Americans had become a force of awful geology, changing the face of the earth more than ‘the combined activities of volcanoes, earthquakes, tidal waves, tornadoes, and all the excavations of mankind since the beginning of history.’ (p. 127)
In the 1930s, the American prairie was repeatedly subjected to dust storms: huge clouds of dirt that moved across the land. The storms made roads impassable, filled homes with dust, suffocated livestock, and infiltrated people’s lungs. Many died from what was called “dust pneumonia.” This was initially thought to be a freak of nature, a rare meteorological happening. But as the storms pummeled the plains day after day, the government commissioned experts to investigate. They soon learned the storms were the result of human behavior going back to the turn of the century.
The explorer Stephen Long wrote about the Great Plains, “I do not hesitate in giving the opinion that it is almost wholly uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence.” Nevertheless, after the US government ousted the Native Americans from their lands, a syndicate sought to make a buck by offering cheap land and promises of prosperity. They distributed attractive brochures across the eastern part of the country, and to immigrants at major entry points. The people came, and they farmed. But agricultural success was short-lived. Extensive farming and over-plowing, coupled with drought, weakened the soil system and sent it blowing up into the air. As the dust storms became a daily occurrence, along came the Depression, and by 1940 the Great Plains were a very different place indeed.
Timothy Egan tells the story of the dust bowl through the lives of those who survived life on the plains during that time. These survivors were still living, and his direct access resulted in a vivid, realistic, and very human portrait of this period in American history. His accounts of dust storms are real page turners — narrative non-fiction at its best. Egan had access to historical records too, of course. Don Hartwell’s diary was one of the most moving parts of this book, recounting the decline of his farm, his livelihood, and his community in spare sentences, like these from 1939:
I have felt lost lately — not knowing where to turn or what to do. In fact, if one hasn’t ‘got’ anything, there is not much he can do.
The same clear, glaring sky & vicious blaze killing sun. Cane is about dead, corn is being damaged; it will soon be destroyed. Those who coined the phrase ‘There’s no place like Nebraska’ wrote better than they thought. In Nebraska, you don’t have to die to go to hell.
There are no dances here anymore — nothing but silence, emptiness, ‘respectability.’
It’s positively heart-breaking, and with growing concern about climate change today, I couldn’t help but wonder if humankind is heading down a similar path. Have we learned from past mistakes? It gives one pause.