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Published August 10, 2010, 08:42 AM

Of summers green and brown

One summer years ago, when I was still a farm kid, central North Dakota was gripped by drought.

By: Jonathan Knutson,

One summer years ago, when I was still a farm kid, central North Dakota was gripped by drought.

If you know Midwestern agriculture, you can picture the all-too-common scene. Maybe you’ve lived it. No rain for weeks, no subsoil moisture. Crops fading day by day, stunted grass in brown pastures and hayfields. Farm families beset with anxiety and helplessness.

But on a mid-July Sunday morning in that summer of drought, clouds — just dark and thick enough to raise hope — appeared in the western sky. As my family trundled off to church, the promise of rain hung in the air like the scent of lilacs in the spring.

We arrived at church and its pious, stoic congregation of farmers and farm-town merchants. The strain of drought showed in sagging faces and tired eyes. Nobody mentioned the clouds; I suppose there was some unspoken agreement not to.

The service began. Everyone looked straight ahead at the pastor like they were supposed to. But of course they were listening for — hoping desperately to hear — the muffled sound of rain drops against the walls and peaked roof.

Songs, liturgy and offering came and went. No sound of rain.

The sermon began. No sound of rain.

And the congregants, staring straight ahead at the pastor, listened for the sound of rain. . . .

I think of that long-ago summer of drought in this gorgeously green summer on the Northern Plains. Farmers, ranchers and others say they’ve never seen the prairie so green for so long.

If you know Midwestern ag, you appreciate this summer as rare and wonderful.

. . . And there the congregation sat, listening for the sound of rain. For 20 minutes — 30, 40, 50 — nothing. Hope, like the wheat crop, was fading, dwindling, dying.

Then there came the faintest of “plops” against the roof. Only a handful, scattered and slow, but drops of rain nonetheless. Not enough to do any good. Just enough to promise more.

The drops, so few and tentative, continued for what? Two seconds or 10? Time seemed to stop. Then, gloriously, the muffled drops came fast: many of them, steady and insistent.

In a movie, someone would have jumped to his feet and shouted, “Hallelujah! Our crops and cattle are saved!”

Not in this pious, stoic congregation. The pastor never stopped talking. Other than one woman who couldn’t hold back a tiny smile, nobody changed facial expression.

There was just one recognizable reaction: A slow, soft “whoosh” of air as the congregants simultaneously exhaled in joyous relief.

Maybe you had to be there. Maybe you had to know the people. But that collective breath seemed louder than 10,000 shouted hallelujahs.

Gentle rain fell on and off for hours that Sunday. Enough came to perk up the pastures and hayfields and to salvage a poor wheat harvest from what would have been a disastrous one.

Nobody in that farm congregation made much money that year. But they survived — and appreciated the occasional green summers in the years that followed.