This book is subtitled “The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl” and focuses primarily on the stories of people who stayed and tried to make a go of it, in most cases because they had nowhere else to go. In many other cases it was misplaced optimism; in spite of the evidence, they kept hoping next year would be better, until they lost everything and were trapped in hell with no way out.
The Dust Bowl encompassed parts of 6 states: Kansas and Texas certainly had the largest areas, but in between Kansas and Texas was the Panhandle of Oklahoma. To the north of Kansas, a small part of Nebraska. To the west, bordering Kansas, a small part of Colorado. To the west of the Oklahoma Panhandle and Texas, a narrow part of New Mexico. All part of the “High Plains”. This is an area characterized by extreme temperature changes from winter to summer–sometimes below zero in the winter and over 100 in the summer, and very high winds in both seasons. In good years it gets maybe 20 inches of rain, but is prone to long droughts. In the entire area there are 5 rivers, which range from trickles to raging floods in the rare wet periods.
To make a long story short, it’s perfect for grass and buffalo. But through a sort of perfect storm of conditions, the Dust Bowl was created. First, it was the idea that the middle of America should not be inhabited by Indians, but by the white man. And the Homestead Act made it possible for people to go there and cheaply get their own land–the American dream then as it is now. The real estate people and the government said it was perfect farming land and that the land was an inexhaustible resource. They planted wheat, and made very good money, and when WWI came along, the price of wheat skyrocketed. So they plowed up more land and planted more wheat, until eventually 100 million acres of grassland had been plowed. Then came the Depression. The price of wheat fell, and the demand fell. Farmers were still planting wheat and more wheat while last year’s wheat was mildewing, unsold. And the final nail in the coffin was the drought. With no more grass–grasses that had adapted to the high plains over thousands of years–to hold down the soil, and wheat that was dying from the lack of rain and from the blazing temperatures, the soil went on the move.
There is a hero in the story, a man named Hugh Hammond Bennett, who as early as the 1920’s started sounding the alarm that the land was being killed, perhaps permanently. He later created the concept of soil conservation districts, and managed to restore some of the land. Apparently he was more successful at getting farmers to change their ways than he was at getting his boss, FDR, to see the light. FDR thought the solution was to plant trees as windbreaks. His Civilian Conservation Corps planted millions of trees on the High Plains, most of which are now dead. Bennett told him they would not survive. But it put a lot of people to work planting trees, which was a short-term stimulus package that worked.
The prairie is still not restored fully, and here’s the bad part: now it appears we are doing new bad things to it. The author, Timothy Egan, says that now they are pulling water from the Oglalla Aquifer, the largest in North America, which runs from North Dakota to Texas. At the time of the Dust Bowl, that was one of their hopes to save themselves, but they did not yet have the technology to bring it up, because it’s 500 to 700 feet deep. Water is being pulled from the Aquifer 8 times faster than it can be replaced by nature, and it’s thought it will run out in 100 years. And what is that saying about being doomed to repeat history?
Any good book, fiction or non-fiction, will make the setting and the people real for you. In this book, which is filled with real people, the horror of the Dust Bowl was brought home to me by one scene. The dust storms started in 1932, but in 1937, in the tiny town of Dalhart, Texas, they got a little rain that spring. A man named Bam White planted some grass, some alfalfa (to feed his two surviving horses), and a little corn. Then a grasshopper swarm arrived. At first they thought it was another dust storm. Later, it was estimated that there were 23,000 grasshoppers per acre, 14 million per square mile, in the swarm. At Bam’s farm, the grasshoppers ate everything down to the ground in minutes, and then moved on, but not before his son tried to sweep them off the grass with a broom. They landed on him and tried to eat his shirt. They tried to eat fences and the wooden handles of tools.
But that scene, of Bam’s son trying to sweep a swarm of locusts off the grass will forever be the picture I have of the Dust Bowl–the folly and the desperation, but a sort of defiance and courage too.