The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan


Recommended by Crystal who loves books about this period.  And what a great recommendation it was.  This is a history of the Dust Bowl, an area stretching from Lubbock, Texas through the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma through Kansas to a sliver of Nebraska on the north, and from the middle of Kansas on the east to a large section of Colorado on the west.  The focus are the two panhandles.

After the bison were all killed and the Indian treaties abrogated, ranchers moved in.  The grass had been there for eons and was wonderfully green in the spring, died back in the hot summers, and survived the freezing winters to come back each spring.   It survived the many droughts which have occurred in the region. The 1920s was a rainy period and worldwide demand caused wheat prices to be high.  In the great plains area in 1879 ten million acres were plowed, and 50 years later, that number was 100 million acres.  "Suitcase farmers" came to mine the soil for the wheat it could grow.

The inevitable drought that returned in the 1930s began to blow away the topsoil which had no grass to hold it down and even acreage that had not been ploughed was destroyed by the dust.  The dust storms darkened the skies, brought dust into the houses, and gave people dust pneumonia.  A black blizzard with black icy pellets is hard to imagine.  Two storms brought the dust of the high plains to the East Coast, darkening the skies during the day. 

This book tells the stories of individuals who lived through this time.  One of those was Bam White, who most memorably was filmed ploughing for the 30-minute documentary, The Plough That Broke the Plains (with a notable score by Virgil Thomson).  The stories of these appealing people humanizes the tragedy of the ruined land; they were both perpetrators and victims.  The government policy of encouraging settlement, those who stood to profit from this settlement and those willing to believe the recently disproved lie, "The rains follow the plough" conspired to create this tragedy.

The population of the region remains lower than in the 1920s.  The land has recovered, partly through the efforts of Hugh Bennett who created soil conservation districts as part of the New Deal.  With the introduction of powerful pumps, water from the Ogalalla Aquifer irrigates the region.  Water is being pumped from this aquifer faster than it is being replaced.  It was created by the melting of the glaciers 15,000 years ago; maybe it will be refilled somehow with the glaciers that are melting now.  Happy thought.

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