While others may not see it, those of us who live on the Great Plains — whether southern or northern — find a certain inherent beauty in the prairie. Yet what constitutes a significant portion of the plains today is to a great extent the result of a modern ecological disaster.
Here in the northern plains, you can still hear references to "the Dirty '30s." It is more commonly known throughout the country as "the Dust Bowl," a nightmare immortalized by the classic images captured by Dorthea Lange or other government photographers or Henry Fonda and the rest of the Joad family in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
As a child, I recall relatives talking about monstrous dust storms. Today, we have lost or are losing many of the people who survived that era. That is where Timothy Egan's award-winning The Worst Hard Time does what history writers really should do. He examines the causes and effects of the Dust Bowl not only with the knowledge hindsight brings but also through the eyes of those who lived through it and even those who did not survive it, economically or physically.
The Worst Hard Time, which won this year's National Book Award for non-fiction, focuses on the epicenter of the Dust Bowl — a stretch of high plains ranging from the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles through the southeastern corner of Colorado and the western half of Kansas up to the Nebraska border. Egan takes us into the lives of families in places like Dalhart, Texas, and Boise City, Oklahoma, the latter being almost smack in the center of what was known as "No Man's Land," the Oklahoma panhandle.
This was an area that for years prior to homesteading was known simply as the Great American Desert. In reality it was an ecological wonder, one in which the full range of nature's beauty and venom could be seen. "Anybody who lived in No Man's Land for long knew about nature's capricious power," Egan writes. "It was abusive, a beater, a snarling son of a bitch, and then it would forgive and give something back." The advance of white culture in the area also brought changes in land usage. Whereas the Native American inhabitants were more nomadic in nature, among the first to oust them on the southern prairies were those who fed cattle on the prairie grasses. They were followed by the homesteaders, who, arriving long after many other areas had been homesteaded, were more than happy to try to carve a living out of 160 acres of prairie by busting the sod to raise crops. But a confluence of events would turn those dreams into a national nightmare.