25 October 2007

"The Worst Hard Time", by Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time is an amazing story of the people who lived through the great Dust Bowl that was America's high plains in the 1930s. An environmental history as much as a human story, Timothy Egan chronicles how the "nesters" were lured by the government to the greatest grasslands of the continent at the turn of the 20th century. Driven by temporarily high wheat prices, the nesters grew more wheat than had ever been known in the history of the world. When prices crashed after WW1, the only solution, the obvious solution to the farmers, was to tear up more native grass and plant even more wheat. That the federal government under Herbert Hoover did nothing to assist the devastated farmers, counting on the free market to take care of itself, is, in this age of government subsidies, heartbreaking and maddening.

Millions of acres of rich grassland were blown away in the devastating 10-year drought of the 1930s when the high plains from Texas and New Mexico and Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado. Dust from the middle plains occasionally blanketed the eastern cities of New York and Washington. Egan's description of the dusters, particularly of the storms on Black Sunday are frightening.

This is a stunning history, a story I'd known little about 'til now. Read this book! The parallels of pending environmental disaster between what we did to the earth through aggressive agriculture less than a century ago, and what we do to the earth today through water diversion, toxic emissions, and deforestation, linger quietly and forebodingly in the background of this book.

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