Saturday, May 9, 2009

This Day in Conservation History (Nation Experiences Dust Bowl)

May 9, 1934—Starting over the northern plains of Montana and the Dakotas, an ominous cloud drifted to Chicago by night, then reached New York and Boston by the next morning. The meteorological event was part of the “Dirty Thirties,” or “Dust Bowl” decade.

Before it was all over, this larger weather pattern would pose a radical threat to the natural ecology of the country; spark a mass migration of “Dust Bowl” refugees; inspire sweeping, if belated, legislation; and leave a lasting legacy of protest and concern for the underprivileged in American culture.

The “black blizzard” that kicked up on this date and throughout the rest of the decade was the kind of environmental catastrophe that God had used to punish the ancient Egyptians for their mistreatment of the Israelites in the age of Moses. Just think of it—the average American had to cope with three tons of dust.

By the time the dirty stuff had reached the Northeast, streetlights were coming on at midday and cars were using their headlights to navigate the roads. That is, if you could still move—because the static electricity could get so bad that cars could short out, leaving you in the thick of it all without protection.

And, despite what I wrote about Dust Bowl “refugees,” in another sense you couldn’t escape from these storms—the horror was that they found you inside as well as outside. Dust particles would seap through doors and windows. When you had ingested enough of it, you’d contract dust pneumonia, which was similar to the respiratory disease silicosis.

A severe drought in the Great Plains was the immediate precipitating event of the Dust Bowl. But, like Hurricane Katrina, this was a disaster in the making for decades, exacerbated by government inaction.

Ranchers and farmers had pushed into the 150,000-sq.-ft. region—including the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles and the neighboring sections of Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico—in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with little understanding of the consequences.

First came livestock grazing, then mechanization, along with high prices that farmers earned during World War I, encouraged farmers to plow up the native buffalo grass that had been there for centuries in order to plant wheat.

Then came a record wheat harvest in 1931 that drove down wheat prices at the worst possible time—in the midst of the Great Depression. Now farmers, despite warnings from Native Americans and oldtime cattle ranchers, desperately resorted to plow up even more native grasses.

The following year was the tip-off that something was the matter: 14 severe dust storms. Thirty-eight were reported in 1933. Four years later, 134 would drive people to desperation.

Most Americans know about the movement caused by this ecological event because of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and John Ford’s powerful 1940 adaptation of it.

But if you want a forceful evocation of what forced these people to go on the road in the first place, I recommend that you rent a DVD of the 1978 mini-series adaptation of James Michener’s Centennial, and focus especially on the 11th episode, “The Winds of Death,” which shows in harrowing detail the extremes—including madness and death—to which more than a few families were driven during this time.

Whenever a crisis hits, such as Katrina or the subprime meltdown, the media invariably hunt down a Cassandra who warned about it early on. In the case of the Dust Bowl, one of these early-warning messengers—and, eventually, the man appointed to extricate the nation from it—was Hugh Hammond Bennett, “the father of soil conservation.”

From the early 1900s, Bennett had been testing soil at home and abroad, becoming alarmed enough to co-author a U.S. Department of Agriculture bulletin in 1928 with the prophetic title, Soil Erosion: A National Menace. He became director of the Soil Erosion Service in the Department of the Interior in September 1933.

Unique to his field, Bennett was as much a great communicator and showman as great scientist. He was given not only to writing innumerable articles but demonstrating soil-conservation practices to skeptical farmers.

People also chuckled at his flair for the dramatic, too, perhaps best demonstrated on April 19, 1935. Knowing that the worst dust storm of all, which had started the prior Sunday (so bad that it created, for the first time in print, the term “Dust Bowl”), was coming east, Bennett chose that date to testify before a Senate committee on the desperate state of the Great Plains.

Some of the legislators on hand were looking bored until they looked out the window and saw the sun disappear behind a cloud of dust. Suddenly they were paying very close attention to Bennett—and passed his bill in a heartbeat, too.

John Steinbeck was not the only significant figure in American culture to be caught up in the plight of those dispossessed by the Dust Bowl. Dorothea Lange left a visual chronicle of the human misery in her photographs; the documentary film The Plow That Broke the Plains, produced by the government, was eventually deemed classic enough to be worthy of preservation; and Woody Guthrie gave voice to the suffering with “Dust Pneumonia Blues” and “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Ya.”

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