Monday, December 31, 2012

The Dustbowl

Henry Fonda

The Dustbowl

Dust Bowl - Pete Bernhard

"Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an'—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry n’ they know supper's ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there."
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

   Have you ever read "The Grapes of Wrath?"
   The 1940 movie starring Henry Fonda was pretty good too.
   In the interests of full disclosure I have to admit John Steinbeck is my favorite author, however "The Grapes of Wrath," is not my favorite novel of his. "Cannery Row," is, although I admire Steinbeck's Dustbowl saga very much, and may read it again someday... if I feel the urge to depress my self silly.
   I don't even know what the title means, if it means anything at all. Here's the line it came from: "...and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage." WTF does that mean? No, please tell me, I really want to know.
   Of course he could have simply stolen it from the "Battle Hymn of the Republic":
    "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
    He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored"
   But I don't know what that means either.
   Julia Ward Howe, the author of the Hymn may have contrived "grapes of wrath," from a biblical reference, but the meaning, again, if there is one, just gets murkier and murkier.
   "The Grapes of Wrath" sure sounds good though. Just like "Of Mice and Men," which at least has something to do with that story's plot.
   Anyway, "The Grapes of Wrath," concerns the story of the Joad family, Oklahoma tenant farmers who grew cotton on their land until the drought of the Dustbowl made it impossible to grow their crops, which made it impossible to make the money needed to pay the bank for the use of the land and their home. Consequently, the family is evicted and they load up the family truck with  their possessions and head off to... here, in California. The land of milk and honey, or at least that's what they've been told.
   A lot of other people and families have been told the same thing, and the Joads join the largest migration in the history of the nation (for time of the duration).
   This isn't fiction. Although the story of the Joad family is fictionalized, what happened to them in the book happened to hundreds of thousands of Americans. Families and migrants left farms in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico, left their homes, either being forced out by the banks, like the Joads, or by the fact that they couldn't make a living anymore because of the prolonged drought, or because they didn't want to die of a disease endemic for the time and area... pneumonia... dust pneumonia, pneumonia contracted from inhaling dirt.
   The Great Plains cover parts of the states of Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming, and the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The Dustbowl area, centered around the Oklahoma panhandle, (in the past referred to as No Man's Land) is semiarid, receiving less than 20 inches of rain annually; this rainfall supports the shortgrass prairie that had been present in the area for hundreds of thousands of years, and which is suitably adapted to the region. This area also alternates between drought and extended unusual wetness, with each duration lasting at times, for many years. Wind speeds are often very high because the land is... well, flat.
   Humans have inhabited the plains for at least 10,000 years without any problems. They were Indians, and made their living hunting the animals that lived there, like bison.
   After the Civil War (American) cattlemen settled in the area, the shortgrass was well suited for grazing. The Homestead Act of 1862 brought settlers by the thousands, and farming was introduced to the area.  Overgrazing and a series of hard winters beginning in 1886 led to more land being cultivated. At the beginning of the 1900s the weather turned wet, and farmers increased their efforts believing erroneously that the weather would stay wet. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, prices for wheat skyrocketed, which further provided incentives for farmers to increase cultivation. The area of farmland doubled between 1900 and 1920, and land under cultivation more than tripled between 1925 and 1930.
   Agricultural technology was not standing still during this period. Gas driven tractors replaced horses as a means to plow the land, which allowed this preparation to be done faster and over greater areas. This virtually eliminated the native shortgrasses which held the soil in place and helped retain moisture, even during the long dry periods.
   And then the weather wasn't wet anymore. A drought, a dry period, a period without much rain, began in 1930 and lasted for the next ten years.
   1930. Hey, that was the year after the stock market crashed in October of 1929, signaling the beginning of The Great Depression, the worst economic crisis that nation has ever faced. That lasted until the U.S. entered World War II, in 1942.
   Both of these occurrences happening at the same time spelled big trouble for the farmers of the plains.
   The Depression caused wheat prices to fall, and the government requested farmers grow less crops. Framers responding by growing more, or trying to, as they reasoned if the price is lower the more I grow the more money I'll make. When prices were high their response was to grow more as well. Always the answer for the farmers was to grow more and more.
   The land didn't like that. The topsoil had became friable, which means reduced to a powdery consistency in many places, and without the shortgrasses in place, the high winds that commonly occurred over the plains created massive duststorms that marked the beginning of the Dust Bowl period.
   On November 11, 1933, strong winds stripped the dry topsoil off of the farmlands of South Dakota. On May 9, 1934, a strong, two-day dust storm removed massive amounts of Great Plains topsoil in one of the worst storms of the Dust Bowl. The clouds of dust blew all the way to the east coast, dropping 12 million pounds of Oklahoma dirt on Chicago. The same storm reached Buffalo, Boston, Cleveland, New York City, and Washington, D.C. Red snow fell on New England. Much of the soil ended up deposited in the Atlantic Ocean.
   What became known as Black Sunday occurred on April 14th, 1935. The day began clear and beautiful, with no wind at all. The people of the plains took trips outside to enjoy the lovely weather. A funeral was to be held for a woman who had died from dust pneumonia. Children played.
   But it was not to be. Winds swept down from Canada, picking up topsoil along the way. The storm hit the eastern Oklahoma panhandle and northwestern Oklahoma first, and moved south for the remainder of the day. The clouds stretched 200 miles wide and 2 miles high. It turned day into night. Witnesses reported they could not see five feet in front of them at certain points. It is estimated to have displaced 300 million tons of topsoil from the Plains area.
   It was one of the worst dust storms in American history and it caused immense damage economically and to agriculture.
"On the 14th day of April of 1935,
There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky.
You could see that dust storm comin', the cloud looked deathlike black,
And through our mighty nation, it left a dreadful track.
From Oklahoma City to the Arizona line,
Dakota and Nebraska to the lazy Rio Grande,
It fell across our city like a curtain of black rolled down,
We thought it was our judgement, we thought it was our doom" --Woody Guthrie,  "Great Dust Storm"
   In a New Republic article, Avis D. Carlson wrote:
   "People caught in their own yards grope for the doorstep. Cars come to a standstill, for no light in the world can penetrate that swirling murk…. The nightmare is deepest during the storms. But on the occasional bright day and the usual gray day we cannot shake from it. We live with the dust, eat it, sleep with it, watch it strip us of possessions and the hope of possessions."
   These were the big ones. Smaller ones happened often, with just as devastating consequences.
   The Dust Bowl affected 100,000,000 acres, 156,250 square miles , an area larger than the entire state of Montana, and a little smaller than California, centered on the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and adjacent parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas.
   Can you imagine living in the middle of that? During the Great Depression?
   There was literally no end in sight.
   So people left. A lot of them here to California, where I'm ashamed to say they were not treated as best as they could have been. The Depression was affecting Californians as well, and a sudden and steady influx of migrants, no matter where they came from, were not exactly welcome.
   The folksinger and song writer, Woody Guthrie was one of those who moved. He left his wife Mary behind in Texas while moving to California to find work, joining thousands of others fleeing from the Dustbowl. Many of his songs are concerned with the conditions faced by those people. Guthrie found work here in L.A., gaining fame at local radio station KFVD. He soon made enough money to send for his family (he even got together with John Steinbeck, introduced by Grandpa Walton, Will Geer). Many were not as fortunate.
   So how did the Dustbowl end? Why isn't the dirt still blowing today?
   The dirt would have ran out by now, for one thing.
   Also, much to the disgust of the modern Tea party, the only entity large enough, and powerful enough to deal with the crisis, if it indeed could be dealt with, was the federal government.
   The farmers tended to be strong, independent men and women, reluctant to ask or receive help from outsiders. But their back was against the wall. They had no choice but to get help.
   Success was in no way assured. Several techniques and programs were initiated.
   "President Roosevelt ordered the Civilian Conservation Corps to plant a huge belt of more than 200 million trees from Canada to Abilene, Texas to break the wind, hold water in the soil, and hold the soil itself in place. The administration also began to educate farmers on soil conservation and antierosion techniques, including crop rotation, strip farming, contour plowing, terracing, and other improved farming practices. In 1937, the federal government began an aggressive campaign to encourage Dust Bowlers to adopt planting and plowing methods that conserved the soil. The government paid the reluctant farmers a dollar an acre to practice one of the new methods. By 1938, the massive conservation effort had reduced the amount of blowing soil by 65%. Nevertheless, the land failed to yield a decent living. In the fall of 1939, after nearly a decade of dirt and dust, the nearly decade-long drought ended, as regular rainfall finally returned to the region." --Wikipedia
   Within a few years, many of the farms had returned to normal. But the droughts had taken their toll. A large fraction of the families who chose to stay in the Dustbowl area received some of the first rural relief ever given out by the federal government. By the end of the drought, the government had awarded at least $1 billion (at 1930s value) in relief.
   Many of these techniques to end the Dustbowl are still in practice today, as they should be. There's still soil that can blow away, although not as much.
   But why do we care now? Why am I writing about something that happened 80 years ago?
   Because of human nature. It was shortsighted longing for short term profits that caused the Dustbowl, although the motivation to feed one's families was an honorable one.
   But that steadfast tendency toward shortsightedness remains.
   Even after the most debilitating effects of the Dustbowl had been mitigated by use of the techniques above, some farmers returned the deep plowing and torturing of the earthy soil in order to maximize their crop yields, and therefore profits. They forgot or choose to ignore what had caused their own downfall. Who knows what they were thinking. Maybe they thought that most others are using the new ways to farm the land, so if refuse to use them I'll get away with it, or who knows? The wind didn't stop for them though, and the dust began to blow again.
   But not as bad as before. Most of the farmers were using the new soil saving techniques. Another reason was simply that the federal government had purchased large areas of land that were allowed to return to their original, pristine nature.
   But this says something about us. Take global warming for instance. We have people like the Koch brothers, and the oil industry, and the politicians in Congress that they control, who only  see making money in the short term as the responsible course of action, at the expense of the entire planet, which in actuality is the most irresponsible path that anyone can take!
   We have the ability to look forward. We have the ability to learn from our past mistakes. I don't hear Republicans, or Charles and David Koch make fun of engineers who retrofit or design buildings that can withstand earthquakes that aren't happening in the present, but will surely occur in the future. We know they will come, so we take action to lessen the damage and loss of life that will happen.
   But Rick, we know earthquakes are real. We don't know that about global warming.
  Oh yes, yes, we do. The only people who deny the overwhelming scientific evidence showing that global warming is real are those who profit from denying it, like the Koch brothers, and the oil and gas industry, and those they hire to discredit the science involved.
 Irresponsible Stewardship
   There are too many lessons that we, as responsible stewards of the present, can and must  learn from ourselves as we faced the Dustbowl, that we owe to those who will come in the future.  

Lessons from The Dust Bowl with Ken Burns

This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin' it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don't give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that's all we wanted to do."
Written by Guthrie in the late 1930s on a songbook distributed to listeners of his L.A. radio show "Woody and Lefty Lou" who wanted the words to his recordings.

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