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Monday, November 19, 2012

What Caused the Dust Bowl

My husband and I watched part of Ken Burns's Dust Bowl documentary on PBS last night. It is well worth the time, although there were some elements of it that we both found strange.

For instance, although experts agree they have no firm understanding of what caused the cataclysmic event, the consensus as explained in the documentary was that how the farmers planted their crops in the years prior caused the dust storms.

Now I understand that one doesn't want to blame God for such a horrible event as this, just like we don't like blaming Him for the recent hurricane Sandy. I'm not comfortable saying, "The people were wicked, God sent the storm." I don't like hearing others say it either, about any kind of natural disasters.

Yet our human nature, in trying to explain these events, can come up with some pretty silly conclusions, even without blaming God. That's what I thought about the Dust Bowl explanations given in the Burns documentary.

Did the way the farmers plant and plow explain a drought? I don't think so. It was the complete lack of snow and rain that caused the real problem. The planting methods wouldn't have shown themselves without the drought.

As my mother explained in Farm Girl, "It was a seven year drought, is what it was." She lived through it. She and her family and neighbors counted the days, months and years. Seven years! What a horribly long time for an agricultural region to go without significant moisture.

My grandmother wrote her impressions of this time:

"There were so many who cannot even imagine what the dust bowl looked like. It was a place that seemed like God had forsaken it. Some said, 'The people were too wicked. They were paying for their sins.' I was sitting in our church one time during dust storm years and heard those very words.

"My mind dwelt on first one then another in the community, but they all seemed like respectable people. Why there was hardly a one in this dust bowl neighborhood who smoked or drank whiskey, or even beer. They were hardworking farmers who year after year prepared the soil and planted corn and wheat, with high hopes every year, hoping they had seen the last of it. They were standing the drought, but debt piled up. Some summers there was not even a green straw." (from Farm Girl, WiDo Publishing, 2007)

And so as we are faced with inexplicable natural disasters, we try to place a cause and a reason on them. The way the farmers plowed in those days. Government policies. Punishing the wicked. Global warming.

Take your pick, or add a new one. Nobody really knows. At least with the Titanic, there was an iceberg to blame.


  1. I watched The Dust Bowl, too. I knew it was bad but I didn't realize just how horrific it was. Our government learned a lot about farming and plowing, conservation, etc, but if it ever hits again like that...none of that will matter. It was a drought.

    1. Catherine, But if it ever happens again, the current scapegoat of global warming will be blamed, instead of lack of conservation. We humans are so predictable.


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