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Book Summary: The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

My Personal Summary

This book is about the Dust Bowl, a period in the 1930’s in which the Great Depression occurred and excessive cultivation of the Great Plains region lead to dust storms – storms that would literally rip up the Earth.

American meteorologists rated the Dust Bowl the number one weather event of the twentieth century. And as they go over the scars of the land, historians say it was the nation’s worst prolonged environmental disaster.

The Great Plains is not a region that was built for excessive farming – it receives very little rainfall and has wild temperature swings from freezing cold in the winter to scorching hot in the summer.

In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, farmers ripped up the grass throughout the region to plant wheat in an attempt to earn a living. However, they ripped up way too much grass which meant there were no roots to hold the land in place. When high winds occurred, dust storms would sweep through the region.

Hundreds of thousands of people fled the region and those who stayed suffered from dust pneumonia and bleak economic circumstances.

Nationwide, the 1930s was the first decade in United States history when the number of young children declined.

Book Notes

  • “Throughout the Great Plains, a visitor passes more nothing than something.”
  • In parts of Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas, it seemed on many days as if a curtain were being drawn across a vast stage at world’s end. The land convulsed in a way that had never been seen before, and it did so at a time when one out of every four adults was out of work.
    in 1909, the year Congress tried to induce settlement in one of the final frontiers of the public domain—the arid, western half of the Great Plains—with a homestead act that doubled the amount of land a person could prove-up and own to 320 acres. The last homestead act was a desperate move, promoted by railroad companies and prairie state senators, to get people to inhabit a place that had never held anything more than a few native hunting camps and some thirteenth-century Indian villages.
  • In 1929, the start of the Great Depression, the boys rode a mule to school. For the next nine years, Ike would see Baca County go mad. Earlier, the land had been overturned in a great speculative frenzy to make money in an unsustainable wheat market. After a big run-up, prices crashed. The rains disappeared—not just for a season but for years on end. With no sod to hold the earth in place, the soil calcified and started to blow. Dust clouds boiled up, ten thousand feet or more in the sky, and rolled like moving mountains—a force of their own. When the dust fell, it penetrated everything: hair, nose, throat, kitchen, bedroom, well. A scoop shovel was needed just to clean the house in the morning. The eeriest thing was the darkness. People tied themselves to ropes before going to a barn just a few hundred feet away, like a walk in space, tethered to the life support center.
  • That was Black Sunday, April 14, 1935, day of the worst duster of them all. The storm carried twice as much dirt as was dug out of the earth to create the Panama Canal.
  • “God didn’t create this land around here to be plowed up,” says White. “He created it for Indians and buffalo. Folks raped this land. Raped it bad.”
  • More than a quarter-million people fled the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.
  • American meteorologists rated the Dust Bowl the number one weather event of the twentieth century. And as they go over the scars of the land, historians say it was the nation’s worst prolonged environmental disaster.
  • Empty of bison and Indians, the prairie was a lonely place; it had taken barely ten years to eliminate them. In victory, the American government was not sure what to do with the land.
  • Bison have poor eyesight and tend to be clannish, but they are the greatest thermo-regulators ever adapted to the plains, able to withstand temperatures of 110 degrees in summer, and 30 below zero in winter. But cattle are fragile. The winter of 1885–1886 nearly wiped out cattle herds in the southern plains, and a second season of fatal cold the next year did the same thing up north.
  • What fell from the sky was insufficient to grow traditional crops. And the rate of evaporation made what rain that did fall seem like much less. It takes twenty-two inches in the Panhandle to deposit the same moisture as fifteen inches would leave in the Upper Mississippi Valley. The native plants that take hold, like mesquite, send roots down as far as 150 feet.
  • The flattest, driest, most wind-raked, least arable part of the United States was transformed by government incentive, private showmanship, and human desire from the Great American Desert into Eden with a haircut.
  • Windmills played a crucial role in settling the dry lands in Oklahoma and northern Texas, since they could be used to pull water up from aquifers deep underground that could then be used for agriculture since it didn’t rain much in the Great Plains region.
  • In trying to come to terms with a strange land, perhaps the biggest fear was fire. The combination of wind, heat, lightning, and combustible grass was nature’s perfect recipe for fire. One day the grass could look sweet and green, spread across the face of No Man’s Land. Another day it would be a roaring flank of smoke and flame, marching toward the dugout.
  • Fire was part of the prairie ecosystem, a way for the land to regenerate itself, clean out excess insect populations, and allow the grass to be renewed. The year after a fire, the grass never looked healthier.
  • What had been an anchored infinity of grassland just a generation earlier became a patchwork of broken ground. In 1917, about forty-five million acres of wheat were harvested nationwide. In 1919, over seventy-five million acres were put into production—up nearly 70 percent. And the expansion would continue in the decade after the war, even as there was no need for it.
  • The self-described wheat queen of Kansas, Ida Watkins, told everyone she made a profit of $ 75,000 on her two thousand acres of bony soil in 1926—bigger than the salary of any baseball player but Babe Ruth, more money than the president of the United States made.
  • What changed everything for him, and other dryland farmers, was the tractor. In the 1830s, it took fifty-eight hours of work to plant and harvest a single acre. By 1930, it took only three hours for the same job.
  • People who had come to the Panhandle wanting only to own a small piece of something now realized that through easy loans, they could own a large piece of anything, and with tractors and threshers they could do the work of a wagonload of field hands.
  • The tractors rolled on, the grass yanked up, a million acres a year, turned and pulverized; in just five years, 1925 to 1930, another 5.2 million acres of native sod went under the plow in the southern plains—an area the size of two Yellowstone National Parks.
  • The only way for someone who made ten thousand dollars in 1925 to duplicate his earnings in 1929 was to plant twice the amount. And so the tractors took to the buffalo grass like never before, digging up nearly fifty thousand acres a day in the southern plains in the final years before the land started to break people. What had been prairie turf for thirty-five thousand years was peeled off in a swift de-carpeting that remade the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, big parts of Kansas, Nebraska, and southeast Colorado.
  • In the 1870s, about 12,000 Russian Germans came to Kansas; within fifty years, 303,000 would populate the Great Plains.
  • The stock market crashed on October 29, 1929, a Tuesday, the most disastrous session on Wall Street to date in a month of turmoil.
  • Over the next three weeks, the market lost 40 percent of its value,
  • For someone who had followed the advice of the day and taken their savings out of the bank and put it all into General Electric, say, shares had grown by 500 percent from 1925 to 1929. In a month, they lost it all.
  • At the start of 1930, wheat sold for one-eighth of the high price from ten years earlier. At forty cents a bushel, the price could barely cover costs, let alone service a bank note. Across the plains, there was only one way out, a last gasp: plant more wheat. Farmers tore up what grass was left, furiously ripping out sod on the hopes they could hit a crop when the price came back.
  • The average factory worker, lucky to be still drawing a paycheck, went from earning twenty-four dollars a week just before the collapse to sixteen dollars a week in the early thirties.
  • American families were reduced to eating dandelions and foraging for blackberries in Arkansas, where the drought was going on two years. And over in the mountains of the Carolinas and West Virginia, a boy told the papers his family members took turns eating, each kid getting a shot at dinner every fourth night.
  • It takes a wind of thirty miles an hour to move dirt; at forty or fifty, it’s a dust storm.
  • 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. But this was not something farmers argued about in meetings where they clamored for price support from the government. Nor was it the topic of scientists or government specialists, at least not early on. People were frantically trying to find a way out of the hole of an economy without light. They were struggling to stay alive, to find enough money to buy shoes, fuel, goods that could not be made by hand at home. What was happening to the land in the early 1930s was nearly unnoticed at first. Still, it was a different world, off balance, and ill. So when the winds blew in the winter of 1932, they picked up the soil with little resistance and sent it skyward.
  • In all of 1932, only twelve inches of rain fell in No Man’s Land—barely half of what was needed, as a rough minimum, to produce a crop.
  • Now the dust was no longer a curiosity but a threat; the land had become an active, malevolent force. If windblown dirt could break windows in school and make cattle go blind, what was next? Children were coughing, unable to sleep at night, hacking until their guts hurt.
  • Throughout the 1920s, as one technological marvel after the other changed American life, the tools of weather forecasting remained items that would have been familiar to Benjamin Franklin. And there was a dire need for some sense of what tomorrow would bring, especially with the dawn of widespread air travel.
  • When weather turned lethal without notice, it killed people—sometimes in large numbers. For tornadoes, there were no warnings at all. A big twister roared through the Midwest in 1925, killing 957 people. The weather bureau’s only great achievement was taking accurate measurements: atmospheric pressure, days without rain, total precipitation, swings in temperature, and wind speed.
  • In one county, 90 percent of the chickens died; the dust had got into their systems, choking them or clogging their digestive tracts. Milk cows went dry. Cattle starved or dropped dead from what veterinarians called “dust fever.”
  • Men avoided shaking hands with each other because the static electricity was so great it could knock a person down.
  • Nationwide, the 1930s was the first decade in United States history when the number of young children declined.
  • Prairie dust has a high silica content. As it builds up in the lungs, it tears at the honeycombed web of air sacs and weakens the body’s resistance. After prolonged exposure, it has the same effect on people as coal dust has on a miner. Silicosis has long been a plague of people who work underground and is the oldest occupational respiratory disease. But it takes years to build up. In the High Plains, doctors were seeing a condition similar to silicosis after just three years of storms. Sinusitis, laryngitis, bronchitis—a trio of painful breathing and throat ailments—were common. By the mid-1930s, a fourth condition, dust pneumonia, was rampant. It was one of the biggest killers. Doctors were not even sure if it was a disease unique from any of the common types of pneumonia, which is an infection of the lungs. They saw a pattern of symptoms: children, infants, or the elderly with coughing jags and body aches, particularly chest pains, and shortness of breath. Many had nausea and could not hold food down. Within days of diagnosis, some would die.
  • “The problem of the Great Plains is not the product of a single act of nature, of a single year or even a series of exceptionally bad years.” What, then, was the cause? “Mistaken public policies have been largely responsible for the situation,” the report proclaimed. Specifically, “a mistaken homesteading policy, the stimulation of war time demands which led to over cropping and over grazing, and encouragement of a system of agriculture which could not be both permanent and prosperous.”
  • Buffalo grass, in particular, short and drought-resistant, was nature’s refinement over centuries. The turf was intact for thousands of years, and then in two manic periods of exploitation—the cattle boom, followed by the wheat bubble—it was ripped apart.
  • Rows of spindly trees—little more than sticks in the ground—now ran through the land, nearly forty million saplings, 3,600 miles of living hope, planted within the most tattered parts of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. In addition, farmers were paid a stipend to list their soil and plant grass alongside the work done by the CCC. Nearly a million acres were under contract as part of Bennett’s blueprint to rescue the land. Bennett hoped that seven million acres would eventually be replanted in grass, a prairie reborn in “that delicate miracle the ever-recurring grass,” as the poet Walt Whitman called it.
  • The high plains never fully recovered from the Dust Bowl. The land came through the 1930s deeply scarred and forever changed, but in places it healed. All told, the government bought 11.3 million acres of dusted-over farm fields and tried to return much of it to grassland. The original intent was to purchase up to 75 million acres. After more than sixty-five years, some of the land is still sterile and drifting. But in the heart of the old Dust Bowl now are three national grasslands run by the Forest Service.
  • Only a handful of family farmers still work the homesteads of No Man’s Land and the Texas Panhandle. To keep agribusiness going, a vast infrastructure of pumps and pipes reaches deep into the Ogallala Aquifer, the nation’s biggest source of underground freshwater, drawing the water down eight times faster than nature can refill it. The aquifer is a sponge, stretching from South Dakota to Texas, which filled up when glaciers melted about 15,000 years ago. It provides about 30 percent of the irrigation water in the United States. With this water, farmers in Texas were able to dramatically increase production of cotton, which no longer has an American market. So cotton growers, siphoning from the Ogallala, get three billion dollars a year in taxpayer money for fiber that is shipped to China, where it is used to make cheap clothing sold back to American chain retail stores like Wal-Mart. The aquifer is declining at a rate of 1.1 million acre-feet a day—that is, a million acres, filled to a depth of one foot with water. At present rates of use, it will dry up, perhaps within a hundred years.
  • What saved the land, this study found, was what Hugh Bennett had started: getting farmers to enter contracts with a soil conservation district and manage the land as a single ecological unit. By 1939, about 20 million acres in the heart of the Dust Bowl belonged to one of these units.

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