Please note that the poems and essays on this site are copyright and may not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Let It Come Down (The Dust Bowl)


One of South Dakota's "Black Blizzards": photographer unknown, 1934 (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)

The dust rose up over us in a solid wall like black snow

Dust storm approaching Spearman, Texas, April 14, 1935: photographer unknown, 1935 (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)

Life never again to be the same

Kodak view of dust storm, Baca,Colorado, Easter Sunday 1935
: photo by N.R. Stone, 1935 (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)

The drifts covering everything -- was this our judgment?

Soil blown by "dust bowl" winds piles up in large drifts near Liberal, Kansas: photo by Arthur Rothstein, March 1936 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)

Nothing left to say -- our fate?
The winds of the "dust bowl" have piled up in large drifts of soil around this farmer's barn near Liberal, Kansas: photo by Arthur Rothstein, March 1936 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)

A choked throat, no word to be spoken

Abandoned farm in the dust bowl area of Oklahoma: photo by Arthur Rothstein, April 1936 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)

Dead air stirring restlessly in space

Abandoned farm in the dust bowl area of Oklahoma:
photo by Arthur Rothstein, April 1936
(Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)

The voice of a time before we were born

Sand drifts along fence,
Dust Bowl, north of Dalhart, Texas: photo by Dorothea Lange, June 1938 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)

Wind that spills the soil over the section divides

Sign, Pinal County, Arizona, The name "Dust Bowl" is reminiscent of home to the agricultural laborers of the region, many of whom come from the Dust Bowl sections of Texas and Oklahoma: photo by Russell Lee, February 1942 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)


manik sharma said...

the dust bowl years as they are called(if i correctly remember)...."black snow" is would have been those times....

in the last photograph the signboard at the left bottom reads SUN-MON ..what would that imply ??

we often surmise ourselves as smart organisms but often nature slams in our faces....the ultimate confronting knowledge that we do not rule this planet....

although we build and rebuild as mankind has always done ....and keep fighting.....

Mariana Soffer said...

It has been quite a while I did not have the chance of stepping into this beautiful place. Very nice post, the pictures are amazing and the words/sentences are great company to them here.
Take care TC

TC said...


It's great to hear from you. Sorry to have been "out of circulation" -- perdoname.


The black snow is e'er upon us.

Sun.-Mon., on the billboard, signifies Sunday-Monday, the days on which the movie would be showing.

Among the cultural ironies of the signage -- captured by the great FSA photographer Russell Lee -- is the fact that a movie which takes place in a dense jungle, starring a fellow who was known as a swimmer, should be playing in the midst of a desert.

Johnny Weissmüller was known first for his water skills.

He was the child of ethnic German/Romanian immigrants to the US. As a child he contracted polio. To rehabilitate himself he took up swimming. He became a lifeguard at a beach in Chicago, where he was "discovered". He broke world records and won Olympic gold medals.

He developed other skills, in particular a curious ululating yodel. Thus was born Tarzan.

It is reputed that on a trip to Cuba he was surrounded by revolutionary guerillas. He let out one of his famous yodels. As the story goes, the revolutionaries paused a moment, exclaimed "Tarzan!", and embraced him.

There was no Dust Bowl for Tarzan.

He had five wives, lived in Bel Air and built for himself the longest swimming pool in the world, a snaking 300-foot pool that if tapped by pipelines probably could have irrigated Oklahoma.

Anonymous said...

Sitting in a Starbucks on East 57th Street in Manhattan, I felt overwhelmed as the top photo came into resolution and I could read the "black blizzard" caption. How can "mere" words meet, comprehend and add some sense of understanding to images like these? The Easter Sunday image haunts, obviously, just because Easter isn't supposed to be like that. I wonder what Russell Lee thought when he captured the Dust Bowl Theater shot?



Amazing to see these -- where are we? Worlds away, from Curtis there in Starbucks on 57th Street to here, seeing orange circle of sun rising through trees above ridge. . . .

TC said...

Well, for a moment anyway, Steve, I think we're on the same page.

Curtis, the mind of Russell Lee, like the minds of some of these other great FSA historical photographers, has been a matter of wonder to me, as well. There's nothing like looking at fifty thousand thumbnails to excite curiosity about what was going on behind the eyes of the person who took the picture. The more one looks, the more clearly one can hear a kind of silent individual voice articulating the motive of the image.

I think Lee's tours of the interior and neglected sections of the country, equally with John Vachon's though in a very different way, bespeak the approach of an artist who is always looking for the soul in a land that only intermittently contains a spiritual element... but, in its silences and spaces, seems never to cease to call out for one.

But that was then...

TC said...

Curtis, about the "overwhelming" aspect of that Easter Sunday Dust storm of April 14, 1935, I imagine that if something of that magnitude were to occur in the charged brink-of-religious-mania atmosphere of the present Depression, it would be seen as having End of the World written all over it.

In fact it changed things in America forever. It was a few days after that climactic event (which followed weeks of similar, smaller storms) that Dorothea Lange, driving down the Central Valley to take pictures of migrant camps, encountered the first "blown-out" refugees. After that time, as she pointed out, this would become a migratory nation, at least in the interior stretches.

The Easter Sunday storm across the prairie seems to have been understood dimly in the swirling nightmare of the moment, and more clearly as the days went on, as an event of biblical dimension.

A bit of context:

"By 24 March [1935] southeastern Colorado and western Kansas had seen twelve consecutive days of dust storms, but there was worse to come. Near the end of March a new duster swept across the southern plains, destroying one-half the wheat crop in Kansas, one-quarter of it in Oklahoma, and all of it in Nebraska—5 million acres blown out. The storm carried away from the plains twice as much earth as men and machines had scooped out to make the Panama Canal, depositing it once again over the East Coast states and the Atlantic Ocean. Then the wind slackened off a bit, gathering strength, as it were, for the spectacular finale of that unusual spring season—Black Sunday, 14 April.

"Dawn came clear and rosy all across the plains that day. By noon the skies were so fresh and blue that people could not remain indoors; they remembered how many jobs they had been postponing, and with a revived spirit they rushed outside to get them done. They went on picnics, planted gardens, repaired henhouses, attended funerals, drove to the neighbors for a visit. In mid-afternoon the summery air rapidly turned colder, falling as many as 50 degrees in a few hours, and the people noticed then that the yards were full of birds nervously fluttering and chattering—and more were arriving every moment, as though fleeing from some unseen enemy. Suddenly there appeared on the northern horizon a black blizzard, moving toward them; there was no sound, no wind, nothing but an immense "boogery" cloud." — Donald Worster, Dust Bowl The Southern Plains in the 1930s

TC said...

And the words of an eyewitness, about the April 14 event:

"I lived six miles southeast of Farwell, Texas. The worst [dust storm] I remember occurred when I was about four years old. I still remember that day. I can replay scenes now in my mind. I did not sense fear but awesomeness. It was something you experience. I can describe it but you miss the awesomeness of the whole thing.

"The sand got pretty close to us before the wind started. The front was just a few miles away when the wind got very strong. I remember seeing a mother hen and her little chickens in the yard. she was trying to get all her chicks under her wings to protect them. She knew danger was at hand. She finally succeeded getting them all hidden under her fluffed-up feathers. That seems to be a very intelligent mother hen except she made one big mistake. She turned her back to the wind and it caught her feathers. She and the little chicks went flying across the yard. I do not know if my parents ever found them. Most of the chickens would have been blown away but most all of them went to roost in the chicken house. The reason was probably because it became so dark they thought it was night.

"Now about the awesome dirt front. It was approaching us from, I guess it was the west, rolling over us. Being that young it is hard to know if my measurements are correct but I would guess it was 500 to 1000 feet high. It was dark reddish/brown, the color of the soil in that area. It was so dense the sun did not shine through it. It became about eighty percent dark once it rolled over us. It was rolling over us like you were under a waterfall that came from the top all the way to the ground in a circular fashion. If you were an ant and the street very slowly rolled over you, you would get the idea of how the front of the dust storm looked to me. By the time it started engulfing us we went into the house. I have no memory beyond that time."

— Howard Ford

aditya said...

Moving words hanging to these pictures.

Dead air stirring restlessly in space.

Like Curtis Roberts says, I too wonder what Russell Lee would have had felt while clicking the Tarzan shot.

The acuity with which you sense and assess the Tarzan in question is tremendously honest and relieving.

There was no Dust Bowl for Tarzan.

Is death so full of life as life
Is so full of death?

TC said...

Aditya, great to hear from you always, and forgive me for not getting out more... a time of trials. But, visiting soon.

I don't yet know for sure, but I fear that death may be as empty as that desert... or emptier still, with no Tarzan.

So for the moment it's hanging on to life, "for dear life", as they used to say.

manik sharma said...

my question was inspired by the swatch of irony painted on the signboard so beautifully u have now explained tom....

death i feel is definitive...the end ...hence the fear of it...we probably cower to certainties more than we do to things that come unanticipated ....take in in the stride ....and hope for a better day.....but since aditya asks here....death probably would not be full of life....or it would have been payed for and purchased a long time ago....

TC said...

Manik, that's an interesting way of looking at it.

Death may be the one thing in life that is never a bought situation.

manik sharma said...

exactly tom....u formalized it better than i was trying to.....

Elmo St. Rose said...

The toll from respiratory illness
in the dust storms was horrific.

A child who cannot stop wheezing

We are better able to respond now
and the soil conservation programs
have worked.

The last major public dust storm was
inhaled on 9/11 at the World Trade
Center site....a 7 billion dollar
bill before congress now to help
with health care related to that
event...primarily respiratory.

TC said...


It always helps to have a doctor in the house.

Your account of the health effects is substantiated by anecdotal testimony of the victims.

Some brief passages from Wheatheart of the Plains, a 1985 book that addresses the impact of the storms in the Texas Panhandle farming town of Perryton:

"On April 14, 1935, around four or five in the evening, a bad dust storm approached the area....Dave was on his way home from the neighbors. It became pitch black, so dark you couldn't see your hand in front of your eyes. Dave had to crawl home a half mile in the bar ditch...and got dust pneumonia afterwards..." — Barbara A. Unruh

"[We] were driving home ... on this beautiful Sunday afternoon. [We] were caught out in the approaching storm. There were thousands of frightened birds flying, rabbits running, and tumbleweeds blowing ahead of the dirt cloud.

"Grandfather Carter told everyone to be sure the windows were rolled up tight as possible. Mother poured water from Norman's bottle onto a diaper and held it over the baby's face and gave him his milk bottle so he wouldn't cry and breathe more dust. We could see the cloud roll upon us as one might helplessly watch an approaching mountain avalanche..." — Kathleen (Allen) Lewis

And a news dispatch about that dark day from Boise City, Texas:

"One teenager was caught outside and fell to the ground on his belly in a vain attempt to crawl back to the house. Dust got under his eyelids. He covered his head, closed his eyes and waited it out. When his parents found him his eyes were caked closed with dust. He was blinded in both eyes and would never see again.

"Cattle would not know what to do and would run around in circles. Eventually the dirt would accumulate in their lungs and they would collapse and die with their lungs full of mud. Roosters would die because it became so dark they thought it was night and went to sleep..."

On Black Monday, April 15, as the skies cleared and the extent of the damage became evident, a reporter coined that term which has stuck in the craw of history much as silt clogged the lungs of anything trying to breathe in the midst of the black blizzards...

"Dust Bowl".

manik sharma said...

frightening the experiences that you quote...."Dave had to crawl home a half mile in the bar ditch" just beyond nightmares...