Dust bowl area: 150,000 square miles encompassing Oklahoma and Texas’s panhandle, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico.
TIMOTHY EGAN’S new book, “The Worst Hard Time,” takes the shape of a classic disaster tale. We meet the central characters (the “nesters” who farmed around the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles); dire warnings (against plowing) are voiced but ignored; and then all hell breaks loose. Ten-thousand-foot-high dust storms whip across the landscape, choking people and animals, and eventually laying waste to one of the richest ecosystems on earth.
Racing at 50 miles an hour, the Dust Bowl storms of the 1930’s blasted paint off buildings; soil crushed trees, dented cars and drifted into 50-foot dunes. Tsunamis of grasshoppers devoured anything that drought, hail and tornadoes had spared. To the settlers, “it seemed on many days as if a curtain were being drawn across a vast stage at world’s end.” Families couldn’t huddle together for warmth or love: the static electricity would knock them down. Children died of dust pneumonia, and livestock suffocated on dirt, their insides packed with soil. Women hung wet sheets in windows, taped doors and stuffed cracks with rags. None of this really worked. Housecleaning, in this era, was performed with a shovel.
As banks, churches and businesses closed, food became scarce and the nesters fought back. They paid rain merchants to shoot explosives into the sky. They clubbed to death tens of thousands of wheat-fattened rabbits and poured boiling water on the tarantulas and centipedes that covered their plank walls. Starving, they pickled tumbleweed, and ate yucca roots and roadkill.
The book’s High Noon, written in cinematic stop-time, is April 14, 1935, which dawned with unusual promise: the sky blue and the sun warm. Grateful for the respite from dust, families shoveled out their houses and filled washtubs for their sheets and clothes. Then, with only a few minutes’ warning, “the mother of all dusters” swooped out of the north, “the air snapping like gunfire.” The dirt was so thick that a man could get lost half a block from his own home. There wasn’t enough oxygen in a shelter to keep a lantern lighted. Anyone caught outside dropped to the ground and faced the prospect of being buried alive.
Black Sunday’s dust – double the amount of dirt excavated to create the Panama Canal – reached the halls, and consciousness, of Washington. At first, Egan says, Franklin Roosevelt had viewed the wreckage of the plains as “a natural disaster requiring relief.” He created jobs, sent food and paid farmers to reduce supply. But as the dusters continued, debate swirled: did the storms signal an irrevocable shift in nature or a shorter cycle of drought? And then, the $10 million question: did human behavior have something to do with it?
Roosevelt was lucky to be advised by Hugh Bennett, a soil scientist who talked about conservation at a time when this value was linked exclusively to the big and the scenic: snowcapped mountains, rushing rivers, trophy elk. Through Bennett, the president came to understand that it wasn’t weather or bad luck that created the Dust Bowl: it was man’s hubris and ignorance. Rain was historically scarce in the High Plains; when it quit altogether in 1931, wheat farmers, who’d overturned the land in a speculative frenzy, tried to cover their losses by plowing and planting more. When prices crashed, farmers abandoned their fields. Soil calcified, then went airborne.
Perhaps stung by critiques of ecocentrism in “Lasso the Wind,” his 1998 book about the New West, Egan here refrains from making overt parallels between the false environmental steps of the 30’s and the false steps of today. But he does blame the government outright for setting the Dust Bowl’s stage: clearing the land of bison to make way for cattle, offering incentives that lured settlers to plow, stimulating wartime demands and encouraging unsustainable practices.
The story of the Dust Bowl is inherently dramatic, and Egan, a national correspondent for The New York Times, vividly brings both his witnesses and the weather to life. The book is, for the most part, thrilling. But Egan trips himself up with redundant outrage and with iterations of superlatives: the High Plains are “the best grassland in the world” and also “the greatest grassland under the heavens.” The bison is “the finest grass-eating creature on four legs,” and it ate “the richest sod on earth.” The author takes far too many stabs at explaining why anyone opted to stay in the Dust Bowl, instead of following the Joads, and he slips from inventive, wonder-filled descriptions of the landscape to pure bluster (the native grassland species were “a perfect fit for a big neighborhood of tough winds and unforgiving sun”) and cowboy talk (a town “where dreams took flight on the last snort of a dying horse,” people “who believed in tomorrow because it was all they had in the bank”).
In 1935, Roosevelt established the Soil Conservation Service: nesters rotated crops, fallowed land and built natural barriers, irrigation ponds and holding tanks. Grass was restored in some areas, but after the rains returned and wheat prices rose in the 40’s, farmers ripped up millions of newly planted trees and started busting up sod once again. “The Worst Hard Time” ends before this failure, but not before Egan, in an epilogue, gets in a quick dig against destructive federal subsidies and Texans’ depleting the Ogallala aquifer. You can’t blame him for feeling angry. The High Plains have never fully recovered.