The Dust Bowl and Human Agency

The foggy, rainy, cold, water-logged conditions here in the Midwest bring to mind other summers where the normal growing season hasn’t gone as planned.  Summer should be hot, with average rainfall, so that farmers can once again bring forth a startlingly great harvest from the American land.

Yet history furnishes instances when nature has refused to cooperate, as in the summer without a summer (1816), when a volcanic eruption half a world away filled the atmosphere with so much ash that the sun’s rays couldn’t warm the Earth and crops throughout the United States, northern Europe, and Russia froze.

Other than that, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s furnishes most dramatic instance of agricultural disaster with its attendant suffering.  Readers of The Grapes of Wrath may recall its harrowing beginning, as Steinbeck describes the drought and terrifying and relentless dust storms that drove masses of subsistence farmers in Oklahoma from their land.

That human action caused this “natural” catastrophe is perhaps less known.  The editors of History.com make the case that reckless settlement on the naturally arid prairies of the Lower Plains states created the conditions for the disaster that followed.

In the decades following the Civil War, millions of settlers moved to what would then have been “virgin land” in the region where Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico adjoin.  Many were inexperienced farmers, responding to the lure of free acreage offered under the 1862 Homestead Act.  This federal policy encouraged rapid settlement in the West by allowing any American with a family to acquire up to 160 acres from the Land Office for a small fee.  Even though the West’s tough dry prairies were much less promising than those in the Mississippi River valley, where the soils were highly fertile and received much more rainfall, settlers snapped up the barren acres, impelled by the superstition that “rain follows the plow.”  According to this “now-discredited theory of climatology,” only human cultivation was wanting to turn desert land into “a garden” and increase its rainfall and humidity.

The First World War caused grain shortages, increasing incentives for American farmers to grow more wheat.  Homesteaders zealously tore up millions of square miles of the deep rooted prairie, grasslands that had kept the dry soils of the region in place.  After the end of World War One, grain prices slumped dramatically as peacetime production of wheat resumed around the globe.  Paradoxically, even as wheat prices plummeted, American farmers produced record wheat crops in 1928 and 1931.  By then, the US economy was in the grip of the Great Depression and much of the wheat crop went unsold.  Such were the conditions when a terrible drought came, forcing countless Americans to abandon their homes.

It was the most consequential weather disaster in American history.  For several years, winds swept the dry plains, picking up millions of tons of soil and balling them into fearsome looking “black blizzards,” dark billowing clouds that traveled as far east as the Atlantic Coast.  At the epicenter of the Dust Bowl region, fine particles of brown dust drifted from the sky, settling in heaping dunes, asphyxiating cattle, clogging human lungs, coating leaves.  Only belatedly did the government begin to encourage farmers to plant windbreaks and take other measures to mitigate erosion.  Devastation on such a scale was only partly “natural”; human folly contributed to human suffering in the Dust Bowl era.

 

Images: from this source, and this.

Regarding the Ordinary American

A store with live fish for sale, vicinity of Natchitoches, Louisiana, July 1940. Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott.

A store with live fish for sale, vicinity of Natchitoches, Louisiana, July 1940. FSA photograph by Marion Post Wolcott.

In 1940, a federal bureau called the Farm Security Administration (FSA) dispatched photographers to various parts of the States to document the American people’s condition.  That the federal government would launch such an impolitic initiative is unthinkable today.  The pictures are uncomfortably realistic, many outright grim, the country being still on the ropes after that period of economic woe we proudly refer to as the ‘Great’ Depression.  That those in power cared enough to visit the nation’s suffering smacks of an unwavering democratic purpose unfamiliar now.

An FSA photograph by Russell Lee of a family in Pie Town, New Mexico.

Jack Whinery, homesteader, and his family, Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940.  FSA photograph by Russell Lee.

The corpus of FSA photography stands as a magnificent portrait of America: penetrating and stark, troubling yet thrilling, capturing the country’s natural richness, its varied peoples and economy, its dilemmas and opportunities.

Going to town (FSA photograph)

Going to town on Saturday afternoon, Greene County, Georgia, May 1941. FSA photograph by Jack Delano.

For the most part, rural places and workers star in the FSA’s study of the mid-20th-century ‘political economy.’  A band of FSA photographers, who included Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott, and Russell Lee, fanned out across the South and West, documenting rural small-town folk as they went about their daily activities.

Dugout house of Faro Caudill, homesteader, with Mt. Allegro in the background, Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940. Photograph by Russell Lee.

Dugout house of Faro Caudill, homesteader, with Mt. Allegro in the background, Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940. FSA photograph by Russell Lee.

Indeed, many of the photographs—some shot with up-to-the-minute color slide film—show people living in conditions little changed since the previous century.

Commuters, who have just come off the train, waiting for the bus to go home, Lowell, Mass., January 1941. Photograph by Jack Delano.

Commuters, who have just come off the train, waiting for the bus to go home, Lowell, Mass., January 1941. FSA photograph by Jack Delano.

Besides documenting church picnics, horse auctions, and hard-scrabble farming, FSA photographers visited urban and industrial regions, where they more often shot in black and white.  As the project went on, its output began to show the stimulus of World War II, when the demand for goods in war-torn Europe and the growth of war-related industries dramatically expanded the economy and work opportunities for many Americans.

FSA-houses-factories

Houses and factories.   Unidentified photographer.  From the FSA/OWI collection at the Library of Congress.

The FSA project represented an interesting experiment on the government’s part, to use an expressive medium (photography) to supplement the ‘facts’ expressed through social science.  Seventy-five years on, the FSA photos allow us to behold the ordinary American circa 1940, in a form more eloquent than statistics or sociology.  Moreover, the characteristic themes of the photographs, including the unequal effects of modernization, Americans’ changing relationship with nature and the land, and economic vulnerability, are problems we continue to grapple with today.

All images from the Library of Congress.
Click on an image to go to its source.

The Summer without a Summer

Currier and Ives hand-colored lithograph, "Winter in the Country: A Cold Morning" (1863), courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 1872, near the end of his life, New York newspaperman Horace Greeley recalled a summer in his childhood that pushed his family to the brink of want and insolvency.  It was the summer of 1816, when weather abnormalities reached catastrophic levels, producing a summer without summer, the typically warm months instead punctuated with snows and frost.

Greeley recalls waking on June 8th of that year to find an inch of snow blanketing his family’s farm in Amherst, New Hampshire.  Frosts occurred in all the summer months, destroying crops and yielding only a ‘dubious harvest.’

The conditions Greeley described were general throughout the northeastern United States and felt as far south as Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia.  Newspapers and diaries document the freakishly cold weather that rattled Americans, whose lives then depended almost entirely on what farms in their vicinity could produce.  (Importing food from a distance was untenable before the age of rail.)  Though New England was never a great breadbasket, its farms usually produced enough grains and vegetables to support the human population and some livestock farming.

That summer, persistent cold and frosts produced widespread crop failures.  On each morning from June 8 through 10, frosts were reported throughout much of New England, causing the trees’ foliage to blacken.  In July, a powerful Canadian cold front moved in, killing off tender plants such as beans, cucumbers, and squash, and raising the first fearful prospects of famine.  Yet, according to meteorologist Lee Foster, who has analyzed the agricultural impact of the weather that summer, hardy crops such as wheat, rye, and potatoes managed to hang on.

In the middle of August, any prospect of a normal harvest vanished when frost again hit New England and upstate New York.  Violent thunderstorms followed the cold, with still more frost striking around August 20 and 28, killing the corn and effectively ending the growing season.

Those in northern inland regions suffered the most.  Newspapers recorded June snowfalls of 10 inches in Vermont and 7 inches in parts of Maine.  Newly shorn sheep froze to death; fruit was destroyed.  Farmers went about in coats and mittens.  By the end of the summer, domestic animals were starving.  Much of the human population was famished, too.

Throughout the affected areas, livestock were hastily slaughtered, creating a glut that drove down prices, while the price of grains, particularly corn, began skyrocketing.  While families accustomed to subsistence agriculture were rich in tactics for making do in hard times, the poor harvests of 1816 left them in debt and without the cash or seeds needed to get started the next growing season.  The bankruptcies and penury that followed in the wake of “summer that wasn’t” caused widespread land forfeiture and precipitated the first great out-migration of farmers to the virgin Midwest from eastern parts.

Scientific knowledge and understanding were then insufficient to account for the strange weather Americans were seeing, though some conjectured that sunspots or a solar ellipse (both recently observed) were a probable cause.  Well-informed Americans understood, though, that the peculiar meteorological conditions they were experiencing were more than a local phenomenon.  Their newspapers were reporting similarly catastrophic conditions across Europe, where cold and dark weather was producing dire food shortages, including Ireland’s infamous potato famine.

Today, meteorologists attribute the adverse atmospheric conditions of 1816 to a colossal volcanic eruption that occurred the previous year and half a world away.  On April 8, 1815, Mount Tambora, a volcano east of Java in the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia), began erupting.  According to a new book by William Klingaman and Nicholas Klingaman, the explosion, a hundred times more powerful than the 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens, was the largest volcanic disturbance in the last 2,000 years and the deadliest in recorded time.  Some 12,000 people living near Tambora died at once, with another 70,000 dying from the toxic fallout in Indonesia alone.

Blasts from the volcano, audible 800 miles away, blew 3,000 feet off the mountaintop, spewing millions of tons of ash, dust, and sulfur-dioxide gas into the sky, the lightest particles flying up more than twenty miles.  Within twenty-four hours of the climactic eruption, an impenetrable cloud the size of Australia had formed.  Particles in the stratosphere were slow to disperse, but winds gradually distributed them, reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the earth.  The impact on climate peaked in 1816, when the Northern Hemisphere felt its withering chill.

Americans today worry about global warming, but early Americans had more to fear from the cold.  Mount Tambora’s eruption intensified conditions associated with the “Little Ice Age” that prevailed from around 1400 to 1850, when the sun’s lower output produced harsher winters, shorter summers, and more aridity—conditions that, like today’s weather abnormalities, created unanticipated hazards and human suffering.  As for the future, who can say?  The new global cooling may be just a volcano away.

Image: Hand-colored lithography by Currier and Ives, “Winter in the Country: A Cold Morning” (1863), in the Library of Congress.  To go to the source, click here.