Dec 22, 2009

The Great American Desert

[I wrote this piece a few years ago, but the History Channel's recent broadcast of Black Blizzard, along with Tim Egan's narrative and interviews with Dust Bowl survivors, makes it worth repeating.]

"When the native sod of the Great Plains was in place, it did not matter if people looked twice at a piece of ground. Wind blew twenty, thirty, forty miles an hour, as always. Droughts came and went. Prairie fires, many of them started deliberately by Indians or cowboys trying to scare nesters off, took a great gulp of grass in a few days. Hailstorms pounded the land. Blue northers froze it so hard it was like broken glass to walk on. Through all of the seasonal tempests, man was inconsequential. As long as the weave of grass was stitched to the land, the prairie would flourish in dry years and wet. The grass could look brown and dead, but beneath the surface, the roots held the soil in place; it was alive and dormant.
The short grass, buffalo and blue grama, had evolved as the perfect fit for the sandy loam of the arid zone. It could hold moisture a foot or more below ground level even during summer droughts, when hot winds robbed the surface of all water-bearing life. In turn, the grass nurtured pin-tailed grouse, prairie chickens, cranes, jackrabbits, snakes, and other creatures that got their water from foraging on the native turf. Through the driest years, the web of life held. When a farmer tore out the sod and then walked away, leaving the land naked, however, that barren patch posed a threat to neighbors. It could not revert to grass, because the roots were gone. It was empty, dead, and transient."

—Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

Read this book.


Daffodil Planter said...

Excellent post. What is the land policy now in that area?

John said...

No idea, Daff. It's a huge area, encompassing several states, so I would guess there are several policies (including Federal incentives). I was glad to see the TV version mention comparable dust storms occurring for comparable reasons in Africa and China today, and would have liked to hear more about practices and remedies being applied there.

Susan aka Miss R said...

Even with the sadness for the earth below - that is one evocative piece of writing. Thanks for sharing - I will read the book.

Steve said...

That's incredible writing. I watched something on the Dust Bowl Period recently where people who lived there spoke of electrical events caused by metal receiving the endless pummeling of dust, charging it to amazing voltages. A barbed wire fence, in other words, could give a crippling shock. The utter weirdness of it all is shocking in so many ways.

John said...

Steve, that might have been the "Black Blizzard" show you saw. The heartbreaking part is that these folks were only doing what their government told them to do.