Soil: Healing the Skin

Lessons from the US dust bowl

The agriculture that led to the 1930s dust bowl in North America is instructive because it happened over a relatively short period of recent history. There are records. In contrast, the loss of natural vegetation and the development of agriculture in Britain and Ireland happened over several thousand years, for most of which there is no written record.

The Dust Bowl was well documented. The science of soil was developing and predicted the events to come. Photographers including Arthur Rothstein and Dorothea Lange recorded the human suffering and the power of the storms. The singer-traveller Woody Guthrie wrote and recorded songs about the times, then almost 80 years later Ken Burns made a classic documentary.

The US Dust Bowl is a lesson. The need to conserve soil was well recognised by scientific study and promoted in the preceding decade. The science was disregarded by politics and ignored for profit. Here’s an extract from the Ken Burns web site (links below):

“It was the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history—in which the heedless actions of thousands of individual farmers, encouraged by their government and influenced by global markets, resulted in a collective tragedy that nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation.”

US Soil Conservation Science

In 1928, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) published the bulletin by HH Bennett and WR Chapline: Soil erosion a National menace. Bennett covered general aspects of water erosion and gives many examples from  cropped land while Chapline covered grazing lands.

The USDA’s knowledge of soil erosion and promotion of best practice was largely ignored. It took disasters like the Dust Bowl to make politicians and people realise. In the following decades, the scientific knowledge of soil increased. Science was able to predict the soil’s capacity to support vegetation,  hold and give up water and to regulate the earth’s temperature and solar radiation balance.

Bennett’s figures are dazzling. Ten inches of topsoil lost in 30 years in one area. He is critical of farmers who do not seem to apprehend the process, despite decreasing yields, at least until subsoil or rock begins to appear in their fields as their soil is washed away. From an experiment, he estimates that a 7-inch layer or topsoil would be removed in 24 years from tilled field compared to 3,500 years from a grassed field. In another area, silty, infertile soil is washed downhill to cover fertile soil. Soils from areas of low rainfall also suffer. He describes droughted soil having a ‘fluffy loosened’ texture, easily moved by surface rainwash – a ‘liquid’ soil. He warns repeatedly:

“As a nation we are doing very little to abate the evil effects of erosion .. … There is necessity for a tremendous national awakening to the need for action in bettering our agricultural practices in this connection, and the need is immediate.”

And wonders that he has to state:

“…a very large part of this impoverishment and wastage has taken place since the clearing of the forests, the breaking of the prairie sod, and the overgrazing of pasture lands.”

And he concludes that current attempts to check the loss are ‘an infinitesimal part of what should be done’.

Chapline tells a similar story, but adds forest fires, started or uncontrolled by humans, to the list of destructive agents. In fact, he rates it the worst, giving an example of a single fire in 1910 that burned the grass from an area 100 miles long and 30 miles wide. The fires burn the vegetation. The layer  of ash and charred topsoil is then ready to be washed down the slope at the first rain.

Overgrazing compounds the problem: the thickness of vegetation reduced, the soil exposed by trampling, dust clouds rising from moving herds. Experiments had defined the effects:  thinning of the vegetative cover and the wearing away of humus layers reduced the capacity of soil to hold water  and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Even if the soil remains in position, its fertility is lost. The human and biophysical processes leading to loss of vegetation and soil erosion are no different today and apply in any part of the world, including Scotland.

Chapline’s (and Bennett’s) remedies include – let the vegetation reestablish, regulate grazing, protect against fire, and where things are really bad, engineer the ground with terraces and bunds, and sow or plant suitable species in formations that retain and remake soil. All this was known, yet a few years later – the Great Dust Bowl.

Woody Guthrie’s Songs

Woody Guthrie wrote a set of songs on life in the US dust bowl. His performances  were published by Folkways Records as a vinyl long-playing record (LP). Here are some of the words from The Great Dust Storm:

On the 14 day of April / Of 1935, there struck / The worst of dust storms / That ever filled the sky.

and later in the same song …

We saw outside our window / Where wheatfields they had grown, / Was now a rippling ocean / Of dust the wind had blown.

The record cover (right, scanned from author’s own copy) is a photograph of a group of three people, a man and two children, walking past a shack and posts that are being buried in dust. Not credited on the LP, but by Arthur Rothstein, taken 1936, it is one of many images commissioned to record the story of the dust bowl.

Folkways included a paper insert of comments by the performer, the words of the songs, some further images and an extract from a book The Story of Plants by John Asch published in 1948. Woody Guthrie’s notes were dated ‘later days of May, 1950’.  He writes:

“I rolled a ways with experts of every kind. I stood a while, I rode a while, I talked a mite with young and old weather birds, about too much or not enough water, too much wind or not enough wind, too much mud or not enough mud, too much work or not enough work, too much money or not enough money, too much of everything and not enough of nothing. ”

Of the human cost …

“I heard folks talk and cry about the dust storms all out across our 16 middlewest states. I saw that lost gone look on their faces when they told me the government didn’t follow the plan of FDR and so our land is still a dustbowl hit by dust-storms and the duststorms are getting higher  and wilder and meaner, and the hearts of the people are sickly worried.

Of disease and twisters … “No job, low pay, high prices, higher taxes, bum houses, slummy houses. Great diseases are running and great sores are spreading down across our map and the duststorms and the cyclone and the dirty winds and the twisters ride high and wide, low across our whole land. Government experts tell me these dusters will get a lot worse.”

Has it really gone? …

“The old dustbowl is still there, and that high dirt-wind is still there. the government didn’t fix that and the Congress couldn’t put a stop to it. Nobody tried very hard.”

[FDR is Franklin D Roosevelt who not long into his presidency initiated a plan for rehabilitation of the dust bowl lands.]

John Asch’s words are reproduced directly from the LP insert.

Of particular significance is the final paragraph, notably that wetter than average years lure farming into growing crops with high demand for water and other resources. In drier years the same crops fail and the land is impoverished. The cycle is repeated elsewhere: the spread of maize in dryland Africa and of wheat in Australia.

Ken Burns Film: The Dust Bowl

The filmmaker Ken Burns made a four-hour TV documentary on the Dust Bowl, first aired in 2012. Links are given below to the Ken Burns web site and also the PBS entry which offers a summary on the Legacy page. Here are some extracts from The Great Plow-up:

“In the 1910s and 1920s the southern Plains was “the last frontier of agriculture” according to the government, when rising wheat prices, a war in Europe, a series of unusually wet years, and generous federal farm policies created a land boom – the Great Plow-Up that turned 5.2 million acres of thick native grassland into wheat fields. Newcomers rushed in and towns sprang up overnight.

And here’s a term – suitcase farmers – which some might wish to compare with  Scotland’s ‘slipper’ farmers.

As the nation sank into the Depression and wheat prices plummeted from $2 a bushel to 40 cents, farmers responded by tearing up even more prairie sod in hopes of harvesting bumper crops. When prices fell even further, the “suitcase farmers” who had moved in for quick profits simply abandoned their fields. Huge swaths of eight states, from the Dakotas to Texas and New Mexico, where native grasses had evolved over thousands of years to create a delicate equilibrium with the wild weather swings of the Plains, now lay naked and exposed.”

The tale continues: eight years of drought; dust storms became commonplace; crops were covered, houses buried. Then the government’s response – forming a Civilian Conservation Corps to plant shelter belts, encouraging ‘new’ techniques like contour ploughing, and in extremes the purchase of land and its restoration with grass.

What a lesson! And it’s not over yet – to get an idea of continuing slow (chronic) loss of soil, check any lowland rivulet or stream in Britain – if it’s brown, it’s erosion.

Sources, references, links

The US Soil Erosion Service

Bennett HH, Chapline WR. 1928. Soil erosion a national menace. Circular No. 33, United States Department of Agriculture.  A technical article warning of erosion in the USA before the main dust bowl years. Available online from several sources, some offering a downloadable pdf: search ‘Bennett’ + ‘soil erosion’ + ‘1928’.

Hugh Hammond Bennett and the Creation of the  Soil Erosion Service at the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Dust Bowl Ballads

Dust Bowl Ballads by Woody Guthrie was originally published by Folkways Records, Album No FH5212, 1964. Reissued as a CD and download, and available from Smithsonian Folkways http://www.folkways.si.edu.

John Asch. 1948. The story of plants. Illustrated by Tabea Hofmann. Publisher: Putnam’s Sons, 407 pages or thereabouts. Text from the book was used on the insert to the Folkways record.

Images reproduced here are scanned directly from an LP bought and owned by GS.

Photographs, film, art, novel

The Dust Bowl – a 2012 film by Ken Burns: profiled on highly informative  PBS web site – perhaps begin there with  Photo gallery and Legacy. Then more information and a trailer at kenburns.com.

Nature Conservancy (US) article When the dust settled with images and slideshow of the dustbowl, opening with some of Woody Guthrie’s best lines. Note: article no longer accessible 2 February 2010 but a search may lead to some commentaries on the article.

Artists’ impression of the Dust Bowl, including lithographs of TH Benton. See Art from the Dustbowl and The Era of the Dust Bowl.

Steinbeck J. 1939. The grapes of wrath. (A novel about a family’s experiences and losses in the dust bowl).

Examples of recent reports of a new dust bowl

Smithsonian Magazine: Are we headed for another dust bowl?

National Geographic: Parched: a new dust bowl forms in the heartland

Yale Climate Connections: Avoiding a second dust bowl across the US, and US’s 1930s Dust Bowl worst in a millenium.

Author/contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk or geoff.squire@outlook.com. A shorter version of this page on the Dust Bowl by the same author was first published on the Living Field web site in 2016 Dust Bowl Ballads.