Timothy Egan – “The Worst Hard Time”

Worst Hard Time

In case there was any question, we are not always in charge.

Katrina. Sandy. And just in the last few years: tornados in Oklahoma, floods here in Colorado, the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake off Japan (and resulting tsunami) and the forest fires marring the summers all over the western United States from the Black Forest near Colorado Springs (500 homes up in flames) to the Big Rim fire around Yosemite National Park.

To underscore the power of Mother Nature, I’d make “The Worst Hard Time” required reading in every high school. She runs the show here on Planet Earth. And human greed can make it worse.

“The Worst Hard Time” is about the gritty, dirty detail of the “black blizzards,” what the book calls the “nation’s worst prolonged environmental disaster.”

Some facts are almost too hard to imagine.

The worst storm during the Dust Bowl was recorded on Sunday, April 14, 1935. Black Sunday.

From the book:

  • The storm carried twice as much dirt as was dug out of the earth to create the Panama Canal.
  • The canal took seven years to dig; the storm lasted a single afternoon.
  • More than 300,000 tons of Great Plains topsoil was airborne that day.

And what was the spark that lit this dirt bomb?

Settlement, encouraged by federal enticements. Plowing, encouraged by false advertising. Development, encouraged by false advertising. “Fraud,” to quote Egan. Fraud—all around.

“The Worst Hard Time” focuses considerably on Boise City, Oklahoma but even the town’s name, Egan points, was a lie. The town was sold as a place with trees (le bois) but there were none.

The result, in short was disaster. Dust storms bloomed ten thousand feet in the sky, choking any living thing with a set of lungs. The “dusters” blasted paint off buildings. Dirt dunes mushroomed. Grasshoppers invaded. Static electricity was a constant threat. Pneumonia took the lives of children and livestock suffocated on dirt. Egan’s details are powerful and the conditions were beyond unbearable—although, somehow, a few hung on eating pickled tumbleweed and road kill.

Black Sunday 2The chapter on Black Sunday is jaw-dropping. A day that began “as smooth and light as the inside of an alabaster bowl” soon turns brutal. The duster that turned off the lights in Oklahoma started in the Dakotas. The dust storm headed south—a rarity. They usually moved east. The weather bureau was flooded with calls and questions. The weathermen, Egan notes, were as confused as the callers.

The storm headed to Oklahoma, carrying dirt from four states. Winds were clocked at 65 miles per hour. Egan’s writing is matter-of-fact. And vivid. The details are enough. He populates the story with real men, women and children that give the epic tale a sense of scale—and panic. “Every spike of barbed-wire fence was glowing with electricity, channeling the energy of the storm. Ike and his friends were a few yards out when the dirt got them. It came quicker than most dusters and as deceptive because no wind was ahead of it. Not a sound, not a breeze, and then it was on top of them. They were slammed to the ground and engulfed by a wall, straight up and down, the dust abrasive and strong, boiling up, twisting.”

The dust reached Washington, D.C. thousands of miles away. It also reached the policy-makers themselves, who wondered about man’s role in the catastrophe.

The disaster portion of “The Worst Hard Time” is compelling—and so is the effort to put the broken wasteland back together again, led by a soil scientist who talked about conservation and who had the president’s ear and the ability to recommend policies that could help.

Help. Not fix—just help.

The Great Plains, as Egan reports, has never really recovered.

Nature is rough enough. Our actions can make it worse.

This week in Colorado a few major communities stood up and said “no thanks” to fracking. Citizens went to the polls and approved various measures to limit or ban the controversial drilling technique, which requires the use of dangerous chemicals and also requires enormous amounts of water in this semi-arid state.

They expressed their opinion despite reassurances from the governor and the energy industry that injecting the earth with chemicals is safe. The drain on water didn’t seem to be a central point of debate, but (despite this year’s floods) everyone knows the water supply is under stress on both sides of the Continental Divide. There are plenty of concerns about fracking—despite the surge in energy supply. From methane releases warming our already too-warm climate to the proximity that drilling is allowed near homes and schools, without consent.

Perhaps the citizens have their own opinions. Perhaps they have heard one too many misleading statements from the government or Big Energy. Maybe they’ve learned some lessons from “The Worst Hard Time.”

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2 responses to “Timothy Egan – “The Worst Hard Time”

  1. Well, I wanted to read the whole post, but it was taking too long to load. Hope you liked the post. I thought it was very powerful. Have you read any of his other books?

  2. I hope it finally loaded, Charles. Yes, I really enjoy Timothy Egan’s work. I read “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher” and reviewed it here http://wp.me/plqD1-pp including a Q & A with Tim. I also liked the book about the Big Burn and reviewed it on this site, too. Yes, loved ‘Worst Hard Time.’

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