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Friday, January 08, 2010

The indestructible soil

"The soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses," the Federal Bureau of Soils proclaimed as the grasslands were transformed. "It is one resource that cannot be exhausted, that cannot be used."

The above quote is take from The Worst Hard Time, a historical narrative of the 1930's dust bowl that devastated the Great Plains of the U.S. I started reading this just yesterday, and I highly recommend the book to anyone who enjoys reading history or to those interested in the ecological history of the U.S. Timothy Egan doesn't just narrate history, he creatively weaves together the voices of common citizens and their communities to tell the story of the destruction of one of the richest eco-systems in the U.S. and the subsequent consequences.

The Comanche, Apache, and other natives were driven off the southern Plains by force and through the extermination of the buffalo. Investors and speculators saw all of the free grass in the southern Plains and tried to turn the land into mass cattle ranches. However, the extreme temperatures and other factors led to a poor return on the investment. The investors wanted some return on their money and the governmental powers that be had a vested interest in populating the land, so no fabricated tale was too tall: they advertised the land for sale as farm land. Not enough rain? No problem. The rains will follow the plough.

So people bought the land and moved there to farm. With the advent of farming machinery, they tore up massive amounts of land, transforming the entirety of the southern plains from grasslands into wheat fields in the space of only about a decade. And for awhile, people got rich. Rain fell and the money rolled in.

The land was the constant. The soil was the absolute. It was indestructible and immutable. We could never exhaust it. Hubris had found fertile ground.

But then the rain didn't come....and then the winds began to turn up dust into thick, black storms of dirt.....wheat prices crashed and crops piled up for years at a time with no buyers.....ironically, many in other parts of the nation were starving....

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