Saturday, 9 January 2010

The American dustbowl

On Sunday April 14 1935, after four years of drought, your family was at church. ‘Give us back our lush green land,’ you prayed, but that afternoon the worst of the black blizzards hit.

The house shook. Dust squeezed past the wet rags at the windows, filling the air. Anxiously you listened. Your father had gone into the biting blackness to settle the cattle. Finally he returned, choking, spitting up mud.

The pioneers had called your tree-less land the ‘Great American Desert’. Experts had warned the lack of crop rotation and deep ploughing would leave soil exposed to the wind. But the farmers hadn't listened.

People died from the dust, the rest began to starve. Proud, your father refused handouts, but soon he had no choice: seven failed harvests out of eight. He sold the cattle, watched them slaughtered. You packed your meagre belongings and left, not even bothering to close the door.

By 1940 2.5 million people had left, and in the next seven years another 5 million would leave, ending single-family farming in the American Great Plains.