The silence that falls across the Southern Plains still scares people, Egan says. The land, vast and empty, feels like too much. It scared everyone, from Spanish settlers like Coronado, who came in search of gold, to Anglo traders, Germans from Russia, Scots-Irish from Alabama, and even some of the Comanche who “chased bison over the grass.” It also scares the people who drive over the prairie today in their Expedition and Outlander trucks. It has scared them all due to its weather—“the most violent and extreme on earth”—which demands “humility,” yet promises nothing in return.
Egan evokes a land characterized by absence—the absence of sound and other signs of life. However, it is also a land that has harbored a myriad of people from various cultures, none of whom have survived for long. It is a place that seems to offer both unlimited possibility and unlimited cruelty. Despite the conveniences of modern life, no one who crosses the prairie feels in control of it.
When one travels through the Great Plains, one sees “more nothing than something.” In some places, there are “scraps of life,” such as shacks, skeletal trees, and a former schoolhouse “with just the chimney and two walls still standing.” Fence posts, which may have once enclosed great ranches, are “nubs sticking out of sterile brown earth.” These “scraps of life” tell the story of the Great Plains—a place that was ravaged by a blizzard of black dust storms.
The “scraps of life” are examples of the ways nature can overtake civilization. Signs of former prosperity—“great ranches”—are reduced to nothing. Land that was settled for its fertility has, ironically, become “sterile brown earth,” an indication of the dust storms’ degenerative power.
One can drive past the fence tops, which lead to “small farms.” Beyond those are towns, such as Springfield, the county seat of Baca County in southeastern Colorado. There are fewer than two people per square mile in Springfield. A hundred years ago, it would have been called “frontier” country. It is less populous now than it was in the 1930s.
A “frontier” is a land of potential, with resources yet to be exploited. The reverse is the near ghost town that Springfield has become due to the mass exodus caused by the dust storms. The “small farms” are modest remnants of agriculture’s former dominance in the region.
Egan, who narrates, goes to a house a few blocks off of Main Street. It is made of “sturdy stone.” A “small, brittle woman” answers and directs Egan to Isaac “Ike Osteen, who is on the ladder out back, fixing the roof. Osteen is eighty-six years old, but still “springy,” and he agrees to talk about the drought, which he pronounces “drouth.”
The house could be a metaphor for Osteen, who has remained in the community despite its losses. Egan’s mention of Osteen’s dialect reminds the reader that this region is a part of the U.S., but also slightly apart from it, with its own character and traditions.
It is only a few years into the new century, and the Southern Plains are enduring another drought. People in the area worry about a second Dust Bowl. However, Ike Osteen says that no one “who lived through the Dirty Thirties believes that.”
The concerns created by climate change convince people that history can repeat itself, but to people who lived through it, the Dust Bowl was a unique phenomenon, worsened by ignorance and a lack of infrastructure.
Ike Osteen was one of nine children who grew up in a dugout. His father arrived in Baca County via the old Santa Fe Trail in 1909, when Congress was encouraging the settlement of the Southern Plains, which still remained in the public domain. The government instituted a homestead act, “promoted by railroad companies and prairie state senators,” which offered prospective settlers up to 320 acres. The first Osteen settlers arrived, believing that a dam was being built in No Man’s Land on the Cimarron River. When they arrived, there were no jobs, but people told them about the availability of land. The Osteens dug into the earth and were impressed with the sod, which went “down deep.” They agreed to become homesteaders.
Railroad companies, wanting to increase their number of stations, pressured lawmakers to encourage potential white settlers to move into the High Plains, with the promise that the land would be good for farming. This complicity reveals the lobbying power of railroads, which had no interest in people surviving in unsettled land but only in their willingness to populate it. The false pretense of believing that a dam was being built parallels the later realization that the soil was not, in fact, as “deep” as people assumed, and would not always provide.
Ike’s father died when he was only forty-six. The family still had their 320 acres and a windmill, “which pumped water 140 feet up from the Ogallala Aquifer.” The water was then “piped into small storage tanks” from which the cattle drank. The easy availability of water and grass kept their cows fat. The cows produced plenty of milk and thick cream. The Osteens traded their cream in town in exchange for “flour, coffee, sugar, [and] a jar of [liquor].” They also had hens that regularly laid eggs.
The Osteens, like many nesters, subsisted on very little, but they were dependent on natural resources to maintain their farm as well as their participation in local commerce. The example of the Osteens reveals how westward expansion restored some people’s relationship with the land, and how the end of that relationship resulted in a feeling of betrayal.
In 1929, the year that the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began, the prices of wheat had crashed, then the land dried up and no rain came for years. The land had been overturned and there was no longer any sod to hold it in place, so “the soil calcified and started to blow.” The dust clouds were “ten thousand feet or more in the sky” and seemed like “moving mountains,” penetrating everything. Darkness covered the prairie, and then it moved to the East. The livestock went mad, then suffocated. Children died of dust pneumonia and people avoided hugs because the electric shock could knock a person down. During the Dust Bowl, Egan says, taking a breath could kill you.
The land on which people had depended for sustenance suddenly turned deadly. Worse, the drought coincided with the nation’s worst economic collapse—and as Egan ultimately shows, both the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl were the results of human excess. Egan also presents a reversal in the relationship between the land and the settlers. Initially, the settlers were mobile, while the land was passive. Then, the dust, which was once held in place, was “moving” while the settlers were stationary and vulnerable to the land’s whims.
Jeanne Clark, who lives just up the road from Ike Osteen, is another witness to the Dust Bowl. Her lungs remain scarred from dust pneumonia. Her mother, Louise Walton, a former Broadway dancer, had moved to the plains due to a respiratory problem. The doctors in New York told her to go west, recommending the dry air of the Southern Plains as a remedy. The Western Plains have had a reputation among “lungers,” or “pilgrims with respiratory ailments,” since the late nineteenth century. There was a time when Colorado City was called “Little London” due to being full of people with English accents who were “fleeing the foul industrial air of urban Britain.” Louise’s health improved. She then married a rancher and had Jeanne. Then, the dust storms came.
Initially, the Southern Plains had a reputation as an oasis for those seeking to escape from the harsh air of major cities. The nicknaming of those who moved to the plains as “pilgrims” places them within a tradition of people who colonized the United States in an effort to find relief from problems that ailed them at home. This time, it was not religious freedom which they sought, but freedom from the perils of illness. Though many of them did not intend to stay permanently, the cleaner air and emptier landscape may have made some people feel that they could start new lives.
By 1934, it was dangerous to go outside. The sky was filled with soil and the dust felt “like a nail file” on the skin. People wore respiratory masks if they had to go out, and rubbed the inside of their noses with Vaseline to help filter out dust. They covered their windows with wet sheets and stuffed wet towels under their doors. Children were quickly sent home from school before an oncoming storm.
Egan emphasizes how the dust gave the formerly clean, fresh air an abrasive texture. A land that once attracted “lungers” then, ironically, became a place in which the air was dangerous. Settlers had to actively defend themselves against nature.
April 14, 1935 is known as Black Sunday. A day that had started out as “quiet, windless, and bright” was, by afternoon, sending “waves of sand” over the prairie. The dust appeared like a “black wall.” Jeanne Clark recalls feeling as though she were “caught in a whirlpool.” It was the worst duster of all the storms, carrying “twice as much dirt as was dug out of the earth to create the Panama Canal.” Afterward, Jeanne became sick with dust pneumonia, and a doctor said that she might not live for very much longer.
Witnesses’ recollections of a bright, sunny day that soon turned into a day of darkness and menace reveals the unpredictability of the storms and how the wheat farmers’ excesses had disrupted the orderliness of the environment, making it both fickle and lethal. There was cruel irony in Jeanne contracting dust pneumonia, given that her mother moved to the plains for the cleaner air.
Melt White lives south, in Dalhart, Texas. Though nearly everyone he grew up with is now dead, he remembers how the people of Dalhart had fought against nature—herding rabbits and then smashing their skulls to prevent the animals from eating their few crops, the plagues of grasshoppers, and how people spread arsenic over the land to kill the insects. White insists that the land was never meant to be plowed. He believes it was designed for indigenous people and their buffalo.
Perhaps out of respect for his indigenous heritage, which was routinely disrespected by the nesters, White is nostalgic for a time when the land was pristine and undisturbed. Due to an inability to understand and appreciate nature, the nesters battled against it, destroying more life and poisoning the soil.
Growing up, Melt White was teased about the color of his skin, “which seemed too full of the sun, even in winter.” He later learned the family secret: he was of partial Apache and Cherokee ancestry.
The Dust Bowl “covered one hundred million acres,” and the Southern Plains were the “epicenter.” A quarter-million people left the Plains to escape the dust storms. However, a majority of those who left were poor tenant farmers “ruined by the collapse of the economy.” Most of those who lived in the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl stayed in their homes and endured it.
The nesters were hardy and willing to confront the erratic whims of nature, but they were less willing to endure poverty. Some were probably buoyed by the hope that more money could be made elsewhere—the same hope that convinced them to move to the plains initially: the promise of it being better somewhere else.
The U.S. government has long treated the Southern Plains like “throwaway land.” Later, it was the place where Japanese-Americans lived in internment camps during the Second World War, and where German POWs were imprisoned. The only “growth industries” in the plains today are pig farms and prisons. Though it is still a site for harsh weather, nothing has matched the Dust Bowl storms, which scientists call “the nation’s worst prolonged environmental disaster.”
The Southern Plains was largely neglected during westward expansion. Its aridity and lack of vegetation gave it the look of a wasteland, which may explain the tendency to harbor undesirable people there—real or imagined enemies of the state as well as criminals.
After the Dust Bowl, the farmers learned to treat the land with more respect. They restored some of the grass and formed soil conservation districts. Then, “barely a generation” later, the Great Plains entered the era of global farm commodities and, once again, farmers demanded too much from the land.
Profit drove farmers during the postwar era, just as it influenced the behavior of their forebears. The desire to build immediate wealth overrode the wish to preserve the long-term profitability of the land.