As we’re going to be driving across Oklahoma, I thought I’d reacquaint myself with the Dust Bowl. But there’s no way I could face reading The Grapes of Wrath again. Don’t get me wrong, I think Steinbeck’s book is perhaps one of the contenders for The Great American Novel. Everyone should read it once. But once might be about all you can take. It’s a thick book and every ten pages something so horrible happens that you just can’t imagine anything worse could be visited on the Joad family. Then Steinbeck ups the ante. I think the ending is supposed to be uplifting, showing the humanitarian spirit of a people who still give after everything else has been taken. But it’s horrific.
So I turned instead to history, specifically New York Times reporter Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time. Turns out Steinbeck didn’t know the half of it. First of all, the Dust Bowl wasn’t confined to Oklahoma. It stretched from below Lubbock, Texas up through the panhandle of Oklahoma, over to New Mexico and Colorado and up through most of western Kansas to the Republican River in Nebraska. Basically, it included all of the High Plains of Middle America, what was once one of the most extensive grasslands in the world.
I’ll grant I may not have been paying attention, but Steinbeck left me with the impression that the Dust Bowl was caused by a great drought, a collapse in agriculture prices and greedy bankers. He also made it sound like the worst things happened to the Okies when they left. The reality, as reported by Egan, is much more frightening. Turns out, it was one of the greatest man-made ecological disasters in human record and it all happened in a few short decades. The High Plains had always known severe drought. At least twenty since the late 1790s were verified by tree rings, all as bad as the 9 year drought in the Thirties. And fierce winds had always pummeled the plains. The difference was the area had been covered with Buffalo Grass, that amazing vegetation that can withstand years of drought, holds the soil fast through onslaughts of wind, and stands up even to the trampling hooves of millions of buffalo. In a few short years, that former grassland looked like the Sahara Desert, blasted by abrasive sand storms and covered under drifting sand dunes six feet high in places. People died of dust pneumonia, farms disappeared under sand overnight, and the land blew away.
It all started with the Oklahoma land rush, when the Government, aided by charlatans and speculators, encouraged the wholesale settlement and plowing up of land that was never meant to sustain fragile, thirsty annual crops such as corn and wheat. With the Government cheering them on, by the Twenties, these settlers produced the largest crop yield the world had ever seen. Then the Depression hit, the bottom fell out of the wheat, corn and cattle market and people plowed up even more land in a desperate bid to plant twice as much to earn half what they had on a fraction of the acreage a few years earlier. Worldwide markets dropped even further, banks foreclosed and acres and acres of former grasslands, now ripped up for crops, were allowed to lie fallow. Then the drought came. Even the former native grass couldn’t re-establish itself as tons and tons of topsoil blew away in windstorms so strong one blotted out the sky as far away as New York City and even out into the Atlantic.
But get down on your knees and thank Franklin Roosevelt. Aided by early conservationists, he recognized that man had made this disaster and established the Conservation Corps to replant native grasses, buy out failed farmers, and encourage those remaining to practice more ecologically sound practices. His dream was to return the High Plains back to its former grassland glory and bring the Comanche, Kiowa and other Native American tribes, and even the buffalo, back to it. Sadly, this dream was only partially realized although large portions were replanted with grass and set aside as national parks, and some headway was made in encouraging remaining farmers to respect the land and farm sensibly.
So have The High Plains been restored and all is right with the world? I guess we’ll see as we drive through to Amarillo. Hopefully at some remote diner, we’ll meet up with a survivor of the Dust Bowl and get his story. But Timothy Egan, in his afterward, says we’re starting to head down the same sorry road. He cites the mining of the Ogallala aquifer, a huge underground lake that is America’s largest source of underground fresh water. Currently large agribusiness is siphoning down the water eight times faster than nature can refill it. And what are they doing with that irreplaceable resource? According to Timothy Egan, farmers in Texas are dramatically increasing cotton production, for which there is no longer an American market, selling their crop to places like China — where it is made into cheap clothing and sold back to stores like Wal-Mart. By the way, more than THREE BILLION DOLLARS of your taxpayer money subsidizes all of this. (Read this interesting Salon article about how T. Boone Pickens is a prime player in this water grab. Then read this MoneyWeek article about how China is creating a Dust Bowl that could swallow a dozen versions of the original American Dust Bowl.)
I think I’m going to have to venture more than my Penguin Water Carbonator and Toyota Prius in response to this. But, Gentle Readers, get Timothy Egan’s book. NOW. And write your congressman. Boycott Wal-Mart. Save water and recycle.
This is a golden oldie post from my first blog, RoadGals, which covered an epic cross-country roadtrip I took with my 24 year old niece two years ago. I’m pleased to report that the former Dust Bowl was one of our favorite stretches, largely for the wonderful people we met there. And Oklahoma’s beautiful. For now.
Since the original RoadGals site was done with iWeb, I can’t automatically import the posts into this WordPress site. Which gives me a wonderful opportunity to recycle some of them into this site by hand whenever I’m too lazy to create a new post. Search on the RoadGals tag to find all the posts in the series.