Book Review: Heart of Dryness

by David Miller Nov 10, 2009
Heart of Dryness

All photos courtesy of author James Workman.

Heart of Dryness, a new book by Matador contributor and award-winning journalist James G. Workman, is a masterwork of narrative non-fiction with critical insight into water scarcity.

“Some Bushmen told me that if you listen carefully your can hear the stars, and one night in the Kalahari silence it seemed possible.”

-from Heart of Dryness by James Workman

This is the only book I’ve ever read that made me thirsty. It made me conscious of the glass of water on my nightstand, of where that water came from, and of the water I flushed down the toilet so many times that day.

Heart of Dryness

Heart of Dryness begins in the Kalahari. In 2002, soldiers from the Republic of Botswana drive into the desert, destroying the Bushmen’s water supplies, acting on orders given by President Festus Mogae.

The act is an attempt at forcing them out of their rightful and legally protected homeland.

What follows is an intimate and emotive account [Workman traveled to the Kalahari, visiting, and living with Bushmen on and off for 7 years] of a small group of Bushmen who, in spite of being ‘forced’ from their homeland, decide to resist, to stay.

Cut off from water supplies, they must draw on their ancient wisdom and knowledge of how to survive in one of the driest places on earth.

The book is an amazing synthesis of compelling narrative writing and insights / analysis on the ever-increasing scarcity of potable water worldwide. In the interview at his website, Workman notes:

Even if we stop all carbon and greenhouse gas emissions, the world will keep warming. As it does, sudden deluge will alternate with longer, hotter, droughts. Floods let us store less; droughts leave us less to store. These extremes affect irrigation, depleting food supply.

The lack of water also cuts energy production, depleting power supply. So climate adaptation literally boils down to water adaptation. And there is no civilization better adapted to doing more, with less water, than Kalahari Bushmen.

The book’s thesis is that “We don’t govern water; water governs us.” Workman explores what this principle means in practice, both for the Bushmen, and how it might look for “us” if we were to adapt their strategies for survival.

I admit, when I first saw this title, I thought the easy reference to Conrad’s masterpiece seemed facile. I didn’t know what to expect. As soon as I started reading, however, I forgot about anything else besides the characters and their struggle, something so heroic, you have to keep reminding yourself ‘this actually happened.’

The title galvanizes the whole book, when after the narrative’s climax, we see how Qoroxlooo has made sacrifices almost impossible to imagine.

This book is timely and vital for people everywhere. I strongly encourage you to read it, and, if possible, to contact James Workman with any opportunities to read, speak, or present. He’s doing some of the most important work of anyone I know.

Community Connection

Please visit James Workman’s website for more information, and to order Heart of Dryness.

Also, be sure to read some of his original stories on Matador.

Discover Matador