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Dust to dust

The Worst Hard Time The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl Timothy Egan Houghton Mifflin: 340 pp., $28

January 29, 2006|Art Winslow | Art Winslow is a former literary and executive editor of the Nation.

IN his book "Great Plains," Ian Frazier notes that pioneers did not consider moving in great numbers to what had been called the Great American Desert until after the Civil War. But when they did, "railroad promoters, governors of empty Western states, syndicates with land to sell, emigration societies, scientists, pretend scientists, politicians in crowded Eastern states, U.S. Geological Survey officials, Walt Whitman, The New York Times, The New York Herald Tribune, all advertised the Great Plains as a garden spot."

And so they came, first the cattlemen and then the homesteaders, the latter pouring in and breaking up the sod at an astonishing rate. Flash forward to April 1935, and Time magazine was reporting:

"Last week farmers in ten Midwestern States had sand in their beards, in their hair, in their ears, in their eyes, in their mouths, in their pockets, in their pants, in their boots, in their milk, coffee, soup and stew. Dust poured through the cracks in farmhouse walls, under the doors, down the chimneys.... In Texas the windswept hayfields were alive with blinded sparrows."

A huge duster had swirled east for a change, scooping up Plains topsoil and dropping it over Missouri, Iowa, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Louisiana as well.

What happened? As Timothy Egan reports in his stark and frightening chronicle of the Dust Bowl, "The Worst Hard Time," human folly chopped up the prairie and the grasses that held it in place, and when hard drought materialized, as was predictable, it catalyzed an eco-disaster of vast proportion.

The soil-packed storm clouds of "Black Sunday," April 14, 1935, "carried twice as much dirt as was dug out of the earth to create the Panama Canal," Egan tells us. The year before, in May 1934, another dust storm had also burst outside the usual compass of the Southern Plains, "carrying three tons of dust for every American alive": Even New York City slipped into partial darkness in that maelstrom, calculated to be 1,800 miles wide, "a great rectangle of dust from the Great Plains to the Atlantic."

Most Americans, whether from John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath" or Woody Guthrie's ballads, or the photographs of Dorothea Lange and others, have a generalized notion of the Dust Bowl experience and the 1930s exodus of people from the Southern Plains. ("So long, it's been good to know ya," wrote Guthrie, but "this dusty old dust is a-gettin' my home, and I got to be driftin' along.") What they don't have is an appreciation of the detailed, slow, particular unfolding of it that Egan provides, as drought drags inexorably on and crops and livestock die off, and people do too, suffocating from "dust pneumonia" and other respiratory ailments.

The dust-choked environment was surreal: Visibility could be cut to a matter of inches, necessitating a tether if one ventured outside. Static electricity charged the air so highly it could knock people down if they shook hands; metal doorknobs and stove handles were covered with cloth as protection, and cars were outfitted with chains to drag for grounding, to keep them from shorting out. The spikes on barbed-wire fences glowed.

Drifts several feet deep surrounded structures and frequently closed roads. Dead cows lined the fenceways, their innards packed with sand. People rubbed Vaseline in their nostrils, wore wet cloths over their faces, or even sponges until the stores ran out, and hung wet sheets over the windows of their houses. The scoop shovel became more valuable than the combine.

The cultural environment went haywire as well, as foreclosures and bankruptcies on family farms (750,000 between 1930 and 1935) eroded communities, and desperation led people to eat Russian thistles -- tumbleweeds -- and road kill. Rabbits were seen as both competitors for food and a source of it: In Dalhart, Texas, and elsewhere, regular drives were organized that drew up to 2,000 people with baseball bats and clubs, and they killed as many as 6,000 rabbits in an afternoon.

Seeking to force rain from the skies, one popular idea was to kill a snake and drape it belly side up on a fence, and "in southwest Kansas, dead snakes were hung for miles on barbed wire, their white-scaled stomachs facing the brown sky," Egan relates. Shooting explosives into the sky was also tried, to no avail.

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