I’ve been thinking about dust. Not the inconvenient kind that needs to be wiped off a table every once in a while, but the changing the environment kind of dust; the kind of dust that drove people from the great plains in the 1930s, and the kind of dust that’s enveloped my neighborhood this evening.
Living in the desert, I’m used to seeing a few dust storms or haboos kick up each year, especially during the monsoon season. This past year, though, we’ve had more than I recall having in any of the previous thirteen years I’ve lived here. So when I came upon Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl while browsing Amazon, I decided to pick it up. Once I began reading, I could not put it down. It is an excellent read. Egan takes readers through the land-grab, development and eventual destruction of the Great Plains, following a dozen families and their communities through the rise and fall of the region.
Egan takes us along as these families’ fortunes rise and fall, and as they endure crop failures, blinding black dust storms, and the death of loved ones from dust pneumonia. While reading, I felt as if I were enveloped in the catastrophic storms, and as if I knew the families who become his heroes, “the stoic, long-suffering men and women whose lives he opens up with urgency and respect during the 1930s.” Egan shows how the dust bowl was created by eager farmers plowing up the grass and planting wheat in an environment not suited to farming. That, along with a confluence of events—the Depression and eight years of drought—resulted a catastrophe of truly epic proportions.
I grew up in northern California and knew folks who’d traveled west during the dust bowl, and I read The Grapes of Wrath, but until I read The Worst Hard Time I really had no sense of the history of the settlement and destruction of the region. What I’ve learned reading Egan makes me wonder about what awaits us after what we’ve done to the environment: rising tides, droughts, fires, heatwaves, and increasingly violent haboobs.