WHEN the air was cleaner than it is in most American cities today, people did not need to wash as frequently, and they didn’t. When houses were unheated and the bathtub a portable object pressed into service on Saturday nights, the bath was a weekly — in cold weather a monthly—adventure for which you needed a hot kitchen and a quick snuggle down thereafter. A single apartment house on Park Avenue probably consumes as much water in one month as the entire village of Concord did in 1860.
Water, which was once as cheap as air, is so no longer. The water table is dropping all over the country; in New England, which is one of the most liquid parts, it has dropped three feet in the last six years; in Arizona, which is one of the driest, it has dropped as much as fifty feet in nine years. They are mining for water in some districts of the West today.
We are all answerable for this. Taps were made to be turned on, and Americans are perfectly careless in doing so. “Let it run,”calls Mother, “let it run until it’s good and cold!” I doubt if one household in ten bothers to keep a bottle of water cooling in its refrigerator. Swimming pools are thought by some to be a necessity, and also air conditioning — but air conditioning can require anywhere from 50 to 300 gallons of water a minute. Industries, especially those which produce food and fiber, are the most constant and demanding consumers. And then, on top of all that, we have had these recurring droughts and floods. We know what to do about the droughts — “Turn on the hose, turn on the sprinkler, fill the canvas pool for the kids, let’s get cool!" Droughts will eventually run even the biggest wells and reservoirs dry, as New York City found to its alarm. But so will floods: the widespread gullying and diversion of channels, which is a flood out of control, sweeps away the ground water which would normally be filling in our supply. Drought or flood, either way we lose.
A great change has come over this country since 1940. Prior to that year an incalculable number of Americans seemed intent on reducing America to the deserts of Egypt in record time. Manmade fires, one-crop agriculture, pollution of our streams, the overconsumption of our resources, were destroying a great heritage. But the peril of war made us cautious and at the war’s end the increase in population, the industrial expansion (with an ever-increasing demand for water), the need for irrigation, and the unpredictable droughts forced us to realize as never before how dependent we all are upon water. National habits change slowly, and it is asking too much to expect the majority of Americans today to become conservers rather than careless consumers. But unquestionably there is much more vigilance in the land, and under the pressure of apprehension we are better disposed to appreciate the vital truths so graphically and concisely presented in Water: The Yearbook of Agriculture, 1955 (U.S. Department of Agriculture, $2.00). The taxpayers are the real publishers of this book —without their subsidy it would cost $10.00 a copy — and those with any interest in conservation would do well to procure this handsome and enlightening volume.
This is the story of water with, of course, special reference to the United States. The chapters are short, authoritative, and remarkably diverse. Reading the book is like being flown in a helicopter from region to region, putting down in the north woods, in the river valleys, in the Great Plains, on the macadam deserts, to hear what the expert in each has to say. The authors are multiple; there are more than a hundred. For instance, Harold E. Thomas tells us of the Underground Sources of Our Water; Ivan R. Tannehill answers the question Is Weather Subject to Cycles? F. W. Went writes the explanatory piece on Fog, Mist, and Dew. Lloyd W. Swift has a delightful article on The Need of Wildlife for Drinking Water; Carl E. Schwob goes after Pollution; and there is a battery of experts who break down the problem of Floods.
The chapters are usefully divided into sections, and two which I found of particular interest were Water and Our Forests and Water and Our Soil. (I trust every hunter and angler to poke around in Water and Our Wildlife!) The book ends with a long Look to the Future (five heady chapters in that one), and its incentive is compressed in this quotation from Gifford Pinchot: “The word ‘conservation’ in its present meaning was unknown until the early part of 1907. It occurred to me one day that forestry, irrigation, soil protection, flood control, waterpower, and a lot of other matters which had up to that time been kept in separate watertight compartments were all parts of one problem. That problem was and is the use of the whole earth and all its resources for the enduring good of men.”
The seeing hand
People will never cease retelling the Helen Keller story. This little girl of seven who could be wild as fury and who was rescued from a darkness and stillness “as profound as that of a closed tomb at midnight”; this blind, dumb girl with her insatiable intelligence who was taken by the hand by Anne Sullivan, fourteen years her senior and herself half blind, and led to reality, is a living legend at once so heroic and so touching that we will never forget her. Mark Twain, who befriended her, said that she was the most marvelous person of her sex since Joan of Arc, and when someone remarked that Helen’s concept of things beyond the reach of her hands must lack reality, Mark replied, “But a well put together unreality is pretty hard to beat.”
Helen used as no one had before her “the seeing hand,” and from that moment when Anne held her hand under the spout at the pumphouse and Helen connected the word “water” with the running stream — from that moment nothing could stop her. Within a few hours she had mastered thirty words. At no age at all, so Van Wyck Brooks tells us, she was deep in German, soon to be followed by Latin and Greek, and at ten she wrote a long idiomatic letter in French. With this seeing hand of hers she learned to tell trees, to touch animals and flowers, to translate a world she was never to see into her private imagery. With her fingers against Mark Twain’s lips she was to hear him read aloud or indulge in table talk, and she described his talk as “fragrant with tobacco and flamboyant with profanity.”
In its gentle truthful way, Mr. Brooks’s small book, Helen Keller: Sketch for a Portrait (Dutton, $3.00), is more poignant than anything Helen has written about herself. We watch her emerge; we share her famous friendships with Mark Twain and Alexander Graham Bell — and Mr. Brooks; we know her intimates with whom Helen came to live after taking her Radcliffe degree — Anne Sullivan, John Macy, and Polly Thomson; we know her loneliness when Anne was ill and when in desperation Helen thought of marrying; we are made sensitively aware of what a struggle went into her living and of how her voice with its uncertainties remained the great disappointment of her life; we laugh — and applaud — when we hear her say at the age of eight, “I am preparing to assert my independence.”A valiant little book full of vitality.
Henry V of England has come down through the ages as Falstaff’s drinking companion, as Shakespeare’s dark-haired Prince Hal, and as the King who led his knights and bowmen so magnificently at Agincourt. We in this audio-visual age see and hear him as played by Sir Laurence Olivier in the most beautiful color film yet produced.
Now comes a historical romance, Harry of Monmouth by A. M. Maughan (Sloane, $4.50), to fill in the tapestry, to show us the upbringing, the training by battle, the treachery, dedication, and love which encompassed Henry in his short reign. He was the grandson of John of Gaunt (whom we read about in Katherine by Anya Seton); his father, sent into exile by Richard II, returned to seize the throne with the aid of the Percys and the great earls from the North; and when Richard died in prison — by poison? by disease? — the realm was swept by an accusation from which Prince Hal himself could never escape. As the Prince of Wales he was trained for war by Hotspur; he was blooded at the age of twelve in the Battle of Shrewsbury when he glanced up as the shower of arrows descended; for seven years, almost barehanded he kept Owen Glendower at bay on the Welsh border; he drank hard when off duty and would not marry as his father wanted, yet with audacity and knowledge of men he led his pitifully outnumbered expeditionary force to an amazing victory and freed England from the threat of French invasion for the rest of his life.
In all this he seems to have had little time for women. He had an instinctive dislike for Anne of Burgundy, whom he referred to as a stuffed owl, and a romantic attachment for the French princess, daughter of the Dauphin, whom he nicknamed “Greensleeves” from a portrait he had seen. In time she became his own “Kate” when he had his say after Agincourt. Their courtship and marriage as here described are an idyl.
The kingship as Henry V found it was an uneasy business. He had no illusions; he had seen his own father hardened and haunted by the specter of Richard. Treachery was ever present, as he himself was to know when men he trusted — Hotspur, Oldcastle, and Scrope — turned against him. Seven times he was to escape assassination, and the charity with which he had begun his reign could no longer be dispensed. Certainly he had his golden moments, but they were few and far between, and what we read of here is a true man, unsparing and hard-driven.
The author has a little difficulty setting the scene at the outset. There is too much history and it comes too fast: Hotspur’s betrayal, for instance, is too swift for credulity. But once Harry is fairly launched, the story settles down to a good pace and to a style which happily blends Plantagenet detail with natural idiom. The real skill of the writer shows in the characterization of the growing and apprehensive Prince and of those who surround him on his way: Bishop Chichele; Nicholas Colnet, his doctor; Dorset, his trustworthy uncle; Tom and Humphrey, the younger brothers who were closest to him; and Hungerford, the ever-loyal. This in its essence is a story of fealty at its best and of the hazards which encompassed a king.
A secret ranch
Oliver La Farge was a professional writer in being while still an undergraduate at Harvard. After graduation he flirted briefly with anthropology at Tulane University, but with the publication of his first book, Laughing Boy, in 1929 — it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction that year — he staked out his claims in the Southwest, claims which he has been enlarging ever since. He has been a rugged fighter for the Indians in the years when they were being shoved around and dispossessed, and although his family roots are in Saunderstown, Rhode Island, Oliver long since has made his home in New Mexico. His new book, Behind the Mountains (Houghton Mifflin, $.3.00), is a collection of linked stories drawn from life, a memoir of his wife’s family and of their sunny, secluded ranch east of Santa Fe and north of Las Vegas, walled in by the heights of the Sangre de Cristo range. The stories, which he has absorbed by listening to his wife and in-laws remembering together, take place in the 1920s when his wife, Consuelo, was in pigtails.
The family lineage was part Spanish and part French, and the elders whose word was law in this charming book are José Albino Baca, his father-in-law — a tall man, handsome and correct — and Doña Marguerite, his mother-in-law — a person not to be trifled with, a perfect hostess as famous for her table as for her impeccable French and Spanish. These two between them ruled a considerable domain: two villages and the land between, a vast throng of people — wranglers, sheepherders, cowpunchers, workmen — loyal and independent in the old New Mexico style. They ruled the big two-storied adobe ranch with its pitched roof and porches front and back, and the six children, five daughters and one son, who filled it with youth. Consuelo, who was one of the second batch, is ten when the book begins: and Pino, the only son, who has been East to boarding school, is at once a prince and a torment.
The stories follow the seasons and are concerned with dear familiar events: Christmas; a wedding in one of the home villages; a wonderful pack trip across the mountains lead by Pascual, the official horse thief of Rociada; the shearing of the sheep; the visit of the Archbishop when God at last reprimands Pino, much to the delight of the younger sisters. These are likable people, their actions charged with affection and their private worlds with “sun and grace and violence.”