I just finished an incredible book: The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. Written in 2006, the book tells “the untold story of those who survived the Great American Dust Bowl.” You might be asking, “Why read such a depressing book during a global pandemic, Melannie? Couldn’t you pick something more upbeat?”
I read it for two main reasons. First, Timothy Egan, whose research is exemplary, makes history come alive. He puts you into the story. Second, I was hoping this true story about “a worst hard time” in American history could shed a light on the current “worst hard time” we are living through.
First, a few facts. The Dust Bowl affected 100,000,000 acres in primarily five states: Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas. It was caused by both natural and human-made factors. By nature, that area was subject to regular drought and constant high winds. For thousands of years, though, the prairie grass had evolved to anchor the topsoil in the vast expanse. The human factor that caused the Dust Bowl was this: farmers, at the urging of the government, began plowing under the prairie grass to grow mainly wheat. In the 1920’s, the so-called “wet years,” American farmers grew more wheat than the world had ever seen.
Then in 1929 the Great Depression hit. The world market for wheat dried up, and that record crop of wheat mostly rotted in storage bins. Next came the drought. From 1930-1941 hardly any rain fell in the area. Consequently, the naturally occurring winds began to peel off the topsoil and carry it away. Egan describes one of the worst “black blizzards” in May 1934: People looked northwest and saw a ragged-topped formation on the move, covering the horizon. The air crackled with electricity. Snap. Snap Snap. Birds screeched and dashed for cover. As the black wall approached, car radios clicked off, overwhelmed by the static. Ignitions shorted out. Waves of sand, like ocean water rising over a ship’s prow, swept over roads. Cars went into ditches. A train derailed.
Egan continues: The storm carried twice as much dirt as was dug out of the earth to create the panama canal. The canal took seven years to dig; the storm lasted a single afternoon. That storm was two miles high and traveled 2,000 miles. It carried dust to Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo, and New York City. The prairie dirt enshrouded the State of Liberty and dusted ships that were 300 miles from shore. It covered the U.S. capitol, getting the attention of Congress and the American people to the catastrophe occurring on the plains.
Egan focuses on particular families, many who stayed and managed to survive. Some of the people he interviewed were teenagers at the time. Through countless interviews and even diaries, Egan humanizes the story. You admire the people’s strength, their hard work, their watching out for one another. The dust that surrounded them was deadly. Many suffered coughing spasms, asthma, shortness of breath, bronchitis, influenza. “Dust pneumonia” killed hundreds, especially infants, children, and the elderly.
The dust was everywhere. It was impossible to keep it out of their homes. It covered floors, curtains, tables, dishes, bedding, cribs. At times the sand was so deep outside (ten feet or more), it buried fence posts, cars, and even houses. Farmers could grow nothing. Much of their livestock starved to death. When the people’s food ran out, some survived by eating canned tumbleweed.
What light did the book shed for me on contemporary times? Three things. One critic wrote, “The Worst Hard Times is a powerful cautionary tale about the dangers of trifling with nature.” I wondered, have we learned that lesson or are we currently creating other environmental disasters? Who is making the decisions and laws to protect our environment? Second, the book describes the courageous journalists who went to the area and were totally horrified by what they saw–especially so many American families living in holes in the ground and on the verge of starvation. Their powerful writing and incredible photographs brought the disaster to the attention of the American people and the government. I found myself cheering for our free press.
And third, I marveled at the immediate and specific action the government took to try to bring relief. FDR’s New Deal addressed some of the key issues of the Depression and the Dust Bowl. Remember, in 1930 there were no unemployment benefits, no social security, no food stamps. The New Deal, though not perfect, immediately began to provide relief for the people and to explore ways to restore the land—following the latest scientific research. When FDR visited the area in July 1938, he was welcomed as a hero. Ironically, the day he arrived in his open car and stood on the outdoor stage to give his speech, it rained! But the rain didn’t seem to dampen his spirits nor anyone else’s.
USA Today called Egan’s book “a great read.” I couldn’t agree more. The book also made me wonder: In the future, who will write the definitive book about our current hard times? What will the book say about us, the people who lived during this age of the Covid-19 pandemic?
Did anything in this reflection strike you?
Do any of the photos give you pause?
Do you think we’ve learned lessons to prevent environmental disasters–or are we creating other environmental disasters right now?
Suggestion: Appreciate and give thanks for every drop of water you use today.
Water is a powerful symbol in our faith tradition. It recalls our Baptism and Jesus’ promise to give us Living Water. This song celebrates water. It’s called “Holy Water” and is sung by We the Kingdom.
Please feel free to respond below to this reflection, the photos, the video, or the responses of other readers.