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Fahrenheit 351: a temperature at which neither books nor bread will burn

I love to read and also enjoy cooking and baking.  Everything cooks at 350 degrees, but fortunately books don't start burning for another hundred and one degrees, so you can enjoy your books while you wait for your dough to rise or your chicken to roast.


I mostly read nonfiction, but every so often I dip into fiction if I happen to find something that looks interesting, or is by one of my favorite authors.  I especially like science, biographies, and narrative history (especially U.S. history).

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl - Timothy Egan

This book managed at times to almost move me to tears of compassion for the people affected by the Great Depression and absolute white-hot rage at how the land was treated.


First about the people: insofar as they suffered from the economic effects of the Great Depression and the accompanying collapse in commodities prices (beyond their control) and a severe drought (also beyond their control), I was moved by their plight. It didn’t help that the government’s response at the time came very late and was too late for some. I found it astounding that there was no government attempt to buy up the surplus crops and ship them to the cities where there were severe food shortages, which would have helped solve two problems at once, at least in the beginning. Also, I can’t really grasp why it was allowed to rot; grains will keep for years if dried and could have been stored for later use. I also found it surprising that there did not appear to be any attempts (either public or private) to encourage the cultivation of other crops, at least before the drought hit, which might have helped with the issues of large wheat surpluses. And I can’t see it as being any worse than the adopted strategy of plowing up even more land to grow even more wheat to compensate for lower prices. It’s not as if they had invested years in waiting for fruit or nut trees to start bearing; wheat is an annual and a fairly weak one at that. To be fair, the government did eventually step in, but not until 1934. Part of the reason the government did become involved was because Hugh Bennett, one of the country’s top soil scientists, realized the cause of what was going on, and launched a lobbying campaign to convince Congress to start attempting to prevent or at least mitigate the consequences. The Great Plains Drought Area Committee was also established to investigate and report on what had happened and why. The Committee issued its report in 1936, which included a significant map:


“An accompanying map showed the president what was obvious to any student of American geography: the nation’s midsection west of the 98th meridian, from the Canadian border to Mexico, received only twenty inches of yearly rainfall or less. This was simply not enough rain to raise crops, no matter how much “dust-mulching” or other dry farming gimmicks were promoted, and it was why banks for so long had refused to lend money in this arid zone. During the drought, the dry states had received anywhere from five to twelve inches annually.” (Pages 266-267).


It also gave a timeline that showed how rapid the environmental degradation that led to the Dust Bowl was:


“The report moved on to how the disaster had unfolded – a chronology of collapse. One chart showed how quickly the grass was overturned. In 1879, ten million acres were plowed. Fifty years later, the total was one hundred million acres. Grass was needed to hold the soil in place; it was nature’s way of adapting to the basic conditions of the plains, the high wind and low rainfall. Buffalo grass, in particular, short and drought-resistant, was nature’s refinement over centuries.” (Page 267).


I think government intervention should have been much earlier, given that this was a massive disaster with damage and displacement effects comparable to those of a major hurricane, but the response outside of the affected areas seems to have been largely one of denial that any disaster of such a scale was in progress, at least until the dust plumes began reaching cities on the East Coast, along with a dust storm with soil from the Great Plains, which got into the jet stream and hit New York City before heading out to sea.


Areas affected:


<a title="By Soil Science and Resource Assessment, Resource Assessment Division (NRCS SSRA-RAD) (Division of the U.S. Dept. Of Agriculture) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons" href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Map_of_states_and_counties_affected_by_the_Dust_Bowl,_sourced_from_US_federal_government_dept._(NRCS_SSRA-RAD).svg"><img width="512" alt="Map of states and counties affected by the Dust Bowl, sourced from US federal government dept. (NRCS SSRA-RAD)" src="https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/e/ed/Map_of_states_and_counties_affected_by_the_Dust_Bowl%2C_sourced_from_US_federal_government_dept._%28NRCS_SSRA-RAD%29.svg/512px-Map_of_states_and_counties_affected_by_the_Dust_Bowl%2C_sourced_from_US_federal_government_dept._%28NRCS_SSRA-RAD%29.svg.png"></a>


An illustration of the scale of the dust storms:


<a title="By NOAA George E. Marsh Album, theb1365, Historic C&GS Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons" href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dust_Storm_Texas_1935.jpg"><img width="512" alt="Dust Storm Texas 1935" src="https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d9/Dust_Storm_Texas_1935.jpg/512px-Dust_Storm_Texas_1935.jpg"></a>


Now about the treatment of the land, which was under their control, and moved me to white-hot rage. The sod that the homesteaders plowed up was vital to keeping the topsoil bound to the land, even in the harshest conditions:


“When the native sod of the Great Plains was in place, it did not matter if people looked twice at a piece of ground. Wind blew twenty, thirty, forty miles an hour, as always. Droughts came and went. Prairie fires…took a great gulp of grass in a few days. Hailstorms pounded the land. Blue northers froze it so hard it was like broken glass to walk on…As long as the weave of grass was stitched to the land, the prairie would flourish in dry years and wet. The grass could look brown and dead, but beneath the surface, the roots held the soil in place; it was alive and dormant. The short grass, buffalo and blue grama, had evolved as the perfect fit for the sandy loam of the arid zone. It could hold moisture a foot or more below ground level even during summer droughts, when hot winds robbed the surface of all water-bearing life. In turn, the grass nurtured pin-tailed grouse, prairie chickens, cranes, jackrabbits, snakes, and other creatures that got their water from foraging on the native turf. Through the driest years, the web of life held. When a farmer tore out the sod and then walked away, leaving the land naked, however, that barren patch posed a threat to neighbors. It could not revert to grass, because the roots were gone. It was empty, dead, and transient…So when the winds blew in the winter of 1932, they picked up the soil with little resistance and sent it skyward.” (Pages 112-113).


So the Dust Bowl was really a man-made disaster, caused by the desire to grow wheat on the Great Plains regardless of the ecological consequences. At first, during World War 1 and for some time afterwards, this was because wheat was an incredibly profitable commodity. But this changed during the Great Depression, and as the collapse in commodities prices continued, they responded by ploughing even more ground to plant more wheat. This became a vicious cycle, and when wheat prices declined to point where farmers began losing money on their crop, they simply walked away and left the plowed-up land behind to dry up and be swept away by the wind. Eighty years later, the land is still being affected and what remains of the soil in some areas is still being blown away by the wind. And yet the author had the unmitigated gall to keep repeating that the land betrayed the people living on it. But it is nothing short of criminal to say the land betrayed anyone. It was people who betrayed the land through irresponsible agricultural practices, and the land fought back.


Several people at the time seemed to think of the situation in similar terms, “…the Kansas newspaperman William Allen White, said he knew who was to blame, and it was time for people in the Great Plains to look inside themselves and acknowledge what they had done. He blamed the wheat farmer who broke ground at a gluttonous pace.” Similarly, the filmmaker Pare Lorentz, who filmed “The Plow That Broke the Plains,” blamed poor agricultural practices for the problem. “The Plow That Broke the Plains” became one of the most influential documentaries ever made, and it remains the only film the government produced a film intended for broad commercial release during peacetime. Hugh Bennett, one of the country’s top soil scientists at the time agreed. So did The New York Times; in 1935, one of its Midwest correspondents wrote that the land had been “plowed recklessly” and that as a result of the drought and the loss of their native vegetation, “these arid lands have taken wing.”


In the end, the southern plains lost over 850 million tons of topsoil, and over so large an area that the homesteaders on the High Plains could recognize whether the dust came from Kansas (if it was black), eastern Oklahoma (red), or Texas (yellow-orange). Sometimes a major storm would combine all three. To get an idea of just how much was lost and the extent of the environmental disaster, it is estimated that an inch of good topsoil takes about a thousand years to form.


There are a few exceptions to this legacy of betrayal. One is the patches of National Grasslands System (established in the 1960’s and administered by the Forest Service) and the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, where the native grasses of the Great Plains are being re-established. And at least in the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, there has been an attempt to re-create the original ecosystem, including reintroducing bison to the area. Still, this is a minute fraction of what is needed to repair the soil in these areas.


The National Grasslands are marked in yellow on this map:


<p><a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USA_National_Forests_Map.jpg#/media/File:USA_National_Forests_Map.jpg"><img alt="USA National Forests Map.jpg" src="https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/bb/USA_National_Forests_Map.jpg/1200px-USA_National_Forests_Map.jpg"></a><br>By U.S. Forest Service - <a class="external free" href="http://www.fs.fed.us/maps/" rel="nofollow">http://www.fs.fed.us/maps/</a>, Public Domain, <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22420221">Link</a></p>


Oglala National Grassland:


<p><a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oglala_National_Grassland.jpg#/media/File:Oglala_National_Grassland.jpg"><img alt="Oglala National Grassland.jpg" src="https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/5b/Oglala_National_Grassland.jpg/1200px-Oglala_National_Grassland.jpg"></a><br>By Brian Kell (<a title="User:Bkell" href="//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Bkell">Bkell</a>) - <span class="int-own-work" lang="en">Own work</span>, Public Domain, <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1836758">Link</a></p>


The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie:


<p><a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Midewin3.JPG#/media/File:Midewin3.JPG"><img alt="Photo of tallgrass prairie and woodlands at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie" src="https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/56/Midewin3.JPG/1200px-Midewin3.JPG"></a><br>By <a title="User:Alanscottwalker" href="//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Alanscottwalker">Alanscottwalker</a> - <span class="int-own-work" lang="en">Own work</span>, <a title="Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0" href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0">CC BY-SA 3.0</a>, <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21024817">Link</a></p>


The other exception is Hugh Bennett’s activism, which led to Congress enacting the Soil Conservation Act, the first time any nation enacted laws to protect the soil and establish soil conservation districts to protect and sustain what was left, as well as restore other areas if possible. These soil conservation districts still exist today, the only grassroots New Deal organizations to survive the Great Depression. They were credited with mitigating the effects of several later droughts:


“During a three-year drought in the 1950s, dusters returned…Droughts in 1974-1976 and 2000-2003 made the soil drift. But overall, the earth held much better…In 2004, an extensive study of how farmers treated the land before and after the great dusters of the 1930s concluded that soil conservation districts kept the earth from blowing…What saved the land, this study found, was what Hugh Bennet had started: getting farmers to enter contracts with a soil conservation district and manage the land as a single ecological unit…”


Hugh Bennett was seventy-nine when he died in 1960 and is now buried in Arlington National Cemetery in honor of his work.


The Ogallala aquifer also came in for discussion in this book. The Ogallala Aquifer is the largest aquifer in the country and supplies thirty percent of its drinking water. The water is seven hundred feet down and took millennia to form. When it was originally discovered, it was advertised as an “endless lake” available to anyone with a well and a windmill, and the perfect source of water for irrigation. And it was treated that way, without anyone paying attention to how the limited rainfall in the region would affect how quickly the water removed from the aquifer was replenished. As it turns out, the aquifer is recharged at rates of centimeters per year while its water is being extracted at rates of meters per year. The aquifer has been nearly drained dry in the panhandle regions of Texas and Oklahoma. It makes me want to pound my fist on the table and shout “this is criminal!” And, at least as far as I know, there have been no efforts to limit withdrawals from the aquifer. Now we are building an oil pipeline directly though it. Again, the land has not betrayed anyone; we have betrayed the land.


<p><a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ogallala_changes_in_feet_1980-1995_USGS.gif#/media/File:Ogallala_changes_in_feet_1980-1995_USGS.gif"><img alt="Ogallala changes in feet 1980-1995 USGS.gif" src="https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f7/Ogallala_changes_in_feet_1980-1995_USGS.gif"></a><br>Public Domain, <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=161478">Link</a></p>


Keystone Pipeline route:


<a title="By Myself - Pipeline route, Kbh3rd - Aquifer Map [FAL], via Wikimedia Commons" href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Keystone_XL_-_Ogallala_Aquifer.png"><img width="256" alt="Keystone XL - Ogallala Aquifer" src="https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/0f/Keystone_XL_-_Ogallala_Aquifer.png/256px-Keystone_XL_-_Ogallala_Aquifer.png"></a>


And now we have moved on to “bigger and better” things and are dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere without a second thought, and no doubt there will soon be complaints about how the planet has betrayed us. No; if there is any betrayal going on it is humanity that has betrayed the planet, and it will fight back too.