Friday, November 16, 2012

The Worst Hard Time: The Great American Dust Bowl

I have a strange obsession with the Great Depression.  The novels of John Steinbeck, the music of Woody Guthrie, and the photographs of Dorothea Lange move me in ways I can't fully explain.  Something about the ragged tenacity of people who lost nearly everything, the sense of outrage and confusion at a system that failed, and the deep pathos of artists and writers trying to make sense of a country that had been stripped to the bone.  Something about this moves me, resonates with me.

Much of what I've read about the Great Depression has been academic articles and theses and dissertations, which are information and insight-packed, but lack the human stories that make for a great read.  So imagine my delight when my friend Chantal, an artist, loaned me a book called The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of the Great American Dust Bowl, by Timothy Egan.  It's well-researched and insightful, and it's written for a popular audience, and Egan is a great writer.  He won the National Book Award for this.  Reading it has inspired me and reminded me of the riches and pleasures to be found in really good non-fiction.  So, without further ado, here's my book report on The Worst Hard Time...

I had always believed that the great American dust bowl was a natural disaster, a fluke of weather, but Egan's book explains how the failure of the land was, at least in part, man-made.  Before the dust bowl became an infertile No Man's Land, it was the high plains, a vast grassland populated by millions of buffalo and the Comanche Indians.

Beginning in the late 19th century, following a policy of Manifest Destiny, the U.S. government enacted a rigorous campaign to push the Indians and buffalo off the land, so it could be put to "productive use."  The Red River War of 1874-75 broke the Comanche, and U.S. General Sheridan told the Texas Legislature, "For the sake of a lasting peace, [Americans should] kill, skin, and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated.  Then your prairie can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy, forerunner of an advanced civilization."

Buffalo Skull pile, 1870s

With the exclusion of the Comanche and the effective extermination of the buffalo, the U.S. government began various settlement programs on the high plains, encouraging farmers to settle and grow wheat, and lots of it.  "The tractors rolled on, the grass yanked up, a million acres a year, turned and pulverized," Egan writes, "In just five years, 1925-1930, another 5.2 million acres of native soil went under the plow in the southern plains--an area the size of two Yellowstone Parks."

During this great plow-up, when wheat farmers were making fortunes, some people warned that this policy was not sustainable, that plowing up a natural habitat would have devastating consequences, but these voices were large unheeded during the wheat bonanza of the 1920s.  "If the farmers of the high plains were laying the foundation for a time bomb that would shatter the natural world, any voices that implied such a thing were muted," Egan writes.

Plowing up the Great Plains.

The 1920s in America were, in some ways, like the 1990s and early 2000s, when government and big business were on a short-sighted roller coaster ride up, thinking little about the long-term consequences.  "On the giddy ride up," Egan writes, "there had been no cop, no regulator to enforce basic rules of an American economy that had become the world's biggest casino.  Real estate in Florida, oil in Texas, wheat in Kansas, and stocks on Wall Street--they all had their time when gravity was willed into oblivion.  And the rules put in place on the way down, the tariffs and tighter money, only made the problem worse.  The consumer stopped consuming all but the basics.  The depression was now global."

Following the collapse of 1929, fueled in part by the wheat bonanza and over-speculation on the high plains, president Herbert Hoover stuck to his "free market" guns.  "Why not have the government buy the surplus wheat to feed the hungry?  Farmers demanded as much.  Hoover rejected the idea out of hand," Egan writes.

Beginning in the 1930s, farmers on the high plains were hit with a double-whammy: the collapse of the wheat market on Wall Street, and the failure of the land.  Plowing up millions of acres in a short time period, it turned out, had devastating effects.  "At the end of 1931," Egan explains, "the Agriculture College of Oklahoma did a survey of all the land that had been torn up in their state during the wheat bonanza.  They were astonished by what they found: of sixteen million acres in cultivation in the state, thirteen million were seriously eroded." Melt White, a farmer who lived through the great American dust bowl, reflects upon the disaster: "God didn't create this land around here to be plowed up.  He created it for Indians and buffalo.  Folks raped this land.  Raped it bad."

And then came the dust storms: "American meteorologists rated the Dust Bowl the number one weather event of the twentieth century.  And as they go over the scars of the land, historians say it was the nations worst prolonged environmental disaster" (Egan).  The millions of acres of prairie grass, which had held down the topsoil and dirt for millennia, had been almost completely plowed up in a few short decades.  The land had been stripped naked.  How bad were the dust storms?  Here are a few excerpts from the book:

"Around noon on January 21, 1932, a cloud ten thousand feet high from ground to top appeared just outside Amarillo...Nobody knew what to call it.  It was not a rain cloud.  Nor was it a cloud holding ice pellets.  It was not a twister.  It was thick like course animal hair; it was alive.  People close to it described a feeling of being in a blizzard--a black blizzard, they called it--with an edge like steel wool.  The weather bureau people in Amarillo were fascinated by the cloud precisely because it defied explanation...After hovering hear Amarillo, the cloud moved north up the Texas Panhandle, toward Oklahoma, Colorado, and Kansas."

"On May 9, 1934, a flock of whirlwinds started up in the northern prairie, in the Dakotas and eastern Montana, where people had fled the homesteads two decades earlier...The next day, a mass of dust-filled clouds marched east, picking up strength as they found the jet stream winds, moving toward the population centers.  By the time this black front hit Illinois and Ohio, the formations had merged into what looked to pilots like a solid block of airborne dirt.  Planes had to fly fifteen thousand feet to get above it...the pilots described the storm in apocalyptic terms."

"Carrying three tons of dust for every American alive, the formation moved over the Midwest.  It covered Chicago at night, dumping an estimated six thousand tons... Now the storm was measured at 1,800 miles wide, a great rectangle of dust from the Great Plains to the Atlantic, weighing 350 million tons."

"Every school in [Baca] county was closed for a week in March.  At one school, children were trapped just before the afternoon school bell, unable to go home.  They spent the night holed up behind the thin walls of the wood-frame building, cold and hungry.  Stories like that made parents give up on school.  It was too risky, and they did not see any reason for it.  Life's ambitions and dreams had dried up; people held to a few, desperate desires--a longing to breathe clean air, to eat, to stay warm.  School was a luxury."

"Dr John H. Blue of Cuymon, Oklahoma, said he treated fifty-six patients for dust pneumonia, and all of them showed signs of silicosis; others were suffering early symptoms of tuberculosis.  He was blunt. The doctor had looked inside an otherwise healthy young farm hand, a man in his early twenties, and told him what he saw.  'You are filled with dirt,' the doctor said.  The young man died within a day."

"Desperate parents pleaded with the government men to hep their families escape.  Their children were being strangled by dust.  In a month, a hundred families in Baca County gave up their property to the government in return for passage away from land that was killing them."

According to farm ecologist Hugh Bennet, "Of all the countries of the world, we Americans have been the greatest destroyers of land of any race of people barbaric or civilized."  Americans had become "a force of awful geology."

President Hoover's policies had created the dubious phenomenon known as "Hoovervilles," thousands of people living in shacks and tents, people who lost nearly everything.  Hoovervilles dotted the American landscape, physical evidence of failed economic policies.  In 1930, 1,350 banks failed.  The next year, 2,294 banks failed.

Fed up with Hoover's failed laissez-faire economic policies, which had helped create the Dust Bowl disaster, Americans elected a new leader in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who said: "These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized, the indispensible units of economic powers...the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid."  Roosevelt's "New Deal" offered hope to those living in the grinding poverty create by the collapse of 1929.  In an effort to save the farmers, Roosevelt had the government buy surplus corn, beans, flour, and meat, and distribute it to the needy.   The Agricultural Adjustment Act was "designed to help poor grain farmers, one foot in foreclosure, near starvation, pounded by dirt...Without the government, all of Cimarron County might have dissipated in the dust in 1934.  For that year, the government bought 12,499 cattle, 1,050 sheep, and gave out loans to 300 farmers."

Another legacy of Roosevelt was the WPA (Works Progress Administration) which, along with putting millions of unemployed Americans to work on public projects, paid photographers like Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein to go into the dustbowl and document the ecological and human tragedy.  The government financed Pare Lorentz's now-classic documentary film The Plow that Broke the Plains, which chronicled the causes and effects of the great American Dust Bowl.  Because of these and other  public projects, we have a lasting record of this great American tragedy so that, hopefully, we might learn from the mistakes of the past.

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