Timothy Egan: The Worst Hard Time
Behold, I have smitten my hand at thy dishonest gain which thou hast made…
- Ezekiel 22:13
Timothy Egan’s dramatic telling of the rise and fall of the high plains farmer is a tremendous historical narrative, a cautionary tale encouraging us to guard against speculation and greed; unchecked growth can destroy more than just peoples lives, it can ruin whole ecosystems. Egan’s masterful work follows the rapid settling of the Great Plains grassland (Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, western Kansas and parts of Colorado and New Mexico) following the slaughtering of its natural inhabitants, the Bison, and the forced relocation of the Comanche. Encouraged by the government through the Homesteading Act, farmers flocked to the region to grab a section of the vast prairie. As Egan notes, “in 1914, the peak year for homesteads in the twentieth century – 53,000 claims [were] made throughout the Great Plains.”(1)
Egan follows the stories of a few of these homesteaders over the course of the following decades, and slowly paints a picture of how the infamous “dusters” came to be. Motivated by the price of wheat and the invention of the tractor, a farmer could make a handsome fortune cropping hard red winter wheat during the wet decade of the twenties. A price-fixed commodities market during and shortly after WWI fueled “sod busters” with plows to churn up the native grasses that had held the soil down on that wind swept plateau for millennia. “The soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses,”(2) the Federal Bureau of Soils proclaimed, and it was treated as such. Millions of acres were turned upside down in a frenzy of farming unlike anything the country had yet seen. All parties were complicit in breathing more air into the massive bubble. The government motivated the rampant speculation while the farmer was all too happy to plant when he was looking forward to four-dollar wheat prices. Technology greased the wheels of progress, literally. By providing the farmer with a tractor, the burgeoning prairie yeoman was able to convert a few hundred acres, with much less work, into a viable and cost effective business venture. What was missing in the equation were the rain records of the previous hundred years. “If the farmers of the High Plains were laying the foundation for a time bomb that would shatter the natural world, any voices that implied such a thing were muted.”(3) Any except the Native Americans who were deprived of their land, and the cowboys who were forced to watch the spectacle that slowly robbed them of the best grass feed range in the world. A few voices spoke up, but none were loud enough to get the attention of the free-marketers and government interests.
The wheat dream wouldn’t last, and the bubble was primed to pop. “On the giddy ride up, there had been no cop, no regulator to enforce basic rules of an American economy that had become the world’s biggest casino.”(4) Indeed, the depression that arrived in the early thirties was now global, and wheat prices fell to historic lows. Farmers on the High Plains responded by churning over even more grassland in an attempt to boost profit by raising production. It didn’t work; “every five bushels of wheat brought in from the fields was another dollar taken out of the farmer’s pocket.”(5) The situation, as related by Egan, was just beginning to get desperate. The suitcase farmers were the first to leave, abandoning their sections fallowed and naked beneath the harsh sun and wicked wind. Adding insult to injury, the moisture that fed the speculators of the previous decade, vanished; “the rains left and did not come back for nearly eight years.”(6)
The “dirty thirties” was a time of immense desperation for the farmer of the Great Plains. Egan relates how some were so impoverished during that decade that they subsisted on pickled tumbleweed and canned rabbit, a truly depressing thought. But, it was a bed that they had made, and the staunchest among them insisted they stay and sleep in it. But, none were prepared for the dusters that awaited them. During the dry years of the thirties, they hunkered down in their dugouts and rickety shacks, waiting out the furry that nature was pelting them with. From North Dakota south to the Texas panhandle, a vast swath of exposed soil lay helpless against the torrential winds. The drought meant the farmers couldn’t sustain a crop, so there was nothing to be done to remedy the situation. As the turned soil tumbled away before their eyes, they could only wait and pray for rain.
Rarely does nature exact so immediate a payment for having wronged her. Rarely do we see the karmic effects of our behavior toward the land manifest years later, instead of decades or centuries later. “Of all the countries of the world, we Americans have been the greatest destroyers of the land of any race of people barbaric or civilized,” Bennett, Roosevelt's new Soil Czar, said in a speech at the start of the dust storms. What was happening, he said, was ‘sinister,’ a symptom of ‘our stupendous ignorance.’”(7) Indeed, that sentiment characterized the attitude of the new Roosevelt administration toward righting the wrong Americans had committed against the land. But, again, there was only so much that could be done while the drought and dusters fought tooth and nail against every living thing on the High Plains.
Egan concludes his unquenchable narrative of the dust bowl years with Roosevelt’s visit to the southern plains. On July 11, 1938 the president’s train arrived in Amarillo. On the same day, remarkably enough, it rained. The new Democratic administration had established the beginning of a new policy toward the plains, and at the time of Roosevelt’s visit, operation dust bowl was in full effect. The area would be restored to grasslands, as nature intended, with small strips of farms sandwiched between bands of trees. It would work to mitigate the damage, but as Egan points out the land has never fully recovered. Government oversight, it was realized, is necessary to curb our more ignorant intentions. Soil conservation districts replaced the majority of private farms, and the grasslands slowly returned, and some questionably sustainable dry farming continues. The buffalo are gone, the Comanche reservationed and still denied their rightful land by treaty; some hard lessons were learned, and are still in need of learning. As evidenced by the events of the past few months, I'd say that is most likely the case.
If your going to read one book this month, make it this one. The parallels between our present financial crisis and the events that led to the great depression are worth considering. Though I have neglected to include it in my review, Egan's work deals furtively with the 1930s financial crisis that surrounded all these events. History shows traditional democratic reaction to social crisis, i.e. Roosevelt's response to crisis following Hoover's non-response. And Obama's response, following the Bush era of irresponsibility. Funny how history repeats itself.
(1) Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time (New York: Mariner Books, 2006), 36.
(2) Ibid, 51.
(3) Ibid, 43.
(4) Ibid, 84.
(5) Ibid, 102.
(7) Ibid, 125.