The Worst Hard Time
The Untold Story of Those Who
Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
(Houghton Mifflin)It blighted parts of New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and over half of Kansas. In 1933, there were multiple dust storms that lasted seventy days. In 1935, it stripped away an estimated 850,000 tons of good topsoil, the same year that it drove 250,000 people from their homes.
Cows were found dead, bellies loaded with dust. Wheat, corn, fruit trees, grass died during the eight years of drought. It also killed people: there was so much floating particulate matter in the air that children would develop "dust pneumonia" --- a form of silicosis, and die of suffocation.
Visibilty would drop to zero. One could not see far enough to farm, to go to school, or go to town. Sometimes it was impossible to go next door. One could "drive for days without seeing a single green thing."
A judge in Dalhart, Texas, trying to understand why people were going crazy, drove through the dust bowl and
saw farmhouses without a chicken or cow. He saw children in rags, their parents too frightened of dust pneumonia to send them to school, huddling in shacks shaped into wavy formations on the prairie, almost indistinguishable from the dunes.A woman was brought to his court. "Her children were hungry, dirty, coughing, dressed in torn, soiled clothes. The house was nearly buried." Having lost her husband to the dust, what finally drove her over the brink wasn't the critters (centipedes and black widows). No, the thing that destroyed her and so many of her neighbors was the enervating, hot, rainless wind that never stopped. "One day, the woman simply snapped. 'Dust is killing me!' the woman shouted."
The static electricity would build up so that people "tried not to touch each other," because they could literally blow each other down. It was
the same kind of electrical energy that caused the windmill to spout a flame from a trailing wire and barbed-wire fences to emit blue sparks."
And where did all this dust come from? According to Egan, it was, first, a part of 19th Century national policy to rid the country of the Indians and the buffalo they fed on. Then along came World War I, and its demand for wheat, and good old American realty (not reality): sell the land in what was, some years, a desert, to would-be farmers at a low price.
They came into Western Kansas, Northern Texas, or No Man's Land in the Oklahoma panhandle. They plowed up the buffalo grass that had been there for centuries. Within a short time, with the coming of drought, the topsoil literally blew away.
When the native sod of the Great Plains was in place, it did not matter if people looked twice at a piece of ground. Wind blew twenty, thirty, forty miles an hour, as always. Droughts came and went.... Through all of the seasonal tempests, man was inconsequential. As long as the weave of grass was stitched to the land, the prairie would flourish in dry years and wet. The grass could look brown and dead, but beneath the surface, the roots held the soil in place; it was alive.
The grass --- buffalo and blue grama --- held the moisture even during droughts. But the farmers came with their machines, "producing the biggest wheat crops in history, transforming the great grassland into a vast medium for turning out a global commodity."
Then, suddenly, it all dried up. The land died. The animals died. Then the people moved away, or, as often, died or went crazy.
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Most of us remember the "dust-bowl" as something that happened to a part of the Middle West sometime in the early years of the depression. We knew that Woody Guthrie wrote a song about it, and that the New Deal set up a soil conservation bureau to save the land and, ultimately, the farmers.
What we didn't know was that it went on so long, destroyed so much, drove people mad, killed the very young and the very old.
We also had no idea that it stripped 33,000,000 acres bare of good topsoil, that storms of dust imprisoned people in their homes for days if not months, that the worst storms were not in 1930 or 1933 or 1935 but in 1937 (134 storms in that year alone) or 1938 (a "Black Blizzard" lasted for three days).
Egan has put together a fascinating book. He also gives us some things to stew about. For instance, he tells us that mega-farms are now drawing considerable subsidies that have nothing to do with "keeping people on the land or feeding the average American." Agribusinesses keep the crops growing (and the dust down) by invading the Ogallah Aquifer, which provides "30 percent of the irrigation water in the United States, drawing the water down eight times faster than nature can refill it."
Cotton growers, siphoning water from the Ogallah, get three billion dollars a year in taxpayer money for fiber that is shipped to China, where it is used to make cheap clothing sold back to American chain retail stores like Wal-Mart.
Portions of the aquifer will be gone by 2010, Egan tells us, and hints that another Black Sunday may come, as it did on Palm Sunday, 1935 --- where the wind and the dust would not stop, where they created, according to one witness, "the darkest dark you ever looked into."
--- Leslie Crowley