Ignorance, hubris, misguided public policies, greed, extreme weather and good intentions. Mix them all together and you know you’re in for something ugly. In the case of the American High Plains in the early part of the 20th century, these elements came together to create what we know as the Dust Bowl, the subject of Timothy Egan’s book The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).
Whatever you imagine about the Dust Bowl, chances are it was worse. Egan’s book chronicles the tragic devastation of the shortgrass prairie of the American High Plains and the almost unbelievable human suffering that resulted from it. Babies choked to death on dusty air, children failed to thrive, families were driven to eat pickled tumbleweed, roads were rendered impassable by low visibility and drifts of dust, farm animals starved, and equipment was ruined.
What’s particularly tragic, and what I had never realized, is that the misery and suffering was the result of human action. Encouraged by a combination of well-meaning governmental incentives and predatory schemes by land investors, would-be farmers arrived in the region (eastern New Mexico and Colorado, western Kansas and the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas) in large numbers in the 1910s and ’20s. They had reason to think they could prosper by farming wheat — at the time, prices were good and the area was enjoying a period of relatively wet years.
But the land was shortgrass prairie and was best suited for the buffalo that roamed there until they were hunted to near extinction in the 19th century. After a few prosperous years of wheat farming, the price of wheat dropped, and it continued dropping for several years, causing the farmers to rip up ever-larger areas of perennial grass for the cultivation of annual crops, until virtually all of the shortgrass prairie had been plowed. In 1929, of course, the stock market crashed. Then the rain pattern in the High Plains shifted. In 1931, an eight-year period of drought began, and the stage was set for catastrophe.
After the “sodbusters” ripped up the native grasses and removed the root structure of the plants, nothing was left to hold the soil in place during dry periods. When the wheat crops failed for lack of rain, the dusty soil began to blow away with wind. The first of these dust storms — as wide as the eye could see and nearly two miles high — occurred in Texas in 1932. By the following year, the storms were frequent, widespread and devastating. Hundreds of millions of tons of topsoil blew away, causing brownouts all along the East Coast before falling into the Atlantic Ocean.
FDR’s soil conservation efforts (along with the end of the drought) eventually helped to stabilize the region, but incredible damage had been done to the ecosystem of the area. To this day, the Ogallala Aquifer is being drained at an alarming rate in order to provide irrigation for corporate farming on the high plains.
Ignorance, hubris, misguided public policies, greed, extreme weather and good intentions. The Dust Bowl isn’t the only example of what can happen when these elements mix.