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Yesterday was the anniversary of some mammoth multi-state dust storms.  Robert Geiger (AP) wrote on 4/15/35:

Three little words achingly familiar on a Western farmer's tongue, rule life in the dust bowl of the continent - if it rains.

The name "Dust Bowl" stuck, first coined on today's date 74 years ago.  The rains didn't return until four years later.  When the dust settled in April 1935, scenes like this were repeated throughout the high plains region.

Crops were ruined.  Farms produced nothing.  Livestock died en masse.  People abandoned their homes in droves, with little more than the clothes on their back to show for many years of hard work building their homesteads.  There was nothing of value to sell, no one to sell to.

The 1930s Dust Bowl is often referred to as a natural disaster.  But that's not quite right.  Human activities, in aggregate, had everything to do with it.

Cross-posted at DocuDharma and Native American Netroots

Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the storms that day, which came to be known as Black Sunday:

This is where those storms were that day:

This one was in Colorado:

There had been dust storms before then during the 1930s, and many afterwards.  The rains finally returned in 1939, after a decade of drought.  Those April 14 storms in 1935 sent clouds of dust, the story goes, which darkened the skies in Washington, DC.  The Congress did pass the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1935, less than two weeks later, on April 27.

Little House on the Short Grass Prairie

Wallace Stegner's 1954 biography of John Wesley Powell, called Beyond the 100th Meridian, lays out the policy issues at play.  After Americans ran out of steam killing each other in the Civil War, the nation's attention turned West.  The first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, and most of the Indians got confined to reservations throughout the 1870s.  Homesteading, based on a model of non-irrigated dryland farming, was based on quarter sections (160 acres.)  Powell, who had a lot of friends in high places in Washington, argued that was too small a claim for a ranch operation, and more than was needed for a successful irrigated farm.  Powell had it pretty much right about the right acreage for a farming operation on the high plains, where rainfall was pretty scarce.


(The 100th meridian demarcates the east side of the Texas panhandle.)

As it happens, the 1870s were a pretty wet decade in this same country where Dances with Wolves was set.  Happens sometimes, just like droughts happen sometimes.  Another of the western survey teams was led by Ferdinand Hayden.  Their 1868 Annual Report included a section by one Dr. Cyrus Thomas.  A scientist who would have warmed Dick Cheney's heart (if only he had one), Thomas put forward the fanciful notion of "rain follows the plow".  It was popular with speculators and boosters, not so surprisingly.  That the mere act of plowing a bunch of land up would cause more rain.  In other words, claiming causality for the 1870s period of higher-than-average rainfall where none existed.  Fake science.

This, together with the increased access to market due to the railroads, led to greatly increased loads of grazing livestock.  In order to make room for the cows, as well as to drive the Indians off the plains, an all out effort to kill off the American Bison (top native herbivore, very good match for the climate and ecosystem) was underway.  It became fashionable for adventuring European aristocrats to take trains out to kill bison:







This pile of buffalo skulls was photographed in Kansas in the 1870s.  The bones were destined to be ground up for fertilizer.

The bison were well on the way to following the Passenger Pigeon, once the most abundant bird on the continent, to extinction:

By the 1880s, the entire remnant bison population was estimated as low as one thousand animals, down from as much as 60 million a mere generation earlier.

That bottom picture's from Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, which featured bison and a variety of performing Indians.

The Dust Bowl

Fast forward two generations and we're in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.  In the intervening years, countless homesteaders devoted their lives to eking a living off the harsh high plains.  With the sod busted, cattle having replaced bison on the range, a dry windy period paved the way for the storms.  Stegner's got a great way with language, so I'll share some of his prose:

...John Wesley Powell would have a better chance to do something practical about insuring the continued existence of the arid-belt farmer than any other man, and he would be angrily misunderstood and bitterly fought for his pains.  Better than anyone else, he understood what was happening in the subhumid and arid lands, and he knew that not the railroads, for all their wins, nor the speculators and landlords, for all of theirs, nor the banks, for all of theirs, should be called the only villains.  What was wrong was more basic:  Wet-weather institutions and practices were being imposed on a dry-weather country.  But the settler did not generally understand that: what he wholly and completely comprehended was merely the result, the act of God, the human reality of drouth on the Plains.

There, a cabin had characteristically neither tree nor shrub nor grass. ... As summer came on and the green of spring faded... "the sky began to scare us with its light."  From that sky like hot metal the sun blazed down on bare flats, bare yard, bare boards, tar-paper roof.  Anything metal blistered the hands, the inside of any shack was a suffocating oven, outside there was no tree or shade for miles.  There was no escape:  East, west, north, south, July, August, September, the sun burned into the brain, the barrenness and loneliness and ugliness ate at man and woman alike but at woman most.  Three hundred and sixty degrees of horizon ringed them, the sky fitted the earth like a bell jar.  They smothered under it...  After one ruined crop, or two, or three, their watchfulness was a kind of cursing from a circle of Hell.  The prairie sloughs that in the good years had grown tules and sheltered mallards and teal were dried up, the ducks gone somewhere else.  Windmills brought up sand....  And down from the unseen mountains to the west the air currents that made their climate poured across the powder-dry plains and dust rose up ahead of them a hundred, two hundred, four hundred feet high.

The Ghost Dancers who were slaughtered at Wounded Knee at Pine Ridge South Dakota in 1890 believed (amongst other things) that the bison would return from the spirit world.

(I asked for permission to use this picture.  Thanks, OPOL.)

By the early 1900s, Edward Curtis found a few remnant bison in his extensive travels to document Native Americans in the West, and a few buffalo dancers, too:

Mechanized farming - tractors - greatly increased plowed acreage in the 1920s.  When it got dry in the thirties, and the wind picked up, the Dust Bowl was born.  Look at a map of average annual wind:

When T. Boone Pickens talks about a wind belt, he's referring to the yellow/red spectrum on the map above.  It's a pretty close match to the greater Dust Bowl area, which makes intuitive sense:

After the Dust Bowl, center-pivot irrigation from the underlying, non-renewing Ogallala Aquifer came into practice.  

To the present day, this kind of landscape is seen when you fly over the high plains.

As it happens, population in this region of the country hasn't increased since the 1920s.  And that Ogallala aquifer is depleting fast, so the future isn't looking bright for irrigated agriculture either.  Residents of the region are older than in other parts of the country, too.  A couple of demographers named Popper at Rutgers University noticed this, and started thinking it might be good social policy to .return the high plains to bison habitat.  What they call the Buffalo Commons.  Their ideas, first published in a 1987 paper entitled "The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust", did not catch on right away.  But gradually, they have been gaining favor.

Bison are a perfect ecological match for the high plains, which they evolved to live in and do not visit the same kind of damage upon that cattle do.  Plus they're healthier to eat:  less fat, and a better mix of trace minerals than beef.  Bison ranching has been expanding in recent decades, with the buffalo population estimated at around 350,000 now.  And that's with many thousands of animals slaughtered for market annually, too.  Tribes, over 60 of them now, have their own bison herds.  Ted Turner, the largest private landowner in the state of New Mexico, has done a lot to promote bison ranching, too.

Wind farms make sense as well, in the exact regions T. Boone Pickens keeps talking about.  With a few precautions in placement for bird migration and nesting areas, and infrastructure construction to move the electricity out of this sparsely populated region, the combination of bison and wind power look a lot like a long-term, sustainable economy for the high plains.  One that will step lightly on the harsh conditions in this ecosystem.  Restored short-grass prairie is the best protection against future Dust Bowls, and large-scale wind development will be a step in the right direction on combatting global warming, too.

Any "economic stimulus" package that leaves this component out is, IMHO, missing the point entirely.


Previous entries in the series:

Originally posted to Land of Enchantment on Wed Apr 15, 2009 at 07:54 AM PDT.

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