The Southern Plains were fertile, but wheat farmers had been overzealous. Some, particularly former cowboys and the few indigenous people who remained, thought that the land was designed only for grazing and small subsistence farming—what the indigenous tribes had practiced. The plow had allowed farmers to plant countless acres of wheat, but it also led to soil erosion. By the time the dust storms arrived, which the prairie people interpreted as the land’s revenge for their excesses, no one could grow anything, and the livestock could no longer survive due to the absence of grass and dust-free water supplies. Though some scientists at the time were skeptical, Egan treats the Dust Bowl as the man-made environmental disaster it was—an event that turned a difficult decade into a nearly unbearable one.
In addition to being unable to farm wheat, grass also disappeared in the storm of the Dust Bowl, which made it much more difficult for families to keep their cows alive. The cattle who relied on what had once been seemingly endless acres of grass now survived on “chewing salted tumbleweeds and swallowing mud.” First, the dust diminished the crops, then it killed the livestock. People on the prairie feared that they would starve.
The government tried to assuage the problem of farmers deciding between watching their cattle starve or shooting them in the head and tossing them into nearby ditches. Officials offered up to sixteen dollars per head for live cows that could “still walk” and had “a pinch of flesh between their bones and saggy skin.” Those cows would go “to a butchering plant in Amarillo,” and the meat would go to the many hungry people who now populated the country. The offer was fair, but it did not remedy the problem of no longer having a source of milk. Those who still attempted to milk cows squeezed from an udder and released a liquid that resembled “chocolate milk.” Farms were also losing their chickens. Ninety percent died. Though Bam White still managed to coax eggs from his hens, this was impossible on other farms. Most chickens suffocated to death. Their lungs became so filled with dirt that they were strangled by the air.
Ironically, some of the people who had moved into the High Plains, such as Louise Walton, had migrated there from major cities to take advantage of the better air conditions. The fresh air in the grasslands was supposed to be a cure for those with bronchial problems—but by 1933, the air in the plains was the explicit cause of bronchial problems. The Southern Plains had not only become uninhabitable for crops and livestock, but people could no longer maintain good health there.
Dr. John H. Blue of Guymon, Oklahoma “treated fifty-six patients for dust pneumonia, and all of them showed signs of silicosis.” Prairie dust is high in silica content and, when it builds up in the lungs, it tears at the “web of air sacs” and weakens the body’s resistance, producing an effect similar to that of coal dust on a miner. Other common illnesses on the Southern Plains included sinusitis, laryngitis, bronchitis, and “early symptoms of tuberculosis.” No one was immune, and children, infants, and the elderly suffered particularly from “coughing jags and body aches, particularly chest pains.” It was a medical crisis, exacerbated by the harsh content of the soil.
Hugh Hammond Bennett, a scientist who studied soil, became the director of a new agency within the Department of the Interior which was “set up to help stabilize the soil.” Before his appointment, he worked for the Department of Agriculture, and warned the department about the consequences of farmers working against the soil. Still, the government insisted that soil was the one “resource that [could] not be exhausted.” For Bennett, such an attitude was a display of “arrogance on a grand scale.” While their short-sightedness was frustrating to him, it would be devastating to those who lived in the prairie.
Though run-off from the Rockies supplied the prairie with rich loam held in place by the grass, eighty million acres of topsoil had been stripped from the Southern Plains. Topsoil that had taken “several thousand years to develop…was disappearing day by day” due to the excesses of the agricultural industry. In Oklahoma, 440 million tons of topsoil disappeared. Bennett’s suggestion was to avoid plowing, but it was difficult to break farmers out of their habits, particularly when they had proven to be so beneficial just two years earlier. Whereas the Texas Panhandle had produced six million bushels of wheat a few years earlier, the entire region now only yielded “a few truckloads.”
Aside from American arrogance, Bennett attributed part of the prairie’s suffering to a general lack of understanding about ecology. Many scientists did not take him seriously, insisting that “the withering of the Great Plains” was simply a weather phenomenon. They did not believe that humanity was at all responsible for what occurred in nature, an entity which they tended to associate more with “scenic wonders,” such as mountains and rivers, not the mundane business of soil. Aldo Leopold, a game biologist from Wisconsin, had published a paper in 1933 arguing that “man was part of a big organic whole and should treat his place with special care”—but it would be many years before the essay influenced public policy.
No one who lived in the prairie imagined that a land that had once produced six million bushels of grain would only produce a few “spindles of dwarfed wheat and corn” just two years later. Bennett’s accusation of American arrogance was not unfounded—indeed, those who lived on the prairie always expected the land to provide. Some knew that they had plowed too much and demanded too much, which is why they characterized the dust storms as angry or vengeful. On the other hand, they had nothing but the land on which they could depend. Too distant from the factories in the cities, the soil was their only means to make a living and to feed themselves. Due to both a lack of ecological knowledge and a continual belief in the false promises of speculators who advertised a land that could be transformed into England or Missouri, the farmers made mistakes that nearly cost them the land and their lives. Through telling the story of the environmental devastation of the Southern Plains, Egan reveals how a seemingly hearty environment—one that managed to sustain life for centuries despite its violent weather—can become fragile, particularly when people privilege short-term gain over long-term sustainability.
Environmental Devastation and the Dust Bowl ThemeTracker
Environmental Devastation and the Dust Bowl Quotes in The Worst Hard Time
A Sunday in mid-April 1935 dawned quiet, windless, and bright. In the afternoon, the sky went purple—as if it were sick—and the temperature plunged. People looked northwest and saw a ragged-topped formation on the move, covering the horizon. The air crackled with electricity. Snap. Snap. Snap. Birds screeched and dashed for cover. As the black wall approached, car radios clicked off, overwhelmed by the static. Ignitions shorted out. Waves of sand, like ocean water rising over a ship’s prow, swept over roads. Cars went into ditches. A trained derailed.
“The soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses,” the Federal Bureau of Soils proclaimed as the grasslands were transformed. “It is the one resource that cannot be exhausted, that cannot be used up.”
“Americans are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of the land,” said the new president, Herbert Hoover, who took office in 1929. He had won in a landslide, breaking the Democratic hold on the solid South, taking the prairie states with him. The tractors rolled on, the grass yanked up, a million acres a year, turned and pulverized; in just five years, 1925 to 1930, another 5.2 million acres of native sod went under the plow in the southern plains—an area the size of two Yellowstone National Parks.
The land hardened. Rivers that had been full in spring trickled down to a string line of water and then disappeared. That September was the warmest yet in the still-young century. Bam White scanned the sky for a “sun dog,” his term for a halo that foretold of rain; he saw nothing through the heat of July, August, and September. He noticed how the horses were lethargic, trying to conserve energy. Usually, when the animals bucked or stirred, it meant a storm on the way. They had been passive for some time now, in a summer when the rains left and did not come back for nearly eight years.
When the native sod of the Great Plains was in place, it did not matter if people looked twice at a piece of ground. Wind blew twenty, thirty, forty miles an hour, as always. Droughts came and went. Prairie fires, many of them started deliberately by Indians or cowboys trying to scare nesters off, took a great gulp of grass in a few days. Hailstorms pounded the land. Blue northers froze it so hard it was like broken glass to walk on. Through all of the seasonal tempests, man was inconsequential. As long as the weave of grass was stitched to the land, the prairie would flourish […] The grass could look brown and dead, but beneath the surface, the roots held the soil in place; it was alive and dormant […] When a farmer tore out the sod and walked away […] It could not revert to grass, because the roots were gone. It was empty, dead, and transient.
Most scientists did not take [Hugh Hammond] Bennett seriously. Some called him a crank. They blamed the withering of the Great Plains on weather, not on farming methods. Basic soil science was one thing but talking about the fragile web of life and slapping the face of nature—this kind of early ecology had yet to find a wide audience. Sure, Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir had made conservation an American value at the dawn of the new century, but it was usually applied to brawny, scenic wonders: mountains, rivers, megaflora. And in 1933, a game biologist in Wisconsin, Aldo Leopold, had published an essay that said man was part of the big organic whole and should treat his place with special care. But that essay, “The Conservation Ethic,” had yet to influence public policy. Raging dirt on a flat, ugly surface was not the focus of a poet’s praise or a politician’s call for restoration.
Keeping the dust out was impossible. Even fresh-cleaned clothes, hanging outside to dry on the line, were at risk [….] Lizzie swept five, six times a day. She had her boys shovel dust in the morning, after it piled up outside the door. Sometimes a big dune blocked the door, and the boys had to crawl out the window to get to it. The dust arrived in mysterious ways. It could penetrate like a spirit, cascading down the walls or slithering along the ceiling until it found an opening.
At the end of the year, she said goodbye to No Man’s Land. Hazel put on her white gloves and brushed back tears but said tomorrow would bring good things to the young family, so it was not worth a long cry. She planned to leave with her dignity intact, like a lady. In 1914, at the age of ten, she had first seen the grassland, rising on her toes on the driver’s seat of her daddy’s covered wagon to get a look at this country. She would hold to the good memories [….] There would be a place, always, in Hazel’s memory of the blackest days No Man’s Land. But it would shrink, because Hazel would force it down to size to allow her live.
The flatland was not green or fertile, yet it seemed as if the beast had been tamed. The year had been dry, just like the six that preceded it, and exceptionally windy, but the land was not peeling off like it had before, was not darkening the sky. There were dusters, half a dozen or more in each of April and May, but nothing like Black Sunday, nothing so Biblical. Maybe, as some farmers suggested, Bennett’s army had calmed the raging dust seas, or maybe so much soil had ripped away that there was very little left to roll.
Elsewhere in 1938, the recovery and the energy of the New Deal had run out of steam. More than four million people lost their jobs in the wake of government cutbacks, and the stock market fell sharply again. Some of the gloom that enveloped the country at midterm in President Hoover’s reign was back. In the Dust Bowl, the fuzz of a forced forest and the re-tilling of tousled dirt did not stop the wind or bring more rain, but it was a plan in motion—something—and that was enough to inspire people to keep the faith. As Will Rogers said, “If Roosevelt burned down the Capital we would cheer and say, ‘Well, we at least got a fire started anyhow.’” The High Plains had been culled of thousands of inhabitants […] But as the dirty decade neared its end, the big exodus was winding down. The only way that folks who stayed behind would leave now, they said, was horizontal, in a pine box.
People were drilling deep and tapping into the main vein of that ancient, underground reservoir of the Ogallala Aquifer, as big as the grassland itself, they said. These new boomers, a handful of men in town, wanted no part of Bennett’s soil-conservation districts. They wanted money to pump up a river of water from the Ogallala, pass it through a tangle of pipes, and spit it out over the sandpapered land. They would grow wheat and corn and sorghum, and they would make a pile, using all the water they wanted, you just wait and see. They talked as if it were the dawn of the wheat boom, twenty years earlier. Melt thought they had not learned a thing from the last decade. The High Plains belonged to Indians and grass, but few people in Dalhart shared his feelings.
The High Plains never fully recovered from the Dust Bowl […] After more than sixty-five years, some of the land is still sterile and drifting. But in the heart of the old Dust Bowl now are three national grasslands run by the Forest Service. The land is green in the spring and burns in the summer, as it did in the past, and antelope come through and graze, wandering among replanted buffalo grass and the old footings of farmsteads long abandoned. Some things are missing or fast disappearing: the prairie chicken, a bird that kept many a sodbuster alive in the dark days, is in decline […] The biggest of the restored areas is Comanche National Grassland, named for the Lords of the Plains […] The Indians never returned, despite New Deal attempts to buy rangeland for natives […] The Comanche live on a small reservation near Lawton, Oklahoma. They still consider the old bison hunting grounds between the Arkansas River and Rio Grande […] to be theirs by treaty.