaster also made a spectacular subject for 20th century photographers. In museums and local history archives and even at flea markets, I’ve seen thousands of photos of people paddling the streets in canoes, past islands with peaked roofs and rafts of floating furniture.
By comparison, the story of the drought – which has shaped humanity just like the floods – is almost invisible. The return to normal water levels is erasing the signs of an old shortage. Crops are revived and trees grow exuberantly. As John Steinbeck wrote in the first pages of East of Eden, “It has never failed that in dry years people forget the rich years, and in the wet years they lose all memory of the dry years. It has always been like this.” Out of sight, out of mindsays the water rushing to rewrite the past.
This is one of the reasons why drought is difficult to capture in pictures. Another reason is that there is no single moment of action for the artist to focus on. Climatologists describe drought as a slow-moving disaster, and below-average humidity is not only hard to show in a single image, but it’s also kind of boring compared to the drama of flooding.
A drought, however, has crept into the visual memory of most Americans. The Dust Bowl remains, as the National Drought Mitigation Center puts it, “the record drought” in the United States. Four major droughts, combined with an economic depression, drove farmers and farm workers from the Plains states during the 1930s. Government relief programs used photographs of the environmental devastation and mass exodus to generate continued support for their fundraising efforts. These images also amplified memories of the Dust Bowl compared to other droughts. Officials sent photographers to the area in the mid-1930s with “shooting scenarios”, which detailed the types of images they believed would most convincingly depict the dire situation.
Agencies needed dramatic and compelling images, but even at the height of the drought, its effects did not translate easily to print. Photographer Arthur Rothstein, who took two of the most legible drought photos of the time, has been accused of directing or setting up his shots, allegations that call into question their documentary value. An editor, in a 1936 set script for Rothstein, admitted that he had heard that the cattle had done quite well during the winter and “there were no ribs sticking out or not with parched and protruding tongues”. The drought was bad, but it didn’t look this wrong. No couch was floating in the street, after all.
Flood images and stories are not only passed down from generation to generation; they also become founding myths. Civilizations flourished as a result of the rich floods along the banks of the Nile, Yellow River, and Mississippi. The drought, on the other hand, pushed the company back. It is linked to the decline and even the collapse of societies such as the Maya and the people of Angkor. Disappearance is the deepest form of forgetting.
Paleoclimatologists can see the impact of ancient dry spells in tree rings, growth bands shrinking with the stress of limited water. The effects of drought, especially forest fires, can be read in the sediments of ancient lake beds. But these signs are only visible with instruments and training. Instead, in California, we have flashing road signs during drought periods that warn residents about using water, as if the drought is nothing more than a traffic jam or a traffic delay. construction.
What if Americans and people around the world commemorated drought the same way we record floods? These indelible stories etched on buildings and bridges remind us that water is powerful and imperfectly predictable. As models based on old climate data become obsolete, we need to be more attentive to how the landscape will reflect the changes we have caused.
The landscape will demand to be seen and not only when it is already a problem. Floating monuments at low water levels in reservoirs and lakes could serve as reminders; When people understand how far the coastline can get, they may better understand the urgency of keeping the climate from getting hotter and drier. Developers of mapping applications and navigation systems could give us an easily accessible reminder by activating another satellite layer that represents the landscape under extreme conditions, so that even when driving through spring green hills we can see what they were once…and will be again when the drought returns. Popular smartphone services, such as iNaturalist and Apple’s Visual Look Up, use image recognition to identify plants and animals. What if these also came with warnings about how species will suffer under prolonged drought conditions?
The story of the drought will not remain submerged. We may need to see the impacts of our water use, both private and industrial, in order to remember dry spells all the time. Otherwise, we might come to wish that Steinbeck’s statement – “It has always been so” – was a promise, since it implies at least occasional relief from the long, slow drought disaster.