Wednesday, December 3, 2008
They were no weather phenomenon. The plains states were known for the wind. Tornadoes, flash floods, hail, droughts, and just about every other natural disaster found its way into the Oklahoma panhandle, the southern tips of Kansas and Colorado, and down into Texas. The people there were used to catastrophes. But nothing prepared them for the dust.
It was more than just a gust of wind carrying dirt. For years, suitcase farmers and nesters tried to farm the rough land from Texas up to Montana and the Dakotas, not heeding the warnings of the ranchers. The land was never meant to be farmed at such a capacity. Folks up north had learned their lesson, and the small settlements were ghost towns by the time of the wheat boom in the southern plains. But no lessons were learned.
Farmers had no idea what conservation meant and only a few egg heads in Washington and in the south were campaigning for it. The farms were planted during a wet period, which was more unusual than droughts. And life was good while it lasted. But then the stock market crashed and the United States headed into a depression. Many people couldn't afford to keep up the farm, so they left the land torn to shreds. Those who stayed couldn't make a profit on their wheat with prices so low, so they were forced to expand their farms and harvest more and more wheat.
Times were pretty rough. Then came the drought. Now imagine all this grassland ripped up, lying there, baking in the sun.
By 1934, it was futile to plant a crop. Again, the land was ripped up. Normally the buffalo grass and the other living plant life would hold the prairie soil down. But the grass was gone. Nothing was alive to hold it down. Winds would swirl in from the north, picking up soil from Montana and the Dakotas, hauling in the black earth of Kansas. They were called dusters. Giant storms of wind and dirt. They would appear often times without warning, carrying tons of dust. It would scrape across your skin and burn in your eyes. Surgical masks and wet sponges were kept over faces to keep from suffocating. Static electricity surged through the storms and would jolt anyone who happened into metal objects. Barbed wire fences had a blue glow from the intense electricity pulsing through it. Cars shorted out. Windmills snapped with electric shocks.
The worst duster came on Sunday, April 14, 1935. It began as a beautiful windless morning, one of first days in nearly two years without dust or snow. Families unsealed their windows and went outside without their masks or sponges. Finally they caught a break. The worst was over.
Around mid-afternoon, a cloud was seen in the distance. At first glance it looked like a thunderhead. Maybe some rain would complete this perfect day. As it got closer, the cloud grew. It was thousands of feet tall: a giant black wall speeding across the plains. See above picture.
If you had been caught in the duster on Black Sunday, you would have been immersed into complete darkness. You could not see your hand in front of your face. Dust would be shoving its way into your nose and mouth and scraping across your skin. The temperature dropped over 25 degrees in a matter of minutes. The sun was completely blocked out in the middle of the afternoon. I don't know about you, but that is one of the scariest things I could ever imagine.
FDR saved America in the 30's. But he couldn't do it all by his own sorry polioed ass. Big Hugh Bennett, the father of soil conservation, saved the southern plains. His task was all but impossible. In just 30 years, the suitcase farmers and settlers had disrupted the entire way of life of the plains that had existed intact for centuries. Hugh Bennett had to rebuild an entire ecosystem from scratch. There was nothing left. Families had sold their farm equipment, cattle, horses, pigs, heirlooms, anything of value. They were reduced to eating roasted tumbleweed to stay alive. The banks took houses. The wind took the land. The heat took any last bit of hope. By the end of 1937, over 20 million people had fled the dustbowl. Eighty percent of the land was destroyed. But Hugh Bennett sucked in his gut. With water conservation from the aquafer beneath the earth and cousin grasses from Africa and Asia, Bennett began to rebuild what the farmers had destroyed.
FDR demanded results from Bennett, and Big Hugh delivered. Bt the president also wanted to know what had caused the biggest environmental disaster in the history of the United States. Bennett and his conservation cronies took a hard look into the past and landed on the Homestead Act of 1862. The Act basically handed out free land to anyone willing to work it. One hundred and sixty acres was yours after five years if you built a house, dug a well, and plowed ten acres. The government had rolled out the red carpet to well-meaning but ignorant settlers.
Today the scars left by those ignorant farmers are still visible. Some of the land, thanks to Hugh Bennett, has come back to life. But where once towns had revelled in their wealth from the wheat boom now loom huge, drifting sand dunes. Ghost towns.
There are many more aspects of Egan's book that I loved. The Last Man Standing Club. The story of the Lukas family. Bam White's face on the big screen. But there is so much heartache in the stories. Lives were ruined. Men tried to be brave and wait out the drought only to be chased out of their homes by poverty or choked by the dust the never quit. They were stabbed in the back by the land they loved, the land that they and many others hadn't treated properly. And the name of the book proved to be perfect. Truly, it was the hardest time in American history because for the first time we as Americans had to own up to what we'd done. We made a mistake. We paid dearly for it.