Book, Features, Greenspace, film November 15, 2012 By Jordan Sayle

A boy near Elkhart, KS/<em>The Dust Bowl: An Illustrated History</em>/Chronicle Books/Patricia Fergouson

The Dust Bowl: An Illustrated History/Chronicle Books/Patricia Fergouson. A boy near Elkhart, KS.

You’ve come upon letters written by people who very clearly saw what was happening as these events began to play out. How widespread was awareness of the root causes at the time, and how did conditions get so bad before destructive practices were identified?

H. Howard Finnell, the soil scientist, became something of a hero to me in researching this story. He had been studying better ways to farm in the Plains, where the rains are fickle to say the least, the winds are constant, and the weather extremes are so, well, extreme. He could see that people were pushing out into marginal lands during the wet years, ignoring what thousands of years of evolution was trying to tell them – that for the most part, the Plains are a grassland for good reason. And he was always looking for better ways to cultivate the fields that weren’t marginal.

When there was enough rain to raise a crop, prices were high, and everything looked rosy, nobody paid much attention to him or to the ranchers who kept saying, leave that prairie sod in place. But it was people like Finnell who were essential in stabilizing the damage and repairing the land once everyone understood they had pushed things too far. He opened their eyes to new ideas about soil conservation. There have always been droughts on the Plains, and there is always a lot of wind; what made this drought so disastrous was not just it’s severity, but the millions of acres of fields that had been made so vulnerable. Some people at the time either didn’t see it, or refused to acknowledge it. And when the rains returned, they went right back to their old ways.

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