The Gallop Report

The Dust Bowl

June 24, 2011

Praying for rain, preparing for drought.

Abandoned Oklahoma farm in the Dust Bowl era. Photo by Arthur Rothstein, part of the Library of Congress collection.

I remember the photos of apocalyptic dust clouds, iconic and frightening images of the Dust Bowl that overtook parts of western Oklahoma in the 1930s. What wasn’t covered by those clouds was still stricken with severe drought. My dad, born in 1926, remembered neighbors lining up arms’ lengths apart to walk through pastures, shooting the jackrabbits that were thriving in the desert climate. They were eliminating varmits and feeding their hungry families. My grandmother talked about putting wet towels around her windowsills and still having to sweep out piles of dirt. The crops, the cattle … none of it fared well. To say it was tough times is hardly enough. And to say the people who endured it were tough … that’s also an understatement.

The Oklahoma soil, originally covered by shortgrass prairies, had been cultivated to death. Robbed of its protective cover and subjected to a harsh drought and howling winds, the topsoil picked up and left. Some of it, quite literally, landed in Chicago. Some of the people, too, picked up and left, and many of them landed in California where they became migrant farm workers. John Steinbeck wrote about the emigrant “Okies” in his book “The Grapes of Wrath.”

We stayed. My grandfathers on both sides of my family were known for their stubborn streaks (a highly heritable trait, in case anybody’s wondering), and I can only imagine them setting their jaws and figuring out how to make things work in the more hostile environment. My maternal grandfather, whom I never knew, was famous for saying that during the Great Depression, when his neighbors were struggling mightily, he had everything he wanted on top of the hill where he lived. Of course, there was a catch: He just didn’t want anything. A sense of humor helps.

We adapted. The government taught better farming methods in hopes of preventing further erosion. President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” administration had Civilian Conservation Corps planting tree rows as wind blocks that would hold the soil in place. A line of beau d’arc trees borders our homestead now to the east, and many more are not far from us. (If I let him, Ocho will eat the horse apples off those trees.)

Occasionally, though, you’ll see bulldozers taking some of the trees down, reclaiming a scant acre of cropland here and there, and I wonder if we’ve forgotten the lessons of a generation ago. It’s probably time to start remembering them.

Western Oklahoma, West Texas and much of the surrounding areas are in the throes of what the National Weather Service calls an exceptional drought. That’s the worst category there is, and it’s said to be comparable to the Dust Bowl days. It’s striking to hear news reports of flooding in other parts of the country. Is anybody having a “normal” year?

But this generation, too, is adapting. Hay has to be trucked in from eastern Oklahoma, where there has been plenty of rain. It’s not of the quality I’d like to feed my horses, but you have to factor in economics. Even the lesser-quality hay isn’t cheap. Most of my horses are wearing fly masks this year — not necessarily to keep flies out of their eyes, but to provide some measure of protection from the sand and debris that blows in our extraordinarily high winds (40 mph is not at all uncommon).  Our cattle’s faces are streaked with mud — tears topped by blowing dust. It’s about the only mud we see, as many farm ponds have dried up.

Unbelievably, we aren’t in a burn ban, and I’m very nervous about the approaching Independence Day. Fires are already a major problem in the drought area, and a few stray fireworks could be disastrous. I know my husband, a volunteer fire fighter, won’t be far from his radio that weekend, and I’ll be scanning the horizon myself. The horses will likely stay in the barn.

The good news? Forecasters are predicting an above-average Atlantic hurricane season, which could potentially send some rain our way. (Here’s hoping it doesn’t do damage to our coastal areas, though. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, even if it sent us some much-needed precipitation.)

And in the meantime, I’m not worrying a bit about grass founder. We don’t have enough green grass to cause any problems there. No worries about the ponies living in mud and developing nasty cases of thrush. And rain rot? Not an issue. I suppose there are silver linings to everything.

I came across this Associated Press report from 1935: “Three little words achingly familiar on the Western farmer’s tongue, rule life in the dust bowl of the continent – ‘if it rains.'”

Those are familiar words these days, too. And they bring to mind another saying of my hard-headed grandfather’s: “It’ll rain before it’s too late.” Hope — and stubbornness — spring eternal.

Praying for rain,