Wednesday, April 6, 2011

So Long, It's Been Good To Know You, Deux*...

*I don't know what my fixation with the word deux is today, but I seem incapable of refraining from its use, however appropriate...

A few of my approximately four regular readers may remember a Dust Bowl-themed blog post I wrote almost a year ago. April 14th to be exact, the 75th anniversary of Black Sunday, a storm that defined the era (and the term). I entitled it "So Long, It's Been Good To Know You." If so inclined, you can read about it here. If not, here's a snippet...

No, I'm not quitting just yet. It's the title to a song penned and sung by the greatest artist and one of the greatest individuals the state of Oklahoma ever produced.

And it may be an apocryphal story, but legend has it that Woody Guthrie penned the opening lines to "So Long It's Been Good To Know You" while hunkered down in Pampa, Texas, on April 14, 1935, riding out what would forever be known as "Black Sunday." Seventy five years ago today a whole lot of people in my part of the world were convinced that world was coming to an end. It didn't, but that massive April 14th, 1935 storm was the one that coined the term "Dust Bowl."

And here is where the deux part kicks in...

From today's Oklahoman...
Oklahoma sees driest 4 months since Dust Bowl

"In most years, the dark clouds over western Oklahoma in the spring would be bringing rain. This year, they're more likely to be smoke from wildfires that have burned thousands of acres in the past month as the state and its farmers struggle with a severe drought. Oklahoma was drier in the four months following Thanksgiving than it has been in any similar period since 1921. That's saying a lot in the state known for the 1930s Dust Bowl, when drought and high winds generated severe dust storms that stripped the land of its topsoil."

That's right, in terms of moisture we're technically drier right now than we were during the same timeframe for any year in the 1930s. The wind is still blowing like hell, but we've not seeing any exodusters...yet.

Why is that? First, let noted regional author and rapier wit Chad Love explain in this beautifully-written, award-winning feature story from the March-April 2003 issue of Oklahoma Today, entitled "The Story of Wind."

Then, just to show that I'm a persistent, single-minded sonofabitch, I'll explain why this, too, ties in with this week's debate on the future of our hunting, fishing and conservation programs.

Take it away, Chad...

"...In those early years, Oklahomans, like those in other plains states, learned to live with wind, but unfortunately they failed to learn from the wind. The result was one of the greatest ecological disasters the world has ever known.

Wind and drought do not have a causal relationship, but one of exacerbation. Wind is the gasoline that fans the flame of drought. On the vast sweep of the plains wind and drought have been playing out these roles for eons, and climatologists are just now starting to grasp the significance of drought in the natural cycle of the nation’s grasslands. Recent findings suggest that historically the plains have gone through extended periods of extreme drought and that it is a regularly occurring phenomenon. It’s not a matter of if the plains have a tendency to dry up, scientists say, it is merely a matter of when and how severely.

But Oklahoma farmers in 1914 did not have the luxury of modern science to help guide their land-use practices. All they knew was that, thanks to the outbreak of World War One, wheat prices had soared to unheard-of levels and advances in farm machinery were allowing them to plow more and faster than they ever had before.

Some historians have dubbed what followed “the Great Plow-Up.” According to historian Donald Worster, over 11 million acres of native grass were turned under between 1914 and 1919 in Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska and Texas. The 1920s saw unusually wet years, unusually high wheat harvests and even more conversion of grassland to wheat. Worster estimates that by 1935, with the rain gone and the nation in the fifth year of a widespread drought, over 33 million acres of ground lay exposed.

That’s when the wind started blowing and a large chunk of the continent took flight.

Seventy years later, the national conscience has largely healed, but if there is one group that still feels the sting of blowing dust, it is Oklahomans. Rightly or wrongly, the specter of the Dust Bowl and the cultural identity with which Oklahomans were seared as a result of it continue to resonate today. That’s why many Oklahomans still view Steinbeck with so much anathema and Rodgers & Hammerstein with so much adulation.

But the real lessons to be taken from those blowing winds aren’t academic arguments over whether the word Okie should be viewed as pejorative or compliment, but the conservation ethos which came out of the Dust Bowl’s aftermath.

“The real conservation movement in the United States, in terms of institutionalizing conservation practices, especially in regard to wind erosion, was born in the 1930’s, and the Dust Bowl had quite a lot to do with that,” says Oklahoma State University Professor Dr. Terry Bidwell.

"...Bidwell says there was, and continues to be, a push to permanently return highly erodible cropland to grass. “Since the thirties there’s been a pile of money spent on programs to get those soils taken out of production and into permanent vegetation.”Those broken parcels of land were eventually designated as National Grasslands.

Grass. More than anything, the choking storms of the Dust Bowl highlighted its importance, and its primacy in the Great Plains ecosystem. The extensive root systems of prairie grasses act as billions of tiny anchors. Lose it, and you lose the soil. Shelterbelts and strip cropping helped, but shelterbelts alone could not hope to quell the blowing wind. In extremely hard-hit areas erosion was so severe revegetation was the only hope, so in 1934 the federal government began purchasing some of the most heavily eroded farmland and re-seeding it to grass. By 1947, when the program ended, over 11 million acres had reverted to federal ownership.

In a very real sense, much of Oklahoma’s current public lands were made possible by wind, because two of those grasslands areas are in Oklahoma: Black Kettle in Roger Mills County and Rita Blanca in Cimarron County. Combined they represent over 46,000 acres of formerly destroyed land, a living monument to folly and (at least on public land) redemption.

So, what are we debating in Washington this week as being "too costly?" That's right, the very same type of conservation programs that brought us out of the Dust Bowl and have kept us out of the Dust Bowl, even through droughts (as in the Fifties) that were as severe or even worse than the Dirty Thirties. 

History's a cruel old bitch, isn't she? Once again, I'll leave you with a little Woody (a song, that is...)


  1. Yikes, don't scare me like that. Thought for a moment you were pulling a Rabbit Stew.




    "Wind is a much more powerful force in the evolution of mountains than previously thought, according to a new report from a University of Arizona-led research team.

    Bedrock in Central Asia that would have formed mountains instead was sand-blasted into dust, said lead author Paul Kapp.

    'No one had ever thought that wind could be this effective,' said Kapp, a UA associate professor of geosciences. 'You won't read in a textbook that wind is a major process in terms of breaking down rock material.'"