Book Review: “The Worst Hard Time”, by Timothy Egan, 2006
There’s a thunder of dust coming towards you. It is crawling down the walls of your house. Your wet sheets have no effect. It has shorted out the battery in your car. Your kids are coughing it out of their lungs. Drifts of dust are covering the windows. The crops are dead and buried. The cattle cannot find a blade of grass. The chickens are running for shelter. And it happens many days in the year, year after year, from the beginning to the end of the 30s, until you stay or you leave. Northern Texas panhandle, Oklahoma panhandle, southeastern Colorado, western Kansas, southern Nebraska. This is the dust bowl. Your land. It should have never grown crops, but it did, wheat, for a few years in the early 30s. An environmental tragedy. A human tragedy. A tragedy created by government, greed and ignorance.
Timothy Egan, a reporter for the New York Times, got out of town and covered a story that only touched old New York City a few times. The dust from the West actually darkened the skies in New York and Washington D.C. in 1934 several times, enough to get the Roosevelt administration to enact some kind of policy to deal with this disaster, the darkest hole within the depression.
Egan paints a picture of the tough people who settled these plains and stayed, not the people that left. The area was originally covered by long prairie bluestem and buffalo grasses, home to nomadic Native Americans and bison. The grasses were tough enough to last through the periodic droughts, and still hold the soil down. They provided nutrients for the millions of bison, and the life of the Cherokee and Comanche who settled these lands, and even the cowboy and European cattle that came after them.
All that changed with the advent of the farmers. While other parts of the Great Plains were settled earlier, and the northern Great Plains were already being slowly depopulated, a last area of cheap land was made available, where even the most desperate farmer could find land and, rumor had it, grow crops. And they did for a few years, when the rains were plentiful, which old-timers knew was rare. To raise wheat, they had to plow up the 12 foot tall grasses with mechanical plows, and close the ranches like the XIT ranch in northern Texas. The cowboys were aghast. The native Americans were aghast. The small town boosters like editor John L McCarty, of Dalhart, Texas, and cretinous right-wing governors like William ‘Alfalfa Bill’ Murray of Oklahoma, and presidents like Herbert Hoover, thumped their tubs, and proclaimed the new era of plenty and crops was at hand. American would grow wheat in the desert. Wheat won out – for two years. Then the desert did.
That is when the drought came. So farmers plowed up more land to try to keep up with falling production, plowing under 80 million acres total, until hardly any of the original prairie was left. And the dust started. June 1931 the main bank in Dalhart closed its doors due to the financial depression. In January 1932 the first giant dust storm hit – a 10,000 foot cloud rolled over Amarillo from the south, then went into the panhandles and into Colorado and Kansas. And the cowboys knew what had happened. As Egan puts it, 'the soil was on the move.'
Dust storms hit from 1932 to 1939, numbering from 2 to 15 a month. They destroyed the farming economy of the southern plains. They forced 1/3rd of the “Okie” population to emigrate, as portrayed in the book, “Grapes of Wrath.” But of the 2/3rd that stayed behind, a good quantity died of lung diseases, similar to miners’ black lung. Many babies did not live much past birth. Nearly all farm animals eventually died. Nearly all trees, bushes and grasses also died, except Russian ‘tumbleweed’, which farmers tried to feed to salted their cattle. The dust bowl created a huge voting surge for Roosevelt, who started programs to pay farmers not to plant, or bought farmers off the land to allow it to grow fallow. Roosevelt hired an actual scientist, Hugh Bennett, who understood soil science, to try to reclaim the southern plains. Roosevelt even came up with an idea himself, to plant trees to break the wind. From these efforts, soil reclamation areas still exist today in rural areas as an inheritance of the dust bowl. And treeline windbreaks are as common as fence-posts.
The diehard civic boosters and some farmers thundered against Roosevelt and the ‘scientists’. The poor of the dust bowl killed grass-eating rabbits in giant roundups, or hired frauds to shoot cannons in the air to make it rain, or just took to drink. Roosevelt had made 3.2 beer legal almost immediately upon taking office. Many did not want to believe that human action had created this dark immensity, that it was the normal work of nature, and that it would soon be over. It was not, and it did not end for a long time.
The biggest dust storm happened on “Black Sunday” – April 14, 1935. It started out as a beautiful blue, quiet sun-drenched day, like few on the plains. It was, ironically, Palm Sunday, which tells you the ‘lord’ doesn’t order the events of nature to the Christian calendar. It seemed the best day of the year so far. However, in Bismark, North Dakota, temperatures plunged 30 degrees as a cold high pressure front from the Yukon barreled down into the States with a violent wind, picking up the darkest wall of dirt anyone had ever seen. Visibility was less than a 100 yards as it began. It was a cold black blizzard. When the storm hit Kansas, it was 200 miles wide, like a tornado turned on its side, carrying soil from 4 states, dropping temperatures 25 degrees in a few minutes. Winds blew 65 miles per hour. Animals fled before the storm. Barbed-wire fences glowed with static electricity. Cars quit. Planes turned back. A mile of high swirling dirt darkened the day like the end of the world. It swept all the way south, then across Texas. As Woody Guthrie sang the song, based on this very storm, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Ya.”
Capitalism had raped the land, and the ‘deniers’ stood around claiming it was no one’s fault but “Gods,’ and that the ‘guvmint’ should stay out of it and let business take care of ‘itself.’ Sound familiar? The dust bowl is no more than a forerunner to the events already being triggered by unchecked global climate change and peaking oil, brought on by uncontrolled and inveterate capitalist growth. There will be our own “dust bowls,’ but writ large. And the same capitalist boobs and their political coat holders hold sway… but perhaps not for long.
--Red Frog, 3/11/08
And I ordered it at May Day books