Friday, November 2, 2012

The Bigger Story

I often describe COYOTE WINDS as the story before The Dust Bowl.

The Dust Bowl occurred in the 1930s in the south-western prairie of the Great Plains.  The heart of it hit western Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma, eastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico. 
Historically, this region had been considered too dry for farming and its weather too risky. With no trees and few hills to block air movement, stiff winds blow constantly, bringing with them violent and sudden blizzards, hail, tornadoes, and thunderstorms.

All this changed with the introduction of gas-powered tractors and so-called scientific “dry-farming” after World War I. The 1920s also enjoyed higher than average rainfall which bolstered people’s optimism. During the “Great Plow-Up” of the late 1920s, over five million acres of prairie grassland were lost to the plow, an area nearly seven times the size of Rhode Island. The farmers planted corn and wheat, both seasonal plants with shallow roots compared to the deep-rooted, native prairie grasses. A common saying and belief was “the rains will follow the plow.”

Then, in the 1930s, a ten-year drought wiped out crops from Montana to Texas. Without the native grass roots to hold the soil in place, the constant winds lifted the parched spoil into clouds of dust. By the mid 1930s “lollapaloozas” dust clouds and “black blizzards” reached as far as New York and Boston.  The Dust Bowl was born.

The Dust Bowl is considered one of the worst man-man ecological disasters ever, surpassing the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Millions of tons of dry soil were swept up by the prairie wind, forming dust clouds often thousands of feet tall and hundreds of miles wide. The blowing grit stripped paint off cars, piled up in chest-high drifts against homes and seeped into lungs causing dust pneumonia, often fatal. Estimates are that 2,500,000 people were driven out of the Great Plains during the 1930s, at least 300,000 of them went to California and Oregon.

That’s the public story, but in every big story there are thousands, if not millions, of smaller, individual stories. COYOTE WINDS follows one family from the optimism of the 1920s to the struggles of the 1930s. It’s one of millions of stories about families pursuing the American dream against obstacles such as drought and The Great Depression. 

As I research the Dust Bowl, I was struck by how much this is a classic American tale. It’s a great example of how our can-do optimism that got us to the moon—and into Iraq—is the source of our greatest achievements and worst follies.   What do you think? 

More Information about The Dust Bowl:

In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck captured the story of Oklahoma sharecroppers who drove to California. But many more families hung on through the Dirty Thirties. Some of their stories are told in Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time.

The Library of Congress has a collection of spectacular images, personal histories and historical documents from the Dust Bowl, as do the universities and historical societies in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. This November your local PBS station will be airing Ken Burns’ film documentary The Dust Bowl.

I have a list of other resources on my website.

No comments:

Post a Comment