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The Dust Bowl, Remembered

September 25th, 2020 | 16 min read

By Joshua Heavin

In clean, cool air the morning after a thunderstorm, while blazing pink and golden light spills over the horizon before becoming a deep cerulean crown over a sweltering summer afternoon, it is difficult to imagine the conditions in Texas only a few generations ago. Time has swept aside enough debris from our national and even local memory to carry the Dust Bowl from hazy or faded to forgotten.

The flatlands of the High Plains, stretching across the Llano Estacado in the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles into Kansas, has been subject to tremendous oscillation in drought and rain from year to year for centuries, even when the land was held as sacred by Comanchee and other Native American tribes. Daily, small dirt-devils have long been unremarkable in my hometown of Amarillo, where my high school’s mascot is still named the “Sandies” or “the Golden Sandstorm.”

Yet, after a few decades of worsening droughts, it is not uncommon for a towering, reddish-brown wall to creep the prairies and ploughed fields of the caprock; sometimes a “haboob” will catch the attention of the national press. Like the restless ghost of a forgotten or misremembered former resident, or a haunted sandman come to disquiet the perpetrators of some grisly crime, this tortured spirit warns the current homeowners by leaving smudges of dirt and grime caked on everything in sight, and the disquieting taste of dust in your mouth, though you hid indoors.

At the advent of motorized tractors, farmers were able to plough topsoil at previously unimaginable rates, producing high yields amidst rainy seasons and roaring trade in the 1920s. When the Great Depression rocked our national economy, a severe drought in the 1930s squeezed farmers, who sought to compensate for their losses by ploughing even more land, producing a perfect storm that utterly devastated the region’s ecosystems and created an ecological disaster of catastrophic proportions.

Photos from the time are profoundly disturbing, if intelligible at all. On flatlands where typically you can see the entire horizon in every direction, merciless winds raised pitch-black dust clouds hundreds of feet tall and blacked out the sun, as though death itself were crawling across the plains to annihilate everything in its path. Streetlights would turn on at noon amidst the plague-like darkness that came upon the land, whose chaos and terror were regarded by not a few as the end-time judgment of God.

Thousands of animals died, suffocated by the fine silt, or wandering astray as sand dunes piled up to make bridges over fences. Siding on houses would be sanded down to nothing by the relentless wind under red and brown skies. Scores of people died of dust pneumonia, suicides spiked, many abandoned the area as tantamount to trying to farm the Sahara desert, while others who survived these hellish times were inflicted with manifold health problems for the rest of their lives. Many unfortunate souls sojourned to California in search of a livelihood, where they were rejected with the pejorative slur of “Okies.”

Black Sunday,” was arguably the most catastrophic single day of the Dust Bowl. Though 60 mile per hour winds that rush down the Rocky Mountains and across the Great Plains are not uncommon even today, on Sunday, April 14, 1935, the region’s loose and overflowed topsoil was swept up into one of the largest recorded dust clouds, comparable to a land-based tsunami stretching a thousand miles long. A few weeks before Black Sunday, dust was carried all the way to Washington D.C., an event that made the Dust Bowl and the need for better soil conservation practices more urgent in national discourse. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was not among those who thought the region was hopeless or should be abandoned, and even traveled to Amarillo in 1938, where he famously gave a speech in front of 150,000 people at Elwood Park. In a moment almost too dramatic to seem real, but actually did happen, a heavy rainstorm began to fall as his speech concluded, where he laid out plans to aid the region.

FDR’s New Deal and “Alphabet Soup” programs not only aided the region but effectively created the Texas Panhandle that exists to this day; there is still a town just north of Lubbock named “New Deal, Texas.” National Grasslands were created to ensure the High Plains are never ploughed to the same extent again. The Civil Conservation Corps built Palo Duro Canyon State Park; the Public Works Administration built federal buildings and classroom buildings still used today at Amarillo College. Sidewalks and curbs along 6th street in downtown Amarillo bear the iconography of the Works Project Administration. The establishment of the Social Security Administration amidst the Depression in 1935, then and now, lifts millions of elderly Americans and their relatives out of the crushing burdens of poverty and its endless ramifications.

Something I didn’t realize growing up in Amarillo was the extent to which these policies created the place I am from, the conditions that still exist in Amarillo, and the extent to which they helped some and excluded others – both then and now. These government programs disproportionately assisted impoverished white residents and tenant farmers, positioning them to accrue capital over time, while Amarillo’s extremely segregated black community, in the North Heights neighborhood and surrounding areas, were excluded from the assistance provided in these New Deal programs. The G.I. bill allowed some to attend West Texas A &M University, but this same program excluded returning black soldiers, with exponential effects for family members down through the generations.

Meanwhile, as in virtually every other American city in the apartheid state of Jim Crow legislation, discriminatory lending practices determined who could live where, created two-tiers of criminal justice in the era of lynching, and affected which opportunities families did or did not have access to in education and healthcare. Despite these structural problems, those programs created or conserved local community life in the region; some progress has been made in making right these injustices, though much work remains to be done.

Yet, many in the region today not merely disagree with, but hold outright disdain for, comparable policies today to those that conserved local community life in the past. Deficit hawks have long dismissed policies supporting earthkeeping as implausibly expensive, especially while our current world economy depends heavily on fossil fuels. Moreover, New Deal programs like Social Security, which expanded the American welfare state and depend upon a large, younger work force to provide income for retired and elderly citizens, will face challenges as birth rates are in decline.

But closer to home, West Texans and many others are deeply skeptical of almost any kind of federal program. A fiercely independent and libertarian ethos runs deep in the region, integral to the mythic stories of the American West that continue to shape the consciousness of the region to the present day. “Who,” one might ask, “is more likely to value the interests of local community ties in the region – people who live and die within the community as its business owners, workers, and leaders, or some federal program bureaucrat hundreds of miles away?”

To the credit of individualism, we can and should personally cultivate the virtues of earthkeeping and make sacrificial decisions for the good of our neighbors. But long-term care for the people, land, water, and animals of the place we inhabit together, a fragile and intricately connected ecosystem, requires more than individual consumer choices. The devastation of the region’s topsoil by tractors in the 1930’s starkly illustrates that while an ethos of self-interested individualism might have some strengths, it can also prove disastrous if we wish to have an inhabitable home, let alone a good one.

Then, to the credit of localist concerns, it indeed can be dangerous to wrest political agency away from local communities and urge them to defer to putative experts, who may or may not have a local community’s best interests at heart. Proponents of localism are often skeptical of federal overreach in solving local problems, and sometimes rightly so; one-size-fits all approaches might not always be attuned to the unique challenges of a particular community, or create unintended consequences. Nonetheless, as the COVID-19 pandemic manifestly demonstrates, there are some problems, like a highly contagious disease or arguably climate change, that are exacerbated by a patchwork of discordant local policies.

Though local and individual approaches aid some problems, at other times to cure what ails us we need highly-competent expertise, and an expansive vision of multiple highly-complicated factors inter-relating to one another. Such solutions are not always possible at merely local levels. Though public policies striving towards conservation might indeed prove expensive, they are worthwhile nonetheless. If we were to pursue a New Deal-like course today, then alongside conservation of our land, water, and animals, we might seek arguably pro-life policies that make local community life possible, analogous to social security and other New Deal programs of the past.

For instance, we could pursue universal public health insurance, or helping local families raise children by alleviating America’s paid family leave, which is among the worst in the world despite our being the wealthiest nation in the world. That is to not even broach questions about reducing college costs or the student debt crisis. But even if a New Deal-like welfare state is rejected, all must recognize that the future of local commitments and local community life are imperilled today.

In a recent conversation with Ross Douthat about communitarian conservatism, Gracy Olmstead suggested that the social fabric of communal connectedness and support has been, and can be, frayed due to seemingly very different political instincts. Where some communities formerly found their primary social support in the care of friends, churches, and extended family relatives who lived near one another, the dissolution or absence of such ties for many people today prompts the left to desire the state to provide aid and support for individuals who are alienated from needed connections to family, church, social institutions, and the people who share a “place.” Meanwhile on the right, a hyper-individualism asks individuals to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, which is a “cruel jest” to those “left bootless,” as Martin Luther King Jr. noted, after centuries of racialized slavery and a racial apartheid state.

Not a few local communities have struggled in recent decades as arguably monopolistic technology companies subvert long-standing local business and social institutions that simply cannot compete with gargantuan technology companies. The demise of local newspapers, and rise of mega media conglomerates, harms the abilities for local communities to narrate, investigate, and care for their members. Local community banks, who were not bailed out during the Great Recession a decade ago, can struggle against the endless digital products and services offered by the nation’s largest banks who have bought out the competition in many rural communities, and overtime can create less competitive lending rates for community members and their needs.

Though staunch individualism was the bedrock of those who settled the High Plains to make a community in the wilderness, it can also create ghost towns like Old Tascosa. Valuing individual mobility as an end in itself can lead individuals to feel rootless or treat every ‘place’ as disposable without any ties of commitment. Ross Douthat notes that one of the grimmest trends in American local community life right now is opioid addiction and “deaths of despair,” and our status quo is manifestly not working for local communities. Obviously, individuals can live in more or less responsible or virtuous ways, regardless of their inherited circumstances. But it is also worth remembering how the Dust Bowl was created in the first place, and how it was overcome.

Irresponsible pursuit of limitless growth caused a nearly-societal ending ecological crisis once before, and federal programs preserved the possibility of farms, agribusiness, and local community life in the region. If our relationship to the earth is merely one of exploitation and extraction, and our individualism yields disregard for the vulnerable lives connected with ours in a common ecosystem, we will quickly frack and irrigate ourselves to death. We need to begin asking not only about the costs involved in changing our status quo, but the nightmarish debts we will inexorably incur if we continue our present course.

The Ogallala aquifer, stretching from the South Plains of the Texas Panhandle through Oklahoma and Kansas into Nebraska and Wyoming, is the main water source for much of the former Dust Bowl region. Though it has made life as we know it possible on the High Plains, its present use is unsustainable because today “natural recharge is insufficient to make up for withdrawals from the Ogallala Aquifer.” Moreover, Texas A&M University researchers predict severe droughts and even hotter temperatures in the coming decades in West Texas. Separately, researchers from Southern Methodist University have raised alarm at the rapid rate that the land is literally sinking beneath the feet of people in Odessa, Texas, demonstrably due to drilling.

Though solar and wind energy are growing industries in Texas, cattle is still king. When the wind comes from the right direction, residents of West Texas towns not uncommonly can smell colossal feedyards nearby and sometimes far away as well, a distinct smell that every Texan knows “smells like money.” But the vast amount of methane produced by this industry not only degrades the ozone layer and requires vast amounts of water, but they also fill the air with fecal matter and dust. An analysis by the American Lung Association shows that “in the Panhandle, people living in feedlot hot spots experience some of the highest levels of asthma in the state.”

These environmental health problems and the costs of increased natural disasters disproportionately harm poor communities, racial minorities, and the re-settled refugees who make up a huge portion of workers in these industries and suffer their consequences here in West Texas, a microcosm of problems at a global scale. The stunning photojournalism recently published in The New York Times documents how across continents heatwaves are more frequent and last longer than they used, and in sum:

A hotter planet does not hurt equally. If you’re poor and marginalized, you’re likely to be much more vulnerable to extreme heat. You might be unable to afford an air-conditioner, and you might not even have electricity when you need it. You may have no choice but to work outdoors under a sun so blistering that first your knees feel weak and then delirium sets in. Or the heat might bring a drought so punishing that, no matter how hard you work under the sun, your corn withers and your children turn to you in hunger.

Moreover, in addition to heat waves and droughts, with attendant consequences for famine, flooding, displacement, disease, and more, new testing capabilities for air quality suggest air pollution is much worse than previously hypothesized, and more harmful than previously believed. Drew Shindell, Nicholas professor of earth science at Duke University, recently testified at a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, and in short, “the effects of air pollution are roughly twice as bad as previously estimated. That is a bombshell — in a sane world, it would be front-page news across the country.”

During the Dust Bowl, my grandmother at Borger High School could not see from one end of the hallway to the other end, and has dealt with asthma and allergies her entire life. I am proud of the resilient Texans who endured the Dust Bowl, rebuilt our state in subsequent years, and of the solidarity whereby public lands, public work programs, and public goods created and conserved the place I am from. I am also proud of the advances Texans made in subsequent decades towards greater racial justice. However, I am dismayed that our status quo continues to tolerate more and less subtle forms of discrimination, inequality, and cool indifference about our unhealthy relationship with the land that we call home.

About such complacency, Steven Bouma-Prediger writes, “We fill up our cars with gasoline from a pump, forgetful that this resource is finite and was formed within the earth for millions of years before being harvested for our purposes. We turn on our lights with a casual flick of a switch, ignorant as to where that electricity is coming from. We shop in supermarkets, where food mysteriously appears perfectly packaged, oblivious to the long process involving soil, water, sun, and farmers” (Earthkeeping and Character, 141). Or, as Wendell Berry laments, in his essay “Christianity and the Survival of Creation”:

Christian organizations, to this day, remain largely indifferent to the rape and plunder of the world and of its traditional cultures. It is hardly too much to say that most Christian organizations are as happily indifferent as most industrial organizations to the ecological, cultural, and religious implications of industrial economics. The certified Christian seems just as likely as anyone else to join the military-industrial conspiracy to murder Creation…. Our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy. It is flinging God’s gifts into his face as if they were of no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them…. We have no entitlement from the Bible to exterminate or permanently destroy or hold in contempt anything on the earth or in the heavens above it or in the waters beneath it. We have the right to use the gifts of nature but not to ruin or waste them.

Responsibly receiving God’s good gifts with wonder and gratitude, and reciprocating God’s generosity in Christ by pursuing things that are good, true, and beautiful is not always financially convenient or politically expedient. But some such vision of responsibility is necessary if we are to have a worthwhile society to pass on to Texans who will come after us.

Those who can remember the story of how the New Deal welfare state saved us from the Dust Bowl tend to oppose conservationist and New Deal-like policies and insist upon austerity today. But federal action that makes local community ties possible, and raising a family financially viable, might be the best way to indeed conserve the legacy of the Greatest Generation for the crises facing millennials and our children, as mounting dust clouds of student debt, healthcare expenses, clean water access, breathable air, and natural disasters exacerbated by climate change gather on our horizon.

As the memory of newly invented tractors ruining our ecosystem fades, Texans again have some difficult questions to face. Though perplexing, they are ultimately pretty simple. What are we going to value: short-term economic growth, or the land, animals, and solidarity with the people who make Texas the beautiful, wild, and unique place we share?

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Joshua Heavin

Joshua Heavin (PhD, Aberdeen) is a curate and deacon at an Anglican church in the Dallas area, and an adjunct professor in the School of Christian Thought at Houston Christian University, and at West Texas A&M University.