When the Roseburg Library opens its doors, get your hands on “The Worst Hard Time” by Timothy Egan. It is page-turner nonfiction that follows some tough, hard-luck people through the Dust Bowl. It is a story with surprising resonance today.
My parents grew up during those years of the Depression and the Dust Bowl. My dad farmed in Colorado, a part of the country deeply impacted by that natural, economic and human disaster. Maybe I wasn’t listening, or dad didn’t want to burden his kids with those stories, but I had no idea the scale of misery visited largely on the poorest, least-powerful people in this country in those years.
A compelling story that resonates today, it tells of hard working people trying to realize the American dream by plowing up the prairie and planting it in wheat — acre after acre of wheat. These people, boxed out of opportunity in the East and Far West, are encouraged to come to the southern plains. They are enticed to farm a dry buffalo grass prairie by a government that is at a minimum ignorant of how all that plowing will impact the cattlemen who already were there, the native people who had been promised this land seen as useless, the wildlife that had flourished in its harsh environment, and ultimately the farmers themselves, who would be ruined by their own success.
It is also the story of a government which belatedly took drastic but successful action to reclaim that now ruined land by creating soil protection districts, teaching new methods of farming and planting thousands of trees as wind breaks. That government action was opposed by hate filled politicians who blamed Jews or immigrants or nature for the disaster. It was opposed by honorable men who feared a federal government’s power. But those who recognized the scale and potential of this horror show were tenacious and dogged and won. Had they not been, the misery would have been even worse, and this country may have had an economy that never recovered.
We now face a worldwide disaster in climate change of even greater size and potential to cause misery to hardworking people everywhere. Once again it is largely the result of humans and of governments either ignorant of the price of complacency or willing to sacrifice the bulk of humanity for re-election, power or wealth.
We need leaders the equal of those who then took on all the forces that said “Do nothing,” or “Do less,” and through their courage and tenacity led this country out of the dark misery of the Dust Bowl. We need to support all those young people calling for a Green New Deal to match the New Deal of the 1930s. We need to have the grit of the Americans who lived through watching their children die of dust pneumonia. Americans who lost everything, surviving on wild game and pickled tumble weeds, and kept going. If they could suffer all that and not throw up their hands in despair so that we could enjoy all the opportunity and ease we have today, surely we can use less, drive less and vote more for leaders who recognize the catastrophe on the horizon. Somewhere all three Roosevelt’s, FDR, Teddy and Eleanor, are rooting for us to do just that.