“On those days when the wind stops blowing across the face of the southern plains, the land falls into a silence that scares people in the way that a big house can haunt after the lights go out and no one else is there.” An opening sentence like that sets up high expectations for a book, even if the story being told is one of devastation and despair. Timothy Egan was up to the task in 2006 when he wrote The Worst Hard Time, a chronicle of the Dust Bowl era that ended up winning the National Book Award. Let me just say, it holds up.
Looking back on the utter catastrophe that struck a huge swath of the Great Plains in the 1930s, you wonder why climate change didn’t enter the lexicon long before the environmental movement of the 1970s. In this book, Egan is telling the story of individual families and towns, primarily in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles and southeastern Colorado, but he’s also spelling out, with foreboding clarity, the human-induced reasons that a hyper-productive wheat belt turned to barren sand drifts just as the country entered the Great Depression.
Egan’s analysis follows a 1936 New Deal-era report on the crisis so closely that you suspect that it might have overdetermined the conclusion, but the evidence is pretty damning: Expansion of the homesteading policies of the late 19th century brought settlers to previously overlooked areas like the forbidding No Man’s Land that became the Oklahoma panhandle. Millions of acres of grassland that had supported a bison-dominated ecosystem were turned under by the plow. An unusually wet decade of the 1920s combined with farmers tapping the underground sea that is the Ogallala Aquifer to produce bumper crops that sold at record prices, tempting short-sighted boosters to believe it could go on forever. Then the rains stopped, the market for all that wheat collapsed, heartbroken sodbusters deserted the exposed land, and everything—soil, dreams, and prosperity—blew away.
Family stories mirrored that of the land, like the White family that wound up in the Texas boomtown of Dalhart in the winter of 1926, forced to put down stakes there when their horse died mid-journey. “Lizzie White could not shake the feeling that this land was no good for them, and maybe they should have kept moving south. But Bam White was a tomorrow man who fit right into this Next Year Country. Even as they buried the stillborn baby, White’s gut told him this town was going somewhere.” (52) Which it did, to the eventual ruin of most of its leading citizens, including Bam.
Other figures came from further afield. The Volga Germans who left Russia with their fastidious habits for cleaning their homes, only to find themselves, like everyone else, engaged in a futile battle against dusters that silted dirt through every crevice. Norwegians came on the promise of participating in a new Eden. ”Plenty of rain and the grains look good,” a 1909 advertisement told prospective migrants. (69) But all of them were soon fighting off mountains of swirling sand with children and animals succumbing to dust pneumonia.
Black Sunday was the worst. A Palm Sunday morning in 1935 that began with enough bright sunshine to make you remember why you came in the first place that turned deadly by the afternoon when a blue norther brought a mountain of dust thousands of feet high that blotted out the sun completely and left people stumbling lost in darkness just feet from their doorways.
The Roosevelt Administration wanted to bring its big project approach to the Dust Bowl, too, but Egan lingers on Hugh Bennett, a crusty conservationist who realized early on that the only way to reclaim the southern plains from the sand was to restore the soil—a long-term project that would be much harder than building a dam; soil conservation required cooperation.
The goal was to build a living thing from scratch, to create a place of interdependence, not a crop. Only God on the third day of creation might know the feeling.…A soil conservation district would fail if only a few people went along with it. It was all theory, of course. But neighbors bitched about other neighbors not wanting to do their share, or shucking duties, or being sloppy or lazy or drunk or too religious or just plain onerous. (263)
You recognize this world from almost a century ago because it bears more than a passing resemblance to our times. Addressing climate change in an atomized society filled with distrust and rancor is no easier today, even when we know so much more. Rural areas are no less tenuous today than were those towns that boomed and busted. And what is the best role for government in all this?
The story here is not just a reflection of our times, though, however much you can’t help think about it that way. What stays with you from Egan’s telling are the people who scratched out a life in such obliterating conditions. People like Don Hartwell in Inavale, Nebraska—Willa Cather country—who kept a diary through the worst of the Dust Bowl era. He could remember the way the coming of spring used to be “when the flowers were in bloom, the fruit trees, the grass getting green along the creeks, the frogs singing in the evening.” On the first full day of spring in 1936 all he wrote was: “Very dusty, windy, mean.” (245)
We need stories like these and storytellers like Egan. They remind us what it means to be people of the land and to know we’re part of something greater than ourselves.