In the parched Shenandoah Valley, where wells were running dry and beef farmers were selling cherished herds because there was no grass to feed them, we watched the stately advance of Dennis with mixed feelings.
Heaven knows we needed the rain, even if heaven apparently didn't care. But everyone remembers September 1996, when Hurricane Fran barreled up from North Carolina into the Appalachians, and we all remember what happened when a huge snowstorm melted overnight and filled creeks and rivers to overflowing. We wanted water, desperately needed it, but as we sat glued to the Weather Channel and watched Dennis head into Virginia, we fervently hoped it not visit upon us the sort of destruction we've had in the past. Fran, the last Category 3 storm to hit this area, wiped out 100 yards of pricey board fence here at Gender Gap, washed out the driveway on both sides of the bridge, opened an impassable crater in the state road near our place, and uprooted three majestic black walnut trees that were probably 75 years old.
Dennis, fortunately, turned out to be a user-friendly tropical storm, at least by the time it got to our part of the world. Great, luscious rain pelted down on us intermittently for three days, but it did not come down in huge, senseless torrents the ground couldn't absorb. Instead, Denny brought us as much rain as we could comfortably use and not much more. Our creek, all summer long as wan and anemic as any waterway this side of Death Valley, regained its customary brisk pace but remained cheerfully within its banks. The pasture -- untenanted, alas, since we sold off our beautiful Red Angus cattle last October -- greened up overnight, and our nightly ritual of watering our newly planted crape myrtle and pink dogwood was suspended. The one pink dogwood that went into shock during the drought looks like it might pull through.
Even the thunderstorms that came along in Dennis's train were moderate, which was a relief to me even if they were a disappointment to my husband, who for mysterious reasons is a connoisseur of thunderstorms. He and my daughter think it is one of life's great delights to watch lightning and listen to rolling thunder, while I think it is one of the scariest things on Earth. Magnum, our extremely intelligent bicoastal husky, agrees with me and bolts onto the sofa and the nearest human at the first crack of thunder.
The rains fell short of a hogdrownder. Sod-soaker, yes, and perhaps in places a gully washer or two. But hogdrownder, no, for which we are grateful.
No one is talking about a second crop of hay quite yet. Even if the grass does come back abundantly, it'll take a long time for our neighbors' cows to make up for the pounds they did not put on during the long dry spell, and farmers will not soon forget having to buy hay trucked in from the Midwest. My husband, who is a bit of a genius at not making money at any aspect of farming, felt good when he got $1.80 a bale for the 200 bales of hay we still had after selling the cows. He felt less good as the price of hay went to $3 and up when the summer's crop failed. And I'm quite sure that the farmer who bought the hay early this summer was feeling especially smart two weeks ago when he came to haul the last 75 of the $1.80 bales. Some people know how to make money at farming, and some do not.
The drought hit hard. Farmers sold their calves earlier than usual, and many lost money because when everyone is selling prices go down. The local paper had a banner headline a couple of weeks ago to the effect that Shenandoah County had lost some $15 million in agricultural produce due to the drought. That may not seem like much in Fairfax and Montgomery counties, but it's a lot of money down here.
What has been nothing short of miraculous, in my mind, is how many of my neighbors had successful vegetable gardens in spite of the drought and in spite of the deer, which have been more numerous this summer than any in memory. One of my neighbors had buckets full of tomatoes the other day. Beautiful ones, too. Not little or deformed or split or pecked at by birds like mine. Hers looked like tomatoes ought to look: big, round, bright red and bursting with flavor. She has one of the deepest and most reliable wells in the valley, however, so she continued watering during the drought without worrying her well would go dry. I was not so confident. Moreover, if the truth be known, it's not much fun hauling 50 yards of hose from flower gardens to vegetable gardens in 90-degree heat. Gardening in a drought can quickly transform itself from one of nature's great joys to one of its most demanding chores. That's part of rural living they don't tell you about in those magazines that paint such idyllic portraits of country life.
I was careful to water my Ambrosia melons and they turned into a stunning success. I started them from seed in my potting shed and put them out in the cutting garden where the vines had plenty of room to wander. For the past month, we've had some wonderful melons, picked the moment you can roll them off the vine, and onto the table within minutes. Unfortunately, some critter likes them, too, and it seems to come up underground and bite the side lying on the mulch. Lately, I've been putting tinfoil underneath the melons, and so far that seems to be protecting them. I prefer not to dwell on catastrophe, so this summer will be known in family folklore as the Ambrosia Melon Summer, which has a much nicer ring to it than the Summer of the Killer Drought.
The hurricane season is not over yet, and experts are predicting we will have more hurricanes than usual. We will turn to the Weather Channel and monitor those tropical depressions swirling around off the west coast of Africa with the attention of an ancient mariner. With any luck, the rest that come along our way will be as well behaved as Dennis.