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.