September 22, 2013

The Dust Bowl: Have We Learned its Lessons?

Black Sunday dust storm, Ulysses, Kansas 

As I stood on my porch yesterday afternoon listening to the wind roaring in the trees, watching the black clouds building, I wondered what it was like to know that instead of high rain clouds what was approaching was an enormous billowing mountain of dirt, about to engulf everything in its path. This was a reality faced by the people of the southern plains for several years during the period of the "dirty thirties" known as the Dust Bowl. A few years ago I read a fascinating 2005 book by Timothy Egan, titled The Worst Hard Time:The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, which you can read online here. Egan writes eloquently about remnants of farms and lives:
In those cedar posts and collapsed homes is the story of this place: how the greatest grassland in the world was turned inside out, how the crust blew away, raged up in the sky and showered down a suffocating blackness off and on for most of a decade. 
It is worth your time to read the introduction to the book at the link above, a clear and impassioned overview of the nation's greatest environmental disaster, caused entirely by human activity.

Arthur Rothstein, Farmer and sons in dust storm, Oklahoma, 1936

A few days ago I watched the Ken Burns documentary "The Dust Bowl", which was originally broadcast on PBS about a year ago. At the link you can see more photos, along with some videos and commentary. The documentary seemed to me to be based on the Egan book, and though specific credit isn't given, Egan is one of the talking heads in it. There are also interviews with several survivors, and amazing short films of the storms, which are frightening in their intensity. It's hard to imagine what is was like living through it all. The photo above was taken by a young photographer, Arthur Rothstein, sent to the southern plains by what became the Farm Security Administration.

Arthur Rothstein, A farmer shows how high the wheat should be, North Dakota, July 1936

Rothstein captured many iconic images of the terrible drought that came after several good years of rainfall in this most inhospitable area. For centuries the soils were held by native buffalo grass, but early in the century the government encouraged people to settle on land that was marginal at best for agriculture; people were told by boosters that "rain will follow the plow", and at first it seemed to be true: rains were plentiful, and wheat, which was in great demand during the first world war, grew well.

Arthur Rothstein, Sand Dunes, Oklahoma Panhandle, 1936

So more and more land was put under the plow, with the expectation that the good years would continue. But as in the Egypt of the Old Testament, good years gave way to bad.

Dorothea Lange, Abandoned farm with windmill, Texas, June 1938

Another of the photographers sent by the Farm Security Administration to document the conditions in the southern plains was Dorothea Lange. Her images are of abandonment and devastation.

Dorothea Lange, Abandoned farm north of Dalhart, Texas, 1938

The hopes of so many for a decent life with land of their own went unfulfilled.

Dust bowl, Dallas, South Dakota, 1936; USDA

This town is in south central South Dakota, population in 2012: 120. Although the dust storms were worse farther south, they also affected the northern plains. In the mid 1970s I taught for a year as an artist-in-schools in Wagner, South Dakota, only 70 miles from Dallas (on the plains 70 miles is a hop, skip, and a jump). I remember seeing homesteads, even tiny towns, gray and bleached and empty.

Black Sunday dust storm over town, from PBS film

The dust storms were a vivid display of living for the moment and not thinking of consequences. Finally, Roosevelt's administration undertook actions to alleviate the worst practices of the plains farmers: shelter belts of trees were planted, contour plowing along with better plowing techniques were encouraged, land was bought back to establish national grasslands. Some land has never recovered from its loss of topsoil.

Crop circles, Kansas, satellite photo from NASA

Farmers in this dry land farming region soon discovered the benefits of irrigation. Under the central US is a vast aquifer, the Oglalla aquifer. We can see the green circles created by center pivot irrigation when we fly over the Great Plains. The aquifer took thousands of years to fill and will be emptied in another hundred. We continue to ignore other looming, though slow moving, disasters. To answer my question above: it seems we haven't really learned a thing.


  1. Replies
    1. We too watched the PBS program and read Egan's book. As you queried, Have we learned from these lessons? A big NO! I fear that water is going to be something that we have battles over-between fracking that uses water and contaminates it so that it is not potable. Then those that build large communities on hillsides or mountainsides that remove plantings to hold the soil - a big rain enters and voila-muddy landslides that as just occurred in Colorado, infiltrate oil and gas plants and only time will know how it corrupts the aquifer presently and in the future. Society as a whole must take stock of history, what they are doing now and stop. I foresee that pure, clean water will be harder for all to obtain. So yes as you stated-tragic.

    2. I'm afraid that I have to agree with you, Sue, about the coming conflict over water; and not just in the US, but globally.

  2. You may be interested in meteorology professor, Cliff Mass's blog post about dust storms aka Haboobs.

  3. This looks so interesting to me, I will have to check out the info you shared. I agree about lessons learned, eek---we live in strange times.