On an April afternoon in 1935, Hugh Bennett was lecturing a group of U.S. senators on the causes of the Great Plains Dust Bowl. As he spoke, the window darkened as if night were falling. Dust from the Midwestern plains had drifted all the way to the nation's capital and blotted out the sun. This, gentlemen, is what I'm talking about, said Bennett. There goes Oklahoma. Nothing better illustrates the disastrous effects of bad applied science than the dust storms of the 1930s, the complex subject of Timothy Egan's new book, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.
Egan tells the story of this disaster through the eyes of those who lived through it cowboys like Bam White and farmers like Don Hartwell who saw part of rural America literally blown away. Scientists now say that the Dust Bowl, roughly comprised of western Kansas, southeastern Colorado, northern Texas and the Oklahoma panhandle, should never have been farmed in the first place. The region's topsoil was held in place against constant driving winds only by hardy native grasses. That didn't stop the federal government from bullishly promoting homestead farming throughout the plains in the 1920s. An unusual amount of rain, leading to a short-term agricultural boom, sustained the illusion that the sea of grass could be plowed up and farmed indefinitely. Once the rain stopped, unanchored soil kicked up, suffocating crops and blinding cattle. Farm children died of dust pneumonia; whole towns failed.
Egan debunks some prevalent myths about the Dust Bowl, most of them emanating from Hollywood. The novel Grapes of Wrath and its film version give the impression that most poor farm immigrants (aka Oakies) who moved to California in the 1930s were escapees from the Dust Bowl. Egan notes that, of the 221,000 people who moved to California from 1935 to 1937, only 16,000 were from the Dust Bowl. Films like The Plow that Broke the Plains give the impression that farmers alone were to blame for the disaster, but Egan notes that overgrazing cattle, drought, surplus crops, falling grain prices and homesteading laws that required big farms on small claims all contributed to flying topsoil.
Even now, 70 years later, the damage is not wholly repaired. Bennett's soil conservation program, launched in haste that April afternoon in Washington, D.C., has replanted much of the area with grass and united farmers in a scheme to rotate crops and save soil. It is the only one of Roosevelt's New Deal initiatives that survives today. But ghost towns and occasional dust storms still remind us that we displace nature at our own peril.
Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.