For many, the Dust Bowl era is forever linked with John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and his riveting story of the Joads, tenant-farmer Okies who struck out for California to escape the horrors and hardship of a world gone mad. We know that the infamous drought lingered for years, that the land gave up its precious soil and that the torturous winds lifted the dirt and mockingly threw it back down in suffocating waves of grit, but what many of us didn’t realize is that most of the settlers in the American High Plains did not run from the black clouds. Resolute, stubborn and with their dreams and livelihoods pinned to the earth, they stayed. Their children died of dust pneumonia, their emaciated horses chewed fence posts for sustenance and their homes – some little more than sod huts — dripped streaks of black grime. Spitting grit from their teeth, they battled grasshopper plagues of Biblical proportions as stores of food, money and hope dwindled. In telling the stories of those who stayed and survived, Egan sculpts a new image of one of the nation’s darkest periods.
Prior to the 1930s, grasslands covered twenty one percent of the U.S. and Canada, making up an ecosystem rivaled in size only by the boreal forest. In Texas, more than 470 native species of grass anchored the soil against the punishing high winds and cyclical droughts. The land endured for centuries until a combination of forces – homesteading, greed, mechanization and blind faith in an untried technique called “dry farming” – ensured its doom. Eager to shape the earth to meet their own needs, farmers plowed the grass under and planted wheat. Crop after crop, and year after year, sucking nutrients from the soil and turning the land upside down, leaving the soil to dry in the enduring drought and ready to be carried skyward by the relentless winds. Many in the country didn’t believe the tales of the black clouds and dirt raining from the heavens until a 1934 spring storm blew the filth to Chicago and New York and so far out to sea that ships two hundred miles from shore were coated in dust from Kansas and Oklahoma.
The Worst Hard Time, a National Book Award winner, is both fascinating and complex and impossible to read without considering direct parallels to current environmental events. Then, as now, a problem must be acknowledged before a solution can be devised. But what to do when faced with a catastrophe of such immense proportions? What tact to follow when every proposal is untried?
How bad was it? The dust contained silica that weakened the lungs, bestowing upon fresh-air farmers the same respiratory disease that plagued many under-ground miners. The dust clouds were often enormous: towering as high as 10,000 feet and filled with coarse granules that stung like steel wool. The storms were persistent: in the first four months of 1935, Dodge City, Kansas experienced only 13 dust-free days. That same year, more than 850 million tons of topsoil blew off the southern great plains. Gone, all gone. In the words of Ernie Pyle, one of the nation’s most influential writers, the region had become a “withering land of misery,” the saddest he had ever seen.