Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Dust Bowl

The Dust Bowl is one of those epoch historical events that is just on the edge of our national memory. The music that arose from it (Woody Guthrie), the searing photos (Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, et al), the literature (The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck) all remain with us but of the people who can tell the stories, those two or three million people that were directly subject to the storms of soil raining from the sky, the three or four hundred thousand that had to abandon all for which they had worked, pack up the family and hit the road to start again; of them there are just some few tens of thousands still with us to keep the story fresh with a human voice.

As we have grown more and more prosperous it is easy to take the current status quo for granted and assume that things have always been this good and things will always get better. And things do get better; never smoothly and sometimes with fits and starts. But the challenges faced and conquered by those that came before us were gargantuan compared to most of what we face today. It is almost inconceivable to us to comprehend competent adults starving to death for lack of food and money, of citizens becoming refugees within their own country. Of being turned away at a neighboring state's border as an undesirable. Yet all that is within our living memory.

What was the Dust Bowl? The Dust Bowl was an affected area of the country encompassing the pan handles of Oklahoma and Texas, northeastern New Mexico and Southeastern Colorado and the western half of Kansas and was the product of three events coming together simultaneously.

The first triggering event was a prolonged drought that hit the country in 1931 and lasted till 1939, initially in the Midwest and the southern Plains but eventually affecting 75% of the country. For all the current apocalyptic talk about global warming, we have already lived it in the Dust Bowl of the 1930's.

The second exacerbating event was the settlement of large numbers of farmers in the southern Plains who then applied traditional farming techniques to fragile and agriculturally little understood new lands. These traditional farming techniques initially produced bountiful crops of wheat but when the drought struck and nothing would grow, the newly plowed fields were desiccated and had no plant material to keep the friable soil in place. The first dust storms hit in 1931, in 1932 there were fourteen dust storms, in 1933, thirty eight.

The archetypal Dust Storm occurred April 14, 1935, Black Sunday and was commemorated in Woody Guthrie's song, Dust Storm Disaster -
On the fourteenth day of April of nineteen thirty five,
There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky:
You could see that dust storm coming, the cloud looked deathlike black,
And through our mighty nation, it left a dreadful track...
This storm took place at sundown and lasted through the night,
When we looked out this morning we saw a terrible sight:
We saw outside our windows where wheat fields they had grown
Was now a rippling ocean of dust the wind had blown.
It covered up our fences, it covered up our barns,
It covered up our tractors in this wild and windy storm.
We loaded our jalopies and piled our families in,
We rattled down the highway to never come back again.

Woody Guthrie (1912-1967)
From "Dust Storm Disaster"

With these natural and man-made disasters, there coincided the third precipitating event, the near collapse of the economic system following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the Great Depression which also ran through the 1930's. Collapsing banks and tight credit fed an insidious cycle of failure where bankrupted farms pulled down collapsing banks and vice-versa.

Three to four hundred thousand people abandoned the southern plains, whole families packed into whatever transport was available, to flee to new lives in other states, most famously to southern California. Neighboring states tried to close their borders to these economic migrants, with Los Angeles stationing 125 of its policemen at the California state border to turn away impoverished American citizens. It was not till 1941 and a Supreme Court decision (Edwards vs. California) in which the Supreme Court ruled that states did not have the power to restrict internal emigration by American citizens.

There were numerous consequences to this massive migration. California was already wrestling with illegal migration from Mexico. The massive influx of impoverished Plains farmers meant that large numbers of illegal Mexicans were repatriated to Mexico, an aspect of the Dust Bowl reflected in Pamela Munoz Ryan's Esperanza Rising. Inland cities in California such as Bakersfield still have a distinctly Plains state feel to them. Close your eyes and listen to the accents, listen to the music and you could be in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas. Open your eyes and there are the cowboy hats, and the working jeans, lean faces and rough working hands and again you might be in any town in those long ago states.

It would be easy to say the Dust Bowl was an unmitigated tragedy and disaster. But that would be wrong. Tragedy and disaster - yes. But unmitigated? No! It was mitigated by the very victims of the dust storms. Their example of getting up and moving on, never giving in, is the exclamation mark that contains the tragedy and disaster.

There is a quote in a PBS article, from 1935 from Collier's magazine.
"Very erect and primly severe, [a man] addressed the slumped driver of a rolling wreck that screamed from every hinge, bearing and coupling. 'California's relief rolls are overcrowded now. No use to come farther,' he cried. The half-collapsed driver ignored him -- merely turned his head to be sure his numerous family was still with him. They were so tightly wedged in, that escape was impossible. 'There really is nothing for you here,' the neat trooperish young man went on. 'Nothing, really nothing.' And the forlorn man on the moaning car looked at him, dull, emotionless, incredibly weary, and said: 'So? Well, you ought to see what they got where I come from.'"

You can see it in people's habits and behaviors. I see it in my parents, born and raised in the 1930's in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In them and their peers I can see something beyond stoicism when some misfortune is visited upon them. Not false optimism but almost an attitude of being unbowed - they have known of worse things and they will not be beaten down by some trifling inconvenience.

So how can we as parents use the stories arising from the Dust Bowl to teach our children a sense of history, of perspective, of nobility? We are blessed that there are quite a number of gripping and affecting stories that arose from this tragedy and like the people themselves there is an ennobling aspect of these stories. There is not a lot of blame laying or bewailing of personal circumstances - in most these stories people simply get up and keep on going. The tragedy is in the circumstances around them but not in themselves. They are the redeeming grace.

Picture Books

If You're Not from the Prairie... by David Bouchard and illustrated by Henry Ripplinger Recommended Not really about the Dustbowl but about the beauty of the prairie.

Leah's Pony by Elizabeth Friedrich and illustrated by Michael Garland Recommended

What You Know First by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Barry Moser Highly Recommended

Don't Forget Winona by Jeanne Whitehouse Peterson and illustrated by Kimberly Bulcken Root Recommended

The Gardener by Sarah Stewart and illustrated by David Small Highly Recommended Another one that is not technically about the Dustbowl but it does convey the disruption and loss of the Great Depression in a non-threatening way.

This Land Is Your Land by Woody Guthrie and illustrated by Kathy Jakobsen Recommended

Independent Readers

Hoping for Rain by Kate Connell Suggested

Dust to Eat by Michael L. Cooper Recommended

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan Recommended

Leah's Pony by Elizabeth Friedrich and illustrated by Michael Garland Recommended

Blue Willow by Doris Gates and illustrated by Paul Lantz Highly Recommended

The Dust Bowl by Ann R. Heinrichs Suggested

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse Recommended

Rose's Journal by Marissa Moss Recommended

Red-Dirt Jessie by Anna Myers Recommended

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan Recommended

Children of the Dust Bowl by Jerry Stanley Recommended

Dust for Dinner by Ann Warren Turner and illustrated by Robert Barrett Suggested

Young Adult

No Promises in the Wind by Irene Hunt Suggested

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck Recommended

Dust Bowl by Donald Worster Suggested

No comments:

Post a Comment