The Dust Bowl

(from The Writer’s Almanac)

On this day in 1935, the Great Plains region experienced one of the largest dust storms in American history.

That morning, the weather was clear and warm, little to no breeze. But by afternoon, the sky had turned a strange purple and the wind had started to whip. A towering black plume of dust shot across the Plains, from South Dakota to Texas, before people could react. Cars were shorted out, and animals were smothered on the spot — countless birds, mice, jackrabbits. Cattle’s stomachs were later found to be filled with several inches of dirt, their eyes cemented shut by a mixture of tears and dust.

The disaster of the Dust Bowl years was completely manmade. Motivated by a spike in wheat prices right after the First World War, settlers had rushed into America’s farmland to remove the native grasses and plant more wheat. When the price in wheat fell during the Depression years, farmers abandoned their now-empty fields. With no native grasses in place to hold the soil down, it was free to move in the air. A few more years of drought after that was all it took to turn a once-thriving prairie into an arid wasteland.

Nearly 850 million tons of topsoil was displaced in 1935 alone, with the worst dust storms hitting areas in Oklahoma and the panhandles of Texas. People adapted their lives to the dust. Women would knead their bread in a dresser drawer draped over with cloth, working the dough through two hand-holes cut in the drawer’s sides. They abandoned stovetop cooking in lieu of the oven, where less dirt could get through. Meals had to be eaten immediately or else they would accumulate a layer of dust. Children walked to school in goggles and dust masks.

Thousands fled to California during the Dust Bowl, overwhelming the state’s resources. Others suffered health and respiratory problems from the constant presence of dust. Homes and farm equipment were buried in great dunes of sandy dirt. The multiyear tragedy led to the federal government’s passing of the Soil Conservation Act in 1936.

Today, farmers use more careful agricultural methods to prevent the kind of erosion that would lead to another Dust Bowl.

But are we really any the wiser today as we argue over which states get water from the Colorado river as it evaporates into a great, grimy ribbon of sludge?

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