Causes of the Dust Bowl Explored in Riveting Book

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was an ecological disaster of a caliber our country hadn’t seen before and hasn’t since, and, as author Timothy Egan points out, much of the devastation was the result of human actions.

| September 2, 2010

  • The Worst Hard Time
    Drawing on the voices of those who stayed and survived the Dust Bowl — those who, now in their 80s and 90s, will soon carry their memories to the grave — “The Worst Hard Time” tells a story of endurance and heroism against the backdrop of the Great Depression.

  • The Worst Hard Time

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.

9/21/2010 3:33:40 PM

This is a great book where real people recount the Dust Bowl and how it effected them and their communities. It is a story of the spirit of human endurance as well as what can go terribly wrong when greed and lack of knowledge overcomes common sense. These people didn't have a political agenda, they were just trying to survive. Too many farmers were plowing up the prairie, trying to make payments on their farm, their tractors, etc, without realizing that with no tree belts and a horrendous drought, they were literally making the problem worse. At the time, farmers didn't understand about soil conservation or tree belts or contour plowing. They didn't know that the aquifers could be pumped dry. It took FDR and a massive government program to solve the problem. Now of course, people are much more knowledgeable about how our actions effect the planet. But some people refuse to acknowledge that we can ruin the Earth by our carelessness. We can destroy the very thing that feeds us. This book will hopefully remind us all that the Earth is a fragile planet and it needs all our best efforts to keep green, clean and alive. And that means continuing education to keep ignorance and federal laws to keep corporate greed from destroying the one and only Mother Earth.



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