If you doubt the power of literature, the way Steinbeck shaped our collective historical memories of the dust bowl might change your mind. Most of us think of the events denoted by that phrase dust bowl as an emigration or immigration. People getting the hell out of there (Oklahoma, Kansas) and coming to California. As Timothy Egan shows us in The Worst Hard Time, however, what happened to the people who did stay and, for that matter, to the rest of the country during that horrible drought was at least as dramatic and gruesome as the part we usually think about.
This is largely a book about facts, so Egan’s prose is suitably journalistic. No surprise for someone whose day job is a reporter for The New York Times. But it’s also a story about people, and the people he’s chosen and the way he tells about them is as compelling as a novel. I can’t do any better than Walter Cronkite’s dusk jacket comment–”This is can’t-put-it-down history.”
I found an abundance of “I didn’t know that’s” in The Worst Hard Times. For example, the dust rolled all the way to New York City on occasion. The events didn’t affect only Oklahoma, Kansas, and the Texas panhandle, but started all the way in Nebraska and Montana and carried into mid-Texas. Rollers darkened the halls of congress in a way timed to pull money from legislative pockets. Towers of dirt rose so high that small planes had trouble flying over them. A relative of mine, now 90, remembers yellow dust clouds in Louisville, KY.
People got lost getting from the barn to the house and died. Folks couldn’t see hands in front of faces with the lights on inside the house. Humans and livestock choked to death indoors. Respiratory conditions that take years to develop in coal miners, manifested in months in residents of the blowing plains. The drought also created a plague of locusts so ravenous they ate fenceposts off of wire and handles off of shovels.
The drought itself wasn’t the problem, of course. Just like the settlers described in my blog Lyndon Johnson’s biography (LBJ–LOOKING BACK. AND AHEAD), these folks–aided and abetted by greedy real estate boosters and government ignorance–obliterated in a few years an ecosystem that had taken centuries to develop. In this semi-arid region, it was a system of thin and poor topsoil held together by specialized, tough grasses. It worked fine for buffalo, and even, for a while, for more nutrient-demanding ranch cattle. The nesters arrived during wet years and prospered. Pushed by poverty and war-increased demand, they plowed more, ripped up more grass, grew more wheat. They knew nothing about plowing on contours and they knew nothing about the need to replace the grass that stitched the soil together. When the next drought came and the wheat didn’t grow, the soil was freed from its binding grasses and rode the always-present winds with cataclysmic consequences that still reign in that land.
Those who doubt, among the current controversies over global warming, that humans have the capacity to destroy their earth need read only a few pages–just about any few pages would do–of The Worst Hard Times to seriously reconsider the error of their arguments. My only question is why–even considering the horrible conditions those who trudged to CA found–why anyone stayed there at all.