Book Review - The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan
This ranks as one of the best books I've ever read... The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan. It stunned me on a number of levels.
For those unfamiliar with the term "Dust Bowl" (and that's most Americans in reality), it refers to a period of history when the Great Plains area of the United States experienced a phenomenon known as dust storms. The Great Plains is the central portion of the US, and includes parts of states like Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Texas. I think the vast majority of Americans who don't come from that area think of the Dust Bowl as a couple of paragraphs in their history books, and something that happened during the Great Depression in 1929. That's what I thought, but the truth is far more devastating.
Egan tells the story of the Dust Bowl through the lives of six different families who came to the area to settle down, create their homestead, and start farming. The "Great American Desert" was touted as the next great opportunity to own land and earn a fortune, and hundreds of thousands did just that. But to make this happen, our government had to clear out the Native Americans already there. That meant exterminating the buffalo. Once that was done, the Indians were forced to move because their way of life was destroyed. The homesteaders came in, and started ripping up the field grass to plant crops. However, the area was far too arid to support the new farming and overuse, and the winds started to carry off the top soil. Coupled with a severe drought, the entire ecosystem was destroyed and that started a chain of events that really never gets told in this level of detail...
The settlers came in the 1920's and that's when the destruction of the plains occurred. When the stock market crash of 1929 started the Great Depression, the prices for crops collapsed. People planted more to earn less, and the vicious cycle continued to the point where the cost of the farming exceeded the price for the crops. The drought that led to the dust storms lasted not just a season or two, but throughout the entire decade of the 1930's. And the dusters... We're talking storms that were miles long, that would last for days, and that completely blotted out the sun. You had minutes to react, and if you were caught outside you would likely die of suffocation. Children especially were susceptible to "dust pneumonia", and the death rate was staggering. Families lost absolutely everything, but there was nowhere to go because the entire country was broke. This environment is what greeted Franklin Roosevelt when he came into office, and knowing this makes the "New Deal" much more understandable. For over 10 years, people couldn't grow crops, get relief from the dust, wind, and heat, and watched whole communities wither and die... literally. I really can't do justice to the stories and experiences that are told in this book.
There were so many things that hit me when reading this.... How could we be so ignorant of such a major event in our history? It makes hurricane Katrina look like a minor incident. Why do we think elected government officials have some magic knowledge or insight as to how things work? They are as clueless as the electorate (doesn't matter which party, either). How come we Americans have felt that we have a right to take everything we can from the environment with no thought as to whether it's sustainable? And how many of our "informed decisions" based on our "advanced technology" will look just as stupid 50 years from now as the ones made back then? We really don't learn from our mistakes, and we have no sense of history... only "now".
To my liberal friends... I'm not ready to sign up for the Green party and go hug a tree. But I'm far more likely to give the time of day to an environmentalist now than I ever was before. There is a line between preservation and conservation, but we're not even in that ballpark most of the time. This is an incredible book, and one that I highly recommend...