An Illustrated History
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FOR A TRAVELER DRIVING SOUTH DOWN US 385/287 through the flat relentless expanses of first Prowers and then Baca County, Colorado, in the southeastern corner of that state, heading toward Oklahoma and the geographical heart of the ten-year disaster known as the Dust Bowl, it is impossible not to notice the relative stability and even peace of the landscape. Part of it is irrigation, of course, the modern wells and the giant-wheeled watering machines that suck up and distribute the scarcest commodity on the southern Plains.
Passing through Campo, the last town in Colorado, that landscape of immense farms and pasturage changes. One is near the center of the Comanche National Grassland, part of an immense federal effort starting in the 1930s to save the land that was once blowing away, convincing farmers to abandon the questionable agriculture practices that had for decades compelled the frantic human effort—and suffering—there, and return it to its natural state. The cottonwoods, willows, and locusts seem forlorn and sometimes bent, on guard, it almost seems, against the memory of forces once unleashed there, perhaps to come again.
A constant breeze stirs everything. Every green thing, the grasses, the thistles, the sagebrush (the “fag end of vegetable creation,” Mark Twain once called it) are all in perpetual frantic animation, like the jerky, spastic motion of an old silent movie. Periodic crosses in the ditches just off the highway memorialize momentary mistakes at 75 miles per hour.
Leaving the relative lushness, if that is what can be said of it, of Baca County and entering Cimarron Country—No Man’s Land it was once called, at the extreme western end of the Oklahoma Panhandle—you realize you must be in a desert. Is it? Was it? Will it always be? Dead cottonwoods line the banks of the near bone-dry bed of the Cimarron River that, one is assured later, does run wet some of the time. Dust devils dance off to the left and then the right, innocent playful reminders of the devastating plagues that once beset this place.
It is a postapocalyptic world. Something happened here, and it is hard to even imagine agriculture ever thriving in this dryness—or a mountain range of dust coming at you, threatening everyone and everything dear to you. The first rise in miles is just a tumbledown butte, where whitewashed rocks, painted and arranged by the hands of still unseen humans, advertise St. Paul’sMethodist Church down the road in the once dishon¬estly named Boise City.
But over a rise and beyond a graceful arcing bend in the blacktop, green fields sud¬denly stretch out as far as the eye can see and the landscape returns once again to flatness. Beautiful crops of grass and wheat, even high-maintenance corn (thanks to those giant water “walkers” that overrule the usual poor odds of moisture) unfold, which then just as fast yield to grazing land and weeds and back to cultivated land again. Farm buildings announce human habitation. The pickups pass with increasing frequency, their drivers waving in the custom of the Plains, a gesture of genuine friendliness that mitigates and helps to abolish the genuine loneliness of the mind-numbing distances required to do almost everything: shop, go to school, get to the hospital.
Copyright © 2012 by The Dust Bowl Film Project, LLC.
It was the worst manmade ecological disaster in American history—poor farming practices, worsened by drought and wind, that rendered millions of acres of the Great Plains a wasteland during the 1930s. What had once been prairie grasslands were turned into deserts, giving rise to massive, deadly dust storms that consumed all they touched and seemed, to many, to herald the end of the world. In the companion volume to the television documentary The Dust Bowl, Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns capture the profound drama of this environmental catastrophe in text and a wealth of powerful images.
Until the late 19th century, the southern plains of the United States were predominantly grasslands, seldom used for farming. But at the start of the 1900s, offers of cheap, arable public land drew a wave of farmers to the region. In “The Great Plow Up” of the early 1930s, millions of acres of grassland were destroyed, leaving fields exposed and vulnerable to drought, which hit in 1932. Winds began whipping up dust from the open fields, creating huge storms that grew in intensity each year, covering homes and farms with dirt, closing schools for weeks at a time, inflicting “dust pneumonia” on the elderly and the young, bringing on financial ruin to farmers and business owners, and forcing thousands of desperate Americans to flee the region in an exodus unlike anything the United States had ever seen. It wasn’t until farmers began to employ more sensible and sustainable practices—and the drought ended—that the region was able to slowly recover.
Duncan and Burns masterfully chronicle the tragedy of the Dust Bowl. But they also tell a story of perseverance against all odds as families found ways to survive and hold on to their land, of governmental programs that kept hungry families afloat, and of efforts to develop new farming and conservation methods.
The book features 300 mesmerizing photographs—some never before published—of mile-high dust storms and a landscape ravaged beyond recognition. It also includes government reports, newspaper articles, as well as private letters, journal entries, first-person quotes, and in-depth interviews with twenty-six survivors, many now in their late 70s and 80s. The backbone of the narrative is the story of Caroline Boa Henderson, who arrived as a homesteader and eloquently chronicled the Dust Bowl through the difficulties she and her husband Will experienced on their small plot of land. Through Henderson’s experiences, and the personal stories of others whose memories of that time are remarkably vivid, we are treated to a rare, firsthand chronicle of one of the seminal events in American history.
The Dust Bowl may likely be the last recorded testimony of the generation who lived through this defining decade.
Hardcover Book : 232 pages
Publisher: Chronicle Books ( October 01, 2012 )
Item #: 13-597820
Product Dimensions: 9.0 x 11.0 inches
Product Weight: 48.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
If it were possible, I would have given the book 10 stars. This is the era our parents survived...and it had a huge impact on their generation. Do they even teach this in schools?
Bought this for a gift for a co-worker. I looked through this book and was very impressed with the photos. Great companion to the PBS series.
Iloved this book.
I was glad to at last see this subject treated with respect and dignity and....intelligence. Ken Burns & Dayton Duncan did a standout job in all areas. I was also glad to see credit given to Timothy Egan "Worst Hard Times". The story, the pictures and even to the quality of the paper it was printed on were all first rate.
Reviewer: Shelby F
The personal stories of all the people who lived through the hardships of the dust bowl and the depression brought the book to life. The suffering, illness, and death of family members are still ingrained in the memories of the survivors and made them stronger to survive whatever life gave them later in life.