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.

The Slaughter and Survival of Coyotes

One of the main characters in COYOTE WINDS is a coyote pup who is rescued and tamed after being half-blinded by a dust storm. If you have doubts whether a coyote can be tamed, please check out

Coyotes are an incredible success story considering how many people have tried to eliminate them. They live throughout North and Central America, including our suburbs and cities. They have been found in New York City.  

In Chicago, urban coyotes are being studied to help control rats.

Weighing between 20 and 50 pounds, coyotes can run up to 40 miles per hour and jump 13 feet. They hear better than dogs and have adapted well to living alongside humans, unlike the wolf. Desert and prairie coyotes, like the coyote in my novel, are generally smaller and lighter colored than northern and mountain coyotes.

Coyotes communicate with a vocabulary of yips, yelps and howls. This little guy puts on quite a show: Also check out:

Coyotes eat primarily mice, rats, gophers and other small animals, and they play an important role in controlling rodent populations. They also eat fruit, vegetables, carrion, garbage, lizards, grasshoppers and other insects, pretty much anything they can find. In small packs (called bands), coyotes have been seen hunting large animals such as elk.

Unfortunately coyotes also attack sheep, calves, hens, cats, and small dogs. There are reports of them attacking people, although the attacks are rare considering how many coyotes live among us. As a result, coyotes are trapped, poisoned, and hunted in huge numbers. I read one report that the Federal Government kills approximately 90,000 coyotes each year in an effort to reduce livestock losses. This practice is controversial, and a number of organizations are trying to stop this slaughter, especially since it has not been shown to be effective. If you are interested, here are some links. I should warn you that some of the photographs and stories of trapped animals are heartbreaking.

Many people go out of their way to help injured and stranded coyotes. Check out at this clip of the Chicago Fire Department rescuing a coyote drifting on a small slab on ice in the middle of Lake Michigan:

If you are interested in helping coyotes, search on the internet for coyote rescue sites. There may be one near you. 

Project Coyote has a great website aimed at educating people about coyotes and fostering co-existence.  They include links to educational materials, books and films.  I strongly recommend a visit to

Two great books about coyotes: 

            Ryden, Hope, God’s Dog. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, Inc., 1975, 2005, and

            Stockton, Shreve, The Daily Coyote. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008. (Shreve Stockton also has a wonderful website about Charlie, her coyote which she adopted when he was ten days old.