Disaster usually announces itself. Fire howls. Flood waters roar. A tornado thumps like a freight train. Only drought is quiet as a thief. You know its presence by the sounds it steals away.
Before we moved to the country, I thought a lot about how my life here would look, but never about how it would sound. For years, living and working in cities, I stared out of windows at neon squiggles and serried chimneys, and imagined a different view. Sometimes there was a river; sometimes a ragged ridge of distant mountains. In between rolled the gentle swells of hills and furrowed fields, cool greens warmed by the sudden red of a weathered barn. Always there were hay bales, glowing in afternoon sunlight, or dusted by the first snowfall like little iced cakes.
That imaginary landscape was as hushed as a library. Like Inman, the shell-shocked deserter of Charles Frazier's Civil War novel "Cold Mountain," I imagined a life so quiet I wouldn't need ears.
Finally, six summers ago, we left the city behind and came to live in a tiny village surrounded by farms in the foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge, a landscape very like the one that Inman traveled. The paint flaking from the barn across the fields is white, not red, but otherwise the view is almost exactly the way I'd imagined it: a scallop of woods, a creek in the middle distance, mountains lifting off the horizon and big round bales of hay marking the meadows like exuberant punctuation marks.
What I'd never imagined was the noise. Within a few months I learned that ears are what one needs most out here, for what defines the country is the way it sounds.
Certain noises replaced my clock, others became my calendar. The bleating of sheep signaled the approach of 6 p.m., and I learned that if I didn't run I'd miss the general store. The storekeeper's sheep got vocal near closing time, because that's when she'd haul corn to their feed troughs. The neighbor's cows became the messengers who told us winter was almost done. They calved in March and filled the next few months with the mooing of anxious moms.
For six years now, the bullfrogs have provided high summer's backbeat. There are two ponds flanking our place, so all through the sweaty nights we listened to their thrumming in stereo. The wonk-honk of the geese was the rich and stately two-note call that woke me at first light. Last year, the geese wintered over on the flood plain of Catoctin Creek where it winds behind our village. After snow, their webbed footprints tessellated the field. Sometimes, at sunset, a late beam of pale light caught the edges of the tracks where they'd turned hard and icy. For a few minutes, the whole meadow looked as if it had been tiled by a master of mosaic. There were so many geese. It was like having great seats for a concert by the world's finest wind section.
And then came the drought, and the great diminuendo. This summer is a season of silent nights. Sitting on my porch at sunset, I take stock of the missing sounds. The geese are gone from the hard expanse of baked ground that used to be damp grassland. There are no bullfrogs in the shrunken, tepid ponds. No cows call for their calves; the whole herd has been trucked away--sold at a loss into a dreadful market.
In Australia, I grew up with drought. I know all about its slow, insidious heartbreak. But in Australia, the consequences are confined. The cruelty is to humans and to their exotic livestock--the great herds of merino sheep and beef cattle with which Europeans stocked the country's vast spaces. Native species are resilient. The giant twisted gum trees will withstand the stress and go on living in all their stark, strange beauty. The odd, nocturnal marsupials will somehow find the moisture they need to survive. And, after 200 years of white settlement, a kind of harsh natural selection has forced even the farmers to adapt. Most know how to battle through, and survive.
"I love a sunburnt country" says Dorothea Mackellar in a poem Australian schoolchildren learn by heart. In it, she extols a "pitiless blue sky" and "the hot gold hush of noon." These things are indeed majestic in Australia, but I never expected to encounter them in the lush, far gentler landscape of Virginia.
The experts say it will take the equivalent of three hurricanes' rainfall to restore soil moisture here. It's unlikely we will get it. And even if we did, there has been damage done that won't be repaired in a generation. We live in a house with a garden lovingly planted by hands that were old before I was born. This summer has undone lifetimes of toil. The star magnolia, the tall lilacs and boxwoods all are dying.
With buckets I can barely spare from my dwindling well, I have been hand-watering the one tree I can't stand to lose. It's a white dogwood. I planted it when my son was born three years ago--a tree native to Virginia, the state flower--to bloom on his birthday and symbolize his deep roots in his mother's adopted place. But I can't quench even that small patch of thirsty soil, and my son's tree is withering.
The loss of a garden is a small matter compared with the loss of a landscape. And that is what we face here, as one by one the farmers, brokenhearted, sell the work of generations. One neighbor has sold off the fine beef herd he'd spent a decade meticulously breeding. He goes to work in town now, fixing cars, while the luxuriant grasses he seeded turn brown and crisp for the third year running. Others weigh selling their land to the developers who want it so badly. The farmer whose meadows are my view made his hay early this year. There will be no second cutting. Every day in "the hot gold hush of noon" I gaze at those round bales, sitting in the silent, empty field where the cows should be. I wonder if this is the last year I will see them, whether cows will ever come back.
By next year there may be other noises, bulldozers and backhoes, spreading city like a stain.
Geraldine Brooks is the author, most recently, of "Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal's Journey from Down Under to All Over" (Anchor/Doubleday). She lives in Waterford, Va.