Chocolate-brown and larger than a football, the cow patty had lain undisturbed on the parched soil of a nameless New Mexican ghost town. Undisturbed, that is, until my left foot landed right in the middle of it. Fortunately for me, the patty was rock-solid — a good platform to stand on.
I looked around. Barbed wire fences sporadically separated a small community of adobe homes. All had broken windows. Sun-bleached cars from the 1940s rusted slowly in driveways while sheets of corrugated tin lay haphazardly in backyards.
The three of us had intended to take a five-minute break on the way to Albuquerque to stretch our legs, but we found ourselves drawn deeper into the ghost town. What had happened here?
A wooden shed might provide clues. We went in. Bales of straw covered the floor, and the walls were plastered with Coca-Cola ads from the 1930s. No signs of life, though a chain saw lay dormant in the corner. We left the shed as a tumbleweed rolled along the dusty reddish earth.
More cow patties, though no cows in sight. A house’s walls had caved in and the kitchen was visible: broken table, fallen cupboards, immaculate refrigerator. An old sign: “Speed Limit: 25 Miles Per Hour.” An old dog, ambling through the town.
The riddle was soon answered, for behind the house was a dry creek. Mummified cow patties were sprinkled throughout; it had clearly been many years since water had flushed the riverbed.
So that was all: The water had run dry and the town had withered.
We took a few photos, kicked a tumbleweed or two, and got back in the car. An hour later we passed the Conchas Dam, a New Deal waterworks. That project or one of its ilk must have diverted the ghost town’s water. No water, no life.
Such things have happened before, and on much larger scales. Forty-two hundred years ago, the Akkadian empire of Mesopotamia collapsed amid plummeting rainfall and dry riverbeds. And dynasties in China and Mesoamerica toppled when the rain dried up, if evidence published in the magazine Nature is to be believed. The maintenance of a community or a country depends at least as much on rainfall as on the decisions of any individual.
It’s a humbling thought. It can happen that a whole community does nothing wrong yet withers at the hand of a distant construction worker or the whim of God. External reality often matters more than the decisions we individually make. Our successes and failures are contingent on decisions made upstream.
As we returned to the car and sped towards Albuquerque, I was left to wonder: What of us Yalies? We do not live in rural New Mexico, nor are we currently undergoing a drought (well, unless we’re from California or the Southwest). But our community depends on more than H2O, and our financial springhead is about to run dry for a while. We are resilient and will adapt.
But all things must eventually end. When our culture finally withers, what will we leave behind? Rusting cars? Printed ink in college newspapers? Cow patties parched by the sun? The Akkadians left their language, their art and their political organization as models for future generations to build on. Our legacy should be a solid foundation for whatever is to come next.
And if solid foundations are our goal, then those cow patties are a good start.
Justin Kosslyn is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.