Dust to Dust
THE WORST HARD TIME
The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
By Timothy Egan
Houghton Mifflin. 340 pp. $28
Timothy Egan's searing history of the economic and ecological collapse of the southern Great Plains during the 1930s is an epic cautionary tale. Intertwining the stories of roughly a dozen individuals and families with a grim overview of the region-wide disaster, Egan's fluent narrative chronicles the terrifying consequences of a reckless hubris that in a few decades stripped the earth of prairie grass that for centuries had protected it from erosion. The American people and their government collaborated in transforming a sea of waving, waist-high bluestem -- described by William Clark on his expedition west with Meriwether Lewis in 1804 as "one of the most pleasing prospects I ever beheld" -- into a blasted landscape of abandoned farms surrounded by four-foot drifts of dust, scattered with dead farm animals and useless equipment.
They should have known better. In 1820, the explorer Stephen Long judged the plains "almost wholly uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture." Late-19th-century speculators tried establishing huge commercial ranches, but droughts and winter freezes killed so many cattle that they couldn't turn a reliable profit. Investors split up million-acre spreads into small parcels and advertised nationwide. Would-be farmers arrived en masse in the 1910s and '20s, buying windmills to pump water from the Ogallala Aquifer and tractors with plows to turn grassland into farmland on millions of acres in western Kansas, southeast Colorado, eastern New Mexico and the Texas-Oklahoma Panhandle.
The local cowboys, whose work on the ranches had taught them what was sustainable, were appalled. "If they continued to break up the grass in such a fury the land would be no good to anyone," these men warned the homesteaders. But the sodbusters kept busting sod -- encouraged, a 1936 U.S. government report concluded, by "mistaken public policies . . . a mistaken homesteading policy, the stimulation of war time demands which led to over cropping and over grazing, and encouragement of a system of agriculture which could not be both permanent and prosperous."
The resulting catastrophe arrived in stages. Wheat prices collapsed right before the stock market crashed in 1929. An eight-year drought began in 1931; annual rainfall eventually dropped below 10 inches (20 was the bare minimum for farming without irrigation). On Jan. 21, 1932, "a cloud ten thousand feet high from ground to top appeared just outside Amarillo." Stripped of grass, desiccated by drought, the ruined topsoil simply flew away in the high winds that for millennia had blown across the plains. Now they scoured it, carrying poisonous clouds hundreds of miles and dumping black grit onto streets, into homes and deep inside people's lungs. The U.S. Weather Bureau didn't yet have a name for this new weather phenomenon, but by 1933, when 70 of them stalked the Panhandle, they were called dust storms.
Egan, a New York Times reporter, offers dramatic descriptions of the storms that vividly recreate their apocalyptic fury. He really excels, however, in capturing the human suffering they inflicted: Hazel Lucas Shaw's infant daughter and grandmother dying of "dust pneumonia" on the same day; Gustav Borth hiding behind his shed so his family would not see him weeping over the debts he could not pay; Caroline Henderson dreaming of rain but waking to "another day of wind and dust and hopes deferred." Egan also paints an unforgettable picture of a society in "terminal disorder": banks closed, stores bankrupt, people bartering eggs for shoes, hospitals that could not be reached on roads impassable with dust. In 1935, the year that Associated Press reporter Bob Geiger attached the phrase "Dust Bowl" to this desolate region, 850 million tons of topsoil blew off the plains. One hundred million acres were badly eroded; nearly half were "essentially destroyed." A quarter of a million people fled the Dust Bowl during the 1930s.
But most residents stayed, anchored by an indomitable attachment to their blighted homeland that provides Egan's frightening account with one of its two rays of hope. The other comes from the improvised, heroic efforts by New Deal officials to implement policies that would alleviate the crisis and prevent its recurrence. Preeminent here is Hugh Bennett, head of FDR's Soil Conservation Service, whose visionary efforts to restore the prairie and encourage farmers to "think beyond their fence lines" led to the three national grasslands that the Forest Service today maintains in the region. On the other hand, Egan points out in his epilogue, federal subsidies intended to help families stay on the land have become "a payoff to corporate farms growing crops that are already in oversupply" -- and watering them with water pumped from the Ogallala Aquifer "eight times faster than nature can refill it."
Will we ever learn? Egan draws no final conclusions, letting readers judge for themselves from the wealth of admonitory facts and evocative details skillfully assembled in this sobering, heart-wrenching book. ·
Wendy Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."