I’m nearly finished with Timothy Egan’s book The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the American Dust Bowl, and I highly recommend it, especially as it looks, increasingly, as if the Dust Bowl may be happening once again. (See this New York Times article–top emailed today.)
As with In the Heart of the Sea, I must confess that part of the pleasure of stories like this are the sense of relief that what is happening in the book isn’t currently happening to me. It’s not schadenfreude, exactly–I’m not enjoying the misfortunes of others, quite the opposite, actually–it’s more that such stories remind me that the small stuff that worries or bothers me is exactly that. Or, as a friend said in a recent email:
“reading of hideous events is very therapeutic. One inevitably realizes that the usual stuff we deal with really isn’t all that bad. Compared to sucking marrow out of a friend’s bones, even my worst days are pretty good…”
The thing that gets me about The Worst Hard Time, though, is that the Dust Bowl wasn’t just a ‘natural’ disaster. It was a disaster naturally arising from turning grassland–perfect pasture for bison, and, later, cattle–into cropland. In other words, it’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of being too presumptuous in using and abusing the earth.
(And some good insight into American politics and business. Oh, for another FDR!)
Woody Guthrie wrote “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You” after seeing an approaching dust storm while working in a panhandle root beer/hooch stand. He, like many others, thought these storms were probably signalling the end of the world. With that in mind, the song actually seems pretty cheery.
Which is, in a twisted way, how reading this book has been for me.