Friday, July 22, 2011

"Dust Can't Kill Me"

Go to the post office, Walmart, the hardware store, anywhere where people gather - and we all want to talk about the heat.  Someone in town said that we are over 26 days in a row of 100+ degree temperatures.  Starts to make one think.  The conditions outside of the air-conditioned comfort of our house are ominous.  Leaves shriveling, grass crunching, one of our ponds about dried up.  The cracks in the pastures, along the garden beds, running through the brick walkway, are growing into deep and dark fissures.  To get from one side to the other we’ll soon need ladders laid across them, like traversing the Khumbu Icefalls.

Direct route to China?
Kel and I talk about The Dust Bowl relative to our own situation and laugh, but shallowly and without much humor.  Stories about the recent dust storms in Arizona don't help.  The Dust Bowl is part of the collective memory of Oklahomans, native-born or transplant.  The former owner of our ranch was a child during that time.  He and his family left Oklahoma for California to escape the conditions and look for work.  Okies who weren't even alive during that time share stories that sound like fresh and sore memories. 

Most of us know three things about Oklahoma: there are lots of tornadoes, it is mostly flat and The Dust Bowl happened there (and elsewhere, of course).  There is a sensitivity here to weather phenomena and every unusually dry and hot season carries the potential for becoming the catalyst for catastrophe.  Oklahoma’s reputation for wind is well-deserved.  It either blows torch-hot or bitterly cold.  It can feel like a freight train sweeping unfettered from the Gulf straight up through Texas and across the flat geography of the state and the wind sometimes doesn’t stop for days.  When it’s whipping you can’t hear yourself think let alone what the person next to you is saying.  What the tornadoes don’t carry away, the unceasing winds will coat with dirt.  On the plus side, out in the panhandle, acres of windmills spread across the open land, taking the wind, making energy.  

The voice of The Dust Bowl, Woody Guthrie, was born in a small town not too far from us.  Okemah boasts a neat main street with a memorial dedicated to Guthrie and an annual festival in his honor.  Guthrie is inextricably linked with The Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.  As a teenager I read “Bound for Glory" and loved it while (happily) missing most of its social and political overtones.  I just enjoyed his story.  Not long afterwards I bought his The Dust Bowl Ballads.  I appreciate the spirit of the songs, but I find them hard to listen to – they are sparse and plaintive, evocative of so much sadness and despair, yet still I have a hard time relating.  It was so long ago.

A more resonant accounting for me was reading The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, which chronicles individual stories of survival (and not) from those who experienced The Dust Bowl.  Most of it is hard to believe, the pictures fantastical.  I knew that the Great Plains suffered, but the rest of the country was not immune.  In May 1934:
…a flock of whirlwinds started up in the northern prairie…Carrying three tons of dust for every American alive, the formation moved over the Midwest.  It covered Chicago at night, dumping an estimated six thousand tons…By morning, the dust fell like snow over Boston and Scranton, and then New York slipped under partial darkness.  Now the storm was measured at 1,800 miles wide, a rectangle of dust from the Great Plains to the Atlantic, weighing 350 million tons.
If your Dust Bowl history is a little sketchy it’s a book worth reading.  

My guess is there are plenty of Okies right now worrying, saying goodbye to their crops for this year, remembering the stories their mothers and fathers told them, hoping for relief in the form of thick clouds that are full of moisture; that it will rain for a few days straight and refill stagnant ponds and refresh the land.  I’m worried, too, but feel that the heat and dry will eventually break and although the cracks and splits in the ground look bad, and though the southern wind and cloudless sky only serve to exacerbate conditions, the roots in the prairie are deep and will keep the earth from blowing east. 

1 comment:

  1. I think that I'm going to have to order "The Worst Hard Time." I heard a review on NPR, and it really piqued my interest. Your excerpt does that even more. My dad's folks lived in Oklahoma and Arkansas back then. Terrible stories. They headed west and landed in Oregon---smart people! Here's hoping that you get some rain! And thanks for your great writing!

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