Water World: The Story Behind “Ogallala”

This essay is the backstory for our song “Ogallala,” which you can listen to below or over here.

As with many children of the 1970s, my first awareness of “the environment” as a thing that humans had royally screwed up was sparked by the “Crying Indian” commercial. The public service announcement for the Keep America Beautiful anti-litter campaign featured Iron Eyes Cody, in nonspecific Native American garb, paddling his canoe through a polluted river and into a city plagued with car exhaust, belching factories, and loose garbage. It felt like a stinging rebuke (apparently to a lot of people — litter was soon reduced by 88 percent across the country) and upon re-watching, still packs a punch. Even though I now know that Iron Eyes Cody was an Italian American actor, and that his single tear was a glycerine trick — I still experience an uncontrollable grip in my throat when he turns those sad eyes to the camera, fast-food wrappers piled at his feet.

Putting garbage in waste bins seemed like an achievable goal. It felt like we could all “Pitch In,” as another ’70s anti-litter campaign urged us. (Not to mention, “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute.”) Throw away the trash, and the earth looks cleaner — instant gratification! But now, even though I dutifully sort my castoffs into garbage, compost and recycling, I have very little faith that it’s helping polar bears as the ice melts out from under their paws. In the face of our current global environmental quagmire, pitching in feels like a drop in the bucket.

A couple years ago, I experienced the same shameful feeling I got from Iron Eyes Cody — that Americans had soiled themselves — when a bout of aimless channel surfing landed me on The Dust Bowl, a Ken Burns documentary. Since all I really knew about that historic period came from a high school reading of The Grapes of Wrath, I kept watching. In this case, overzealous wheat cultivation and other shortsighted agricultural methods, combined with shifting weather patterns, led to environmental disaster. The black-and-white photos of towering storms of topsoil encroaching on farmhouses seemed unreal. They looked like a special effect created for a dystopian sci-fi flick.

I have a penchant for exactly this sort of film — Blade Runner is perhaps my favorite movie of all time (and one Daniel and I bonded over in the earliest days of our relationship). The atmosphere, with its overpopulated streets, extinct animals, wealthiest people living in “off-world” colonies, omnipresent advertisements and relentless acid rain, seemed, when it came out in 1982, like exactly the direction we were headed. Sometimes it still does (maybe minus the replicants, but maybe not?). I think Blade Runner and other eco-dystopian movies (Mad Max, Children of Men,Wall-E, and yes, even bloated Water World) are so titillating in part because they feel like a warning received just in time.

Will we listen? The most disturbing thing about watching The Dust Bowl was discovering that even after our forebears learned their agricultural lesson, they didn’t (couldn’t) dispose of the American notion of endless bounty, all for the taking. With the next agricultural boom in the 1950s came heavy reliance on the Ogallala aquifer, the underground natural reservoir stretching 174,000 square miles from South Dakota to Texas. “We’ll never run out!” the citizenry seemed to exclaim, like doomed characters in an Aesop’s fable. But oops, we did it again.

Due to over-pumping for massive irrigation and contamination from agricultural runoff, the Ogallala aquifer is shrinking at a dangerous pace. As it is depleted, the countless species (many undiscovered) living in the underground ecosystem are likely to go the way of the passenger pigeon. If the Ogallala goes dry, the American breadbasket goes empty. Scientists say it would take thousands of years to refill naturally — at which point our own species had better hope we’ve found a way to live off-world.

After The Dust Bowl credits rolled, I told Daniel I had an idea for a song about the Ogallala aquifer. (As is often the case, he had been working on a piece of music and was in search of lyrics.) He said, “All those vowels — that’s a great singing word,” and asked what it meant. I learned it was taken from a Native American tribe, the Oglala Lakota, and means “to scatter one’s own.” White settlers ensured the Oglala weren’t permitted to scatter too far. Now they live mostly on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, a subdivision of the Great Sioux Reservation, which also includes the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. You have heard of the Standing Rock Reservation — where thousands of tribal members and supporters have gathered to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, which endangers the Standing Rock burial grounds and water supply. You can see them on TV, or the internet, fighting to keep America beautiful.

— Brangien


hey, look what we found
down underground
a secret sea in waiting
pump it up, have a drink
the glasses clink
a liquid celebration
used to be deep and wide
Ogallala
now it seems cut and dried
Ogallala
no way to turn the tide
Ogallala
all of the fish are fried
survey says almost out
prepare for drought
a bowl of dust for breakfast
thought it was all for free
but the giving tree
has given up the ghost
used to be deep and wide
Ogallala
now it seems cut and dried
Ogallala
no way to turn the tide
Ogallala
all of the fish are fried
oh no, Ogallala
don’t go, Ogallala

The Argument is Brangien Davis and Daniel Spils. Learn more about the band here: How The Argument Started and 1 of My 43 Things.

The Argument is releasing 11 songs in 11 weeks on Medium. Sign up for new song updates.

Thank you for listening.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.