Dust in the wind

  • The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

    Timothy Egan, 320 pgs, hardcover: $28. Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006

On Sept. 14, 1930, a strange dirt cloud swirled out of Kansas into the Texas Panhandle. Weathermen dismissed it as an oddity, but it marked the beginning of the worst long-term environmental disaster the United States has ever known — the Dust Bowl. That bleak period is chronicled in The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan’s absorbing account of the people who struggled to survive on the southern Great Plains during the 1930s.

For generations today who may imagine the Dust Bowl was just another drought, Egan’s book hammers home the staggering magnitude of the disaster and, most importantly, the fact that it was triggered by acts of man, not nature.

Rarely have the consequences of plundering the environment for short-term economic gain been spelled out as starkly as then, on the vast grasslands from southern Nebraska to northern Texas. Between 1910 and 1915, wheat prices doubled and homesteaders rushed to plant grain. Cowboys warned of the soil, "The best side is up." But eager farmers ignored that advice — and paid a terrible price. In a few years, their plows had ravaged the hardy turf. Drought descended, and countless tons of topsoil went airborne in storms that suffocated cattle and buried buildings.

In interviews with survivors, Egan hammers home the human toll: people driven mad, children dead of "dust pneumonia," families subsisting on ground-up, pickled tumbleweeds.

Eventually, the Dust Bowl led to soil-conservation districts and better farming practices, but Egan is not optimistic about the future. Even now, he notes, pumps suck water from the Ogallala Aquifer beneath the Great Plains eight times faster than nature can replace it. Clearly, the lessons of history often go unlearned.


Jul 31, 2006 09:29 AM

In replacing windows and doors of historic buildings in Cheyenne Wyoming; I would find layers of dust under the sills. The first layer would be fine black particles from the coal smoke that hung like a pall when the wind wasn't blowing. Coal burned since the building of the Union Pacific.

The next layer was thick and reddish gray, the loess of the Great Plains blown from the hardscrabble farms of the sodbusters placed there by the Jeffersonian myth of a rural utopia, the Homestead Act, and the eurocentric rectilinear surveys extended against the experienced advice of John Wesley Powell.

Born during the "Baby Boom" I have read of the Dust Bowl and had conversations with "oldtimers" who experienced it as children. My father's family were refugees from Eastern Colorado. My other experiences are from the farming areas of the High Plains in Wyoming; land that was impacted less than the Central Great Plains. Even so, there are roads that are eight to ten feet below the level of the drifts of soil built up by those hot winds. There are fence posts that poke up a few inches out of the spindrift of this sea of dirt. In spite of improved practices and programs like the Consevation Reserve Program; for the ten years of our present drought, the windy days of November and March feature a groundswell of wind erosion.

The mining of soil and water continues as we make massive withdrawals from a growth medium that was deposited over the millenia of glaciation. Four of the eight feet of earth in the great plains has eroded in a century.

To view some of the recent wind erosion in the Great Plains go to www.weru.ksu.edu/pics/great_plains/index.html