Weather and Society Watch
Review of The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
Anyone who’s been to the Oklahoma Panhandle has seen the artifacts of a puzzling history, left for decades to weather, motionless yet expressive. It’s as if these relics are shouting something important at us across the vast, empty spaces. Speaking for and decoding these objects, Timothy Egan weaves together the ghostly, eerie, and mystical aspects of the area stretching from the Texas Panhandle up through Wyoming and Montana, west of the 37th meridian, to bring the Dust Bowl era to life in the 2006 book, “The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.” In this history, the stories of men and women are intertwined delicately with their senses, myths of nature, human nature, and the explosive intersection of economic and climatic forces. Threading all of these plotlines together, Egan makes the reader feel the lives of real people, understand their choices, triumphs and pain, and take an honest look at how we’re mirror images of our ancestors in so many ways. Understanding this history, Egan argues, is key to understanding our present social-ecological situation throughout the Great Plains. This book is an eloquent plea for sustainable development and critical evaluation of modern-day agricultural practice, and appeals to a wide audience, including the atmospheric scientists, anthropologists, sociologists, economists, and others who subscribe to Weather and Society Watch. It’s a must-read for those concerned with the intersection of weather, climate and society.
The story of the Great Plains relics begins near the end of the nineteenth century, with the stories of the people who first settled throughout the Southern Plains. Initially, cowboys and ranchers replaced Comanche Indians removed from the land after bitter wars. Native bison were killed off to force away the Indians, and replaced with cattle, easily supporting a profitable ranching lifestyle until overproduction shot prices down. Investors eager to make a better return began to promote the Southern Plains as a haven for development, an oasis of booming culture and fertile soil, relabeling the Great Desert as the Great Plains. The investors targeted several new audiences with their ads, and with the U.S. government’s blessing, the price was right. German Russians, persecuted and moved many times over, were eager to find a place where they could work hard, keep clean and implant their traditions and music. For their very hard-working reputation, these people were solicited heavily. Others came for the opportunity to advance themselves from mere farm hand to farm owner. Some came for medicinal reasons, as the Plains were advertised for clear and breathable air. All came with dreams, and many with crushing personal histories. A lot of heart was put into the move, and none of the immigrants were told the truth: the area was completely undeveloped and climatologically too dry to sustain any sort of agricultural practice established in the country to date.
At the time, settlements in the Northern Plains were already showing signs of failure due to difficult climatic conditions, but the Southern Plains opened their doors for development. When the families arrived, they didn’t expect to see the desolation that appeared before them, but they decided to make the best of the opportunity and make “improvements” to the land. To overcome the lack of moisture, windmills were built—an absolute necessity. Many families built homes into small hillsides, called dugouts, to get their families started. Immediately the “nesters” began to suffer from severe weather and flash floods; yet they maintained a foothold. Dry farming methods were disseminated widely, with the belief that the problem was not in a lack of rainfall but, rather, in finding ways to hold moisture in the soil and reduce evaporation. Many settlers believed that “the rain follows the plow,” and chose to work the land harder in response to cultivation difficulty. Around 1917, large quantities of land that for thousands of years had been grassland were broken. Following the extirpation of the bison, this marked the second affront by settlers to the natural ecology of the Plains, and represented a key interpretation of climate in the story: a little dry, but not outside of the realm of control.
Quickly, the land proved bountiful for development, with the blessing of several relatively wet years. The new settlers couldn’t realize the conditions were abnormally moist, believing in the promises sold to them so they could have faith in their futures. They moved forward to develop their sections, build families, and make long-term plans. A byproduct of the ongoing war was a sharp increase in the price of wheat, a high price soon fixed by the U.S. government, to which the nesters responded by tearing up more land and raking in revenue, occasionally an order of magnitude over costs. The news of this brought even more immigrants to develop the marginal lands. In this time, the advent of the motorized combine exponentially increased efficiency of farming, allowing for even more development per farmer. This growth wasn’t undisturbed by local meteorological problems: there were hailstorms that ruined thousands of acres of wheat and bitterly cold winters to contend with. But at the time, these events didn’t phase the overall pattern of development. The Southern Plains began to explode with growth, with millions of acres of grassland torn up through the 1920s. The Federal Bureau of Soils claimed that “[t]he soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses. It is the one resource that cannot be exhausted.” Producers joined in the buying and spending sprees of their contemporaries, borrowing against their futures. Cultivation farming edged out ranching, the ranchers left disillusioned and unsettled. None who roamed the land before this time felt that the development was right for the area, but they could hardly stop the forces of economic incentive and climatological ignorance.
The agricultural industry had boomed, but by the end of the 1920s, it threatened collapse. Overproduction, as with the introduction of cattle ranching in the Southern Plains, pushed prices down. Producers faced two choices for maintaining profitability and paying their debts: work together to reduce the amount generated, or dig into the land and plant even more. With no grounds for cooperative effort to be negotiated, the farmers took to the land and grew more. The weather was wet enough and no late freezes harmed the crops, leading to an excess of production that left piles of unused product near silos and train stations. Prices merely plummeted further, particularly by the end of that year—1929. Within a year, the nation was going hungry, and the farmers of the Plains were harvesting the most they had ever grown but could not sell it to support themselves. And then, by the fall of 1930, the Southern Plains began to get a taste of a new atmospheric phenomenon that would soon dominate their lives: dust storms.
The dust came mildly at first, a curious annoyance to be swept away, particularly from the tidy German households. Over the first year or two, many homesteaders began to leave the Plains, unable to make a living from the land. As more people left, more land was torn up and exposed, but unused. Not that those who lived there were making the most of their land, as it cost more to produce than they’d gain in revenue. Additionally, many areas had been so overused that the soil was only marginal for production, and yields decreased per unit of farmer effort. It seemed that everyone became poor as the Great Depression and a strange dry year began to settle over the farmlands. While many initially thought they could at least survive by cultivating their food and raising cattle, the dust began to come on more strongly as the years passed. The cattle ingested the dust and starved to death, their stomachs so full of it that nothing else could be processed. Many chickens went blind from it. And most crops and trees died, despite irrigation efforts. Many families had stocks of food to last them through difficult times, but within two years some were forced to brine and jar tumbleweeds and go on mad rabbit hunts for sustenance. The people had adapted to a wet climate and to a ground that had no history of being so exposed. When a very normal event set in—a spell of seven dry years—the people were unprepared.
Those who remained throughout the ordeal did so for a variety of personal and financial reasons, all believing in the future of the Plains, all in love with an image of the land that was either pre-development and stable or amid-development and wet. Nobody had much money, but communities came together to hire weather modifiers to shoot explosives into the sky in order to bring rain. People stubbornly persisted in thinking that they could influence the atmosphere and control the land, even through its torrential onslaughts of dust that lead everyone present to be touched by a plague of dust pneumonia. Women lost babies, men went blind, children suffocated walking home from school—the silicates in the dust had a corrosive and destructive power unlike anything these hardy populations had ever seen. Living standards were intolerable, with entire months blotted out in complete darkness, leaving the people to cower in their dark and dank hillside shanties with infestations of black widows and other bugs. The dust didn’t even abate in the winter, when blizzards became black. Any precipitation that fell was laden with dirt. Each passing summer seemed to break heat records, as the ground became dry, rock-hard, and piled with enormous dunes. Years into the war with the weather, without any ability to maintain a crop, everyone was debt laden and unable to pay. Yet, most people remained in their homes with the help of government assistance, if such a thing could be considered help. Tractors were repossessed, and cows were sold or killed in government-sponsored attempts to raise cattle prices. By 1936, most farmers had literally nothing left, their children adorned in sackcloth and without shoes in a land of brutal frigid wind and searing, record-breaking heat.
That year the U.S. government would find that the Dust Bowl was not caused by a climatic fluke. In fact, tree ring and other evidence showed that such dry spells were very normal. It was human forcing that had transformed prairies into rolling desert. While this was an affront to the popular belief, espoused by the President, in the positive power of hard-working men, he acknowledged its reality. Roosevelt sponsored enormous conservation efforts at the behest of Hugh Bennett, a chemist turned ecologist who had led the effort to prove the Dust Bowl’s cause and enact a solution. The solution required massive collective effort, but the farmers were so desperate that they abdicated their former self-interested ways and accepted that each defector could bring down what little hope they might have in improving their situation. Broad dunes were torn down, drought-resistant grasses reseeded and huge plots of land returned to prairie. Farmers planted new varieties in hedgerows to stave off corrosive wind effects. The President planted millions of trees in an effort to break the wind. By 1937, the rains began to come again, but with it came swarms of grasshoppers that forestalled agricultural productivity. Nature had been thrown far out of balance, and it took many years of adaptation efforts to reign it back in.
As Egan tells this story, success only came by learning to work with the land and meet its needs. The Great Plains is a semi-arid and very windy region where great effort must be placed on preserving a delicate balance between the wants of man and nature. The story ends with almost all of the lead characters either leaving or dying soon after the Dust Bowl, stubbornly tied to the land they loved, many leaving ancestors who remained in the Dust Bowl region. The author also leaves us with a scathing depiction of modern society and our present-day treatment of the Plains, one that has strayed from a sustainable philosophy. With advanced irrigation technologies, we are fast depleting the only source of water for the entire region. Over-farming land is common, and many crops are grown that have no natural place in the Plains. He begs the question, “Have we forgotten the lessons of our ancestors?” Through all of our modern activities, their abandoned artifacts remain, shouting at us to listen to Timothy Egan’s story and take heed. He leaves the book with a clear message: Man is not more powerful than nature, and if we do not adapt to the climate that’s presented to us, it will deal us a severe blow in response.
*Kim Klockow (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Ph.D. student in geography at the University of Oklahoma.
Egan, Timothy. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. Houghton Mifflin. 2006.