The Great Plains stretch from Texas to Canada. In a time before settlement, home to massive herds of buffalo who fed on the thick layer of protective grass. Prone to periods of drought, it was the grass, with root systems reaching up to five feet deep that trapped moisture and maintained a perfect balance.
In the late 18th and early 19th century the plains enjoyed a period of relief from draught. Believing the rain would continue to fall settlers arrived by the thousands. Land was plentiful. The Homestead Act was revised in 1909 offering 320 acres of free federal land to “homesteaders” willing to try their hand at dryland farming. Up from 160 acres in the original Homestead Act of 1862, and considering the pattern of plentiful rain, it seemed to good to be true.
So began “the great plow”- mile after mile of grassland turned gold, wheat blanketed the land. Throughout the 1920s rain fell, farmers prospered with wheat prices at $2.00 a bushel – possibilities seemed endless. When the stock market crashed in 1929 wheat prices began to slide. Farmers responded by plowing more land, they reasoned that more wheat even at lower prices would maintain their families until conditions improved.
They never considered the rain would stop – the plains fell under a catastrophic drought that would last for the next ten years. The terms “dust bowl” and “dirty thirties” can’t begin to describe the misery. With the protective grass plowed under barren fields, nothing prevented the top soil from turning to dust in the wind.
Imagine day after day, year after year, never being able to go outside without a face mask. Livestock died, their noses, mouths, and lungs caked in mud. Starving rabbits and hungry insects devouring any attempt to grow vegetables. A home where you couldn’t open your windows. Ponder the sun disappearing in the middle of the day behind a curtain of dust, at times hundreds of miles wide. Then your children fall sick, victims of dust related pneumonia.
Hundreds died, thousands left, many more endured. The “dust bowl” is a cautionary tale of what can happen if we ignore the balance of nature. We seem to forget that we can’t control the environment. All the technological advances in the world can’t stop a force of nature. Time to ponder the consequences of our actions.