ningerbil (ningerbil) wrote in 50bookchallenge,

Books 31 and 32

31. The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan. I really didn't know much about the Dust Bowl, which coincided with and exacerbated the Great Depression in the 1930s. I had always had the impression that this weather/environmental event was part bad luck, part human ignorance and that it was a miserable time for those living through it. After reading Egan's book, the Dust Bowl was about 10 percent bad luck in the form of a drought, and 90 percent humanity's hubris. And that's being generous to humanity. Also, from the pictures throughout and the first-account descriptions, this was not just uncomfortable, but deadly. One vet, who saw World War II, said the Dust Bowl was worse than combat. Children and the elderly died of dust pneumonia, where the fine particles would so line and inflame the lungs that it became perilous. One of the more heartbreaking accounts was a woman's description of losing her infant daughter to dust pneumonia. It didn't spare even the healthy - in another segment, a doctor bluntly tells an otherwise healthy man that he is stuffed with dust. That man died shortly afterwards. Livestock died, were autopsied and found with their insides so crammed with dirt that even if there was grass to eat, it could not have been absorbed into their bodies. On two occasions, the dust and dirt from the midwest blew into and coated the east coast, including New York and Washington. A Black Sunday account- the worst dust storm- an aviator who encountered it tried to fly over it. At 23,000 feet, she realized that would be impossible so she turned back around and sped as fast as she could towards safety. On this day, people reported not even being able to see their hands in front of their faces.
The whole phenomenon, as did most of the woes of the Great Depression, had its roots in the optimistic 1920s (and even before that, with The Great War). People were encouraged to migrate west to settle the now more or less empty lands and take up farming- the government even offered free train rides. Land was cheap and, with the Europe fighting (and later recovering from) the War, wheat was in high demand and wheat prices were high. A wheat farmer could make a huge profit for about a decade or so. The minority of voices that cautioned against the wholesale attempts at farming the arid grassland areas were ignored (it's a common theme- voices of reason always get muzzled when there is a buck to be made, and long history and the multitudes of lessons have not changed that). Combined with the bad luck of an unusually rainy decade (and yes, I mean bad luck- bad luck masquerading as good fortune), people flocked to the west to seek a new life. They tore up millions and millions of acres of grazing land and planted wheat and other crops. Due to the unusual amount of rain, some people even planted and had success with fruit trees.
Things started going sour at the end of the 1920s, when wheat prices started to plummet. To maintain their profits - or just to break even - farmers tore up more ground and planted even more crops. Then the rainy decade changed to that area's more typical dry nature. The Buffalo grasses and other native flora, which was used to such variations and could withstand drought, was pretty much gone. Left in its place was the more fragile wheat and food crops, which withered away, leaving only enormous tracts of uncovered and depleted land. The author states at the end that the area, even today, hasn't fully recovered. And thus the worst ecological disaster of this country's history was born.
There's a lot of good history and research; what makes this account come to life are the personal accounts, the stories of the people who lived through this time. It should be required reading -- not only in the schools, but among lawmakers as well.

32. The Johnstown Flood, by David McCullough. Another example of hubris in action. In 1889, a dam containing a large artificial lake- a lake created by a group of millionaires for fishing and boating- failed, sending huge amounts of water careening through the lower towns, killing more than 2,000 people (the exact total will never be known). From the first-hand accounts, it is amazing more didn't die, either from the flooding, the fire that raged afterwards in Johnstown, or from exposure or disease. The book includes maps (a bit fuzzy), illustrations from that time and many pictures that show the extent of the damage, which wiped out whole areas. I think one of the more haunting accounts (told by a couple people) was that there was so much debris being swept away, people couldn't even see the water at first, just the roofs, buildings, trees and other items swept up in that massive wall of water. McCullough's book outlines the history of the hunt club and the dam, the day before the flood and the aftermath. While there was some bad behavior, help efforts and rebuilding were far more prevalent. All in all, a good read, very educational.

Currently reading: The Last Empress, by Anchee Min, and Pioneer Girl by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

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