Monday, April 29, 2013

The Dust Bowl -- Ten Surprising Facts

Like many authors writing historical fiction, I researched my time period extensively. I wanted to capture day-to-day life, as well as the attitudes and dreams of people living in past times. In researching the Dust Bowl for COYOTE WINDS, I learned some surprising facts:

1.  The Dust Bowl was a one of the worst man-made ecological disasters in history. 

Drought, by itself, did not cause the Dust Bowl. The western Great Plains have always suffered periodic droughts. But native prairie grasses had deep roots, sometimes five to eight feet deep. Even when the above-ground shoots dried up, the roots held the soil in place, and the grasses re-grew quickly when rains returned. During the “Great Plow Up” of the 1920s, farmers torn out prairie grass in an area as large as Ohio. They planted wheat, corn and other shallow-rooted crops. They dreamed of a verdant future because they had been told that “rain follows the plow.” But the rains stopped in 1931, and wind did what it always did—blow. It picked up dust from Montana to Texas, and the Dust Bowl was spawned. The farmers’ dreams gave the wind the weapon that then destroyed those dreams.

2.  Not everyone moved to California. 
After John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, and the 1940 film, I thought everyone affected by the Dust Bowl moved west. I was surprised to learn that 75% of the people in the Dust Bowl area “stuck it out.” More than 2.5 million people did leave the area, and 300,000 of those went to California. That is a huge migration of economic refugees, but it was scattered over many states. 

3.   Grizzly bears, wolves and bald eagles once were abundant on the Great Plains. 
Early settlers saw these predators as competition for game and a threat to their livestock. So the animals were poisoned, trapped and hunted relentlessly. And when the buffalo herds were wiped out, the remaining bear, wolf and eagle populations collapsed. That is one reason why coyotes have thrived so well. Their competition was eliminated, and they filled the void.

4.  Florence Owens Thompson, the mother in Dorothea Lang’s famous photo, was only 32 years old.  
Hers is a care-worn face if I have ever seen one.

5.   Dust storms cause high static electricity. 
Drivers dragged chains behind their cars to ground them; otherwise the engine would short out. If you reached out to shake someone’s hand, the static shock could knock you both off your feet.

6.   Dust caused attics to collapse.
People knew enough to brush the heavy dust from their roofs, but many people did not realize that dust was seeping into their attics. Many attics collapsed because the dust was several feet deep.

7.   Superstitions were revived. 
In the hope of generating rain, farmers killed snakes and draped their bodies belly up along fences. So-called experts used balloons to lift dynamite into the sky. They claimed the explosions “agitated” the atmosphere and caused rain to fall.

8.   In the 1930s, an estimated half-million teenagers were riding the rails as “hobos.” 
We tend to think of hobos as grown men, but hundreds of thousands of boys, some as young as ten, left home and rode the rails in search of work and adventure. Some girls joined them. FDR worried that the country would suffer from this lost generation of hardened, wild children.

9.   Tumbleweed—that ubiquitous symbol of the West--came from Russia, probably mixed in with early sacks of flax seed. 
It is a water-hogging, invasive and hated pest. However cattle will eat the young shoots, so it was used during the Dust Bowl as cattle feed. Some people tried to eat it as well. Unsuccessfully.

10.   The Dust Bowl has happened again, although on a smaller scale. Starting in 1952, there was a five-year drought called the “Filthy Fifties.” Another drought hit in the mid-1970s and again between 1998 and 2002. Today the area is experiencing another tough drought. Due to better soil management, dust storms have not been as large and widespread. However if the Ogallala Aquifer ever runs dry (and some people say it will in about 50 years), we are likely to see more dry, abandoned farmland lose soil to the coyote winds.
To learn more about the Dust Bowl, watch the Ken Burns special THE DUST BOWL. The second half will be broadcast on Tuesday April 30, 2013, and it is available on DVD.
My novel, COYOTE WINDS, explores the American can-do spirit that drew people out to the western prairie in the hope of making a new life and feeding the world. And it shows what happened when that spirit came up against the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.  For more information about COYOTE WINDS, visit my website Helen Sedwick Website

Monday, April 22, 2013

Beware--Babies Nearby

It’s Spring, and babies are hiding everywhere. Does tuck their fawns in the tall grass, and quail are nesting in the bottlebrush. Grey foxes have their kits in an old barn down the road. A few years ago, this male kit was so bold he snoozed on our deck.

And out there in the brush are coyote pups.  As cute as they may seem, it's best for you and for them to keep your distance.

Unlike dogs, coyotes breed once a year. Pups are born in March or April. Weighing approximately 250 grams at birth, they are blind and limp-eared. The eyes open and ears become erect after 10 days. Around 21–28 days after birth, the young begin to emerge from the den, and by 35 days, they are fully weaned. Litter size ranges from one to 15 pups; the average is six. About 50–70% of pups do not survive to adulthood.
Female coyotes prefer a dry, safe place to have their pups. A typical den site is a brush and tree pile. Or under the base of a large, standing tree that has an opening at ground level. Coyote pups sometimes are raised in hollow logs and under rock ledges. Most pups are moved several times by the time they are old enough to leave the den on their own. If the pups are too small to follow their mother, she carries them one at a time by the nape of the neck to the new den site.

Coyotes are rarely dangerous to humans, except when the pups are threatened. If you see what look like cute, romping puppies in the wild, do not approach them.  They may be coyote pups, and the parents may be nearby.  Call your local animal rescue service if you fear the pups have been abandoned. Do not try to rescue them yourself. 

If the coyotes are coming closer to your home than you’d like, here are some suggestions:

·        Do not leave out food or water.  Secure your garbage.  Move any bird feeder inside a coyote proof fence. Keep small pets inside, particularly at dawn and dusk when coyotes are most active.
Try "hazing” techniques. Use noise makers, whistles, and other deterrents. Yell. Act big and scary. The bigger the better. Here are some helpful links:

Humane Society Hazing Techniques 

Project Coyote Hazing Brochure

Don’t haze… if it is March through July, and you are in a park or open space and think you could be near a coyote den, or if you think that pups could be present. Allow them breathing room to raise and protect their new families. Be aware that you may encounter a coyote who is trying to haze you away from his den by acting anxious and/or assertive. He may attempt to escort you to a safe distance by hunching his back and walking towards you, or by vocalizing (barking or “huffing”). Please leash dogs and pick up small pets and leave the area calmly. Do not run.

Don’t haze… if the coyote is at a comfortable distance from you. Seeing a coyote at a distance is no cause for alarm. They have adapted to urban environments and may be seen during the day or night.


Thursday, April 11, 2013

New Book Trailer

I made a new trailer, which emphasizes coyotes and nature.  I can't get the music out of my head!  Tell me what you think.

Coyote Winds trailer

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Final Chapter of My Father's Words

In 1936, we escaped the dust and moved back to Delaware, where my Dad worked for DuPont. I started third grade, after having missed all of first and second grade. Sitting still was downright painful. I talked too much and broke up the class with jokes. In those days, when you misbehaved, teachers pulled you to the front of the room by the ear. My ears grew long that year.
As soon as school let out for summer, we loaded up the car and drove back out to Vona. This was years before there were interstates. Only two lane roads that went through every city, town, or hamlet. It was a grueling trip, especially with two boys fussing in the back seat, yelling and hitting at each other. We were not great travelers. 
Bob, Grandmother Helen, John, Grandfather Harry
We played a lot of that alphabet game where you get the letters out of signs. Always looked for a junction sign to get a J, and Quaker State Motor Oil would give you Q, R, S, T, U - all at once. We had big fights over that sign. Also the Burma Shave signs were all along the roadways. I still remember one of their more catchy ones. "Pity all the mighty Caesars, Had each whisker pulled with tweezers, I Burma Shave." Yeah, my kind of humor.
But as soon as we arrived, we were back out hunting and exploring.
One summer we took a trip to Colorado Springs and drove up to the top of Pikes Peak in our 1928 Chevy. Quite a trip over a steep, dirt road. In those days the car radiators were not pressure sealed, so they tended to boil over very easily. Going up to the top there were water spigots all along the way, so you could refill your radiator as it boiled over. And the trip down, in low or second gear for breaking help, was quite long.
Had a bit of excitement on the way to Colorado Springs. My Aunt Ruth was driving (she never drove much and was a poor driver), and my mother was frightened by something Ruth did and pulled the emergency brake hard. The car went off the road and turned over on its side. Some men came along a few minutes later, stopped, helped us out, and set the car back up on its wheels. We thanked them and were off again, this time with mother driving. The cars in those days were made with such thick sheet metal that there were absolutely no dents in it from turning over. Amazing!
In the summer of 1940 we took a trip down through Raton Pass to Taos, New Mexico, then on through Santa Fe and Albuquerque to the Grand Canyon, where we met my uncle, Lyle Vincent, and his family. Spent a few days with them, saw the canyon, then headed back to Colorado.
During the summer, Bob and I would lay in the winter's supply of wood and do all sorts of stuff that needed to be done. Sometime during those years we acquired a moveable trailer (like that one that Frank Morgan used in "The Wizard of Oz"), and this became Bob's and my private quarters. Got us out of the house. I suppose it was about 8 by 12, on metal wheels, with steps that led up to the door.
One year, right before going back East, I helped Dewey Nelson harvest his wheat for a week. 100 degree temperature, but your shirt never got wet. At that low humidity the sweat evaporated immediately. But, you drank a lot of water. A lot. But I sunburned my lips. They got cracked and bleeding, couldn't hardly eat or talk. A mess! Don't ever sunburn your lips.
I went to Vona alone in the summer of 1942. The war was on, and gas was rationed so we couldn't drive. Took the bus out - two days and three nights - and was a horrendous trip. In those days the buses were much smaller than now, bumpier, smaller seats, less leg room, and no lavatories. So, there was a rest stop every couple of hours for fifteen minutes or so. I accomplished by summer chores at the house, but when it came time to return I took the train. Much better form of transportation.
That was the last time I saw the place. During the World War II, my grandmother and aunt moved to California, and the land was sold.
And so ended my "growing up years" in Colorado.

All in all, it was quite an experience. I learned a lot during my time out there - self reliance, ingenuity, improvisation, living with and in solitude with nature. I also learned that nature can be violent, nasty, destroying, and killing. No, you don't fool with Mother Nature. 
My father John in high school.

John Sedwick 

After the War, my father studied theater at the University of Delaware where he met my mother, Margaret. They were married for over fifty years and had five children and eight grandchildren. John had a long and successful career directing theater and television shows, including DARK SHADOWS, THE EDGE OF NIGHT, and SANTA BARBARA.  He kept his sense of humor all his life. Many of the jokes and puns in COYOTE WINDS came from my father. We all still miss him every day.