I've been captivated by "The Dust Bowl," Ken Burns' illuminating TV documentary that ran for two nights on PBS last week. In the 1930s a decade-long drought combined with poor farming practices created an environmental catastrophe that turned huge swaths of the middle of our nation into deserts.
The documentary chronicling that era is classic Burns storytelling. It includes black-and-white photographs and rare footage of dust storms from the period. There are haunting images of farmers in bib overalls standing amid dead cattle, of children in gas masks and goggles, of farm wives struggling to coax something for their families to eat from kitchen gardens buried in sand. It includes the stories of some so beaten down that they committed suicide and others who fled their devastated farms for new lives in California.
Most impressive for me were the firsthand accounts of people who lived through those difficult times their Midwestern twangs and southern drawls, their no- nonsense, salt-of-the-earth storytelling, their resilience and work ethic. They remind me of my in-laws, my husband's family.
During the Dust Bowl years they were ranchers and cotton farmers on the rolling plains near Camp Springs in Scurry County, Texas, just south of the Texas Panhandle. Dan Fields, my husband's uncle, is the unofficial family chronicler. In a book of short stories he published in 2006, "The Day They Killed the Cows & Other Memories of a West Texas Pioneer," he described the dust storms he witnessed as a child, how the blowing dirt would appear high on the horizon in the morning and slowly move closer and closer, eventually engulfing them.
"While we worked outside, we watched carefully as the dust approached so that we were able to get home before it arrived. It drifted in like a black cloud as fine as face powder. It settled on everything. Sometimes it became so dark during the day, the chickens went to roost, and we were forced to light the old coal oil lamps which lighted our house."
Fields' most searing memory was the day they killed the cows. It was 1934. The cattle were starving. There was barely enough feed for the teams of mules and horses they used to farm, Dan recalled, and nothing for the cattle. In an effort to help the farmers and stabilize beef prices, officials with the Roosevelt administration's Emergency Drought Relief Program, decided to thin the herds. Hundreds of thousands of cattle were shot. The government paid ranchers $12 for every cow that had to be killed and $4 for calves. Fields was 7 when his father and older brothers, including J.C., my father-in-law, drove the family's small herd to a neighbor's farm where the shooter was waiting. The boy perched on a shed and watched the slaughter.
"The government man went to his car and took out a pump-action .22-caliber rifle and lots of shells. He carefully loaded his gun, smoked a cigarette, and stepped into the corral as casually as if he were going for a walk. There were a dozen people watching, but the only sound was a cow bawling for her calf. Every eye was glued on the shooter. He was standing right below me; and I jumped when he chambered a shell into the gun. He raised the rifle a sharp crack rang out; a cow crumpled and fell on her side, legs jerking. Three seconds later, bang! Another cow went down and another and another and another!"
Two years after they shot the cows, my husband's parents, J.C. and Hazel Fields, pulled up stakes and left Texas for good. It was 1936.
They were barely out of their teens. The cotton crop they had planted on rented land that year had dried up. They knew they weren't going to make any money, so J.C. left his mare, mule and a mule colt with his father. He and Hazel and her sister loaded their possessions into a Model-A Ford coupe and headed out to California. They harvested fruit in the Central Valley near Porterville for a few weeks. Picking grapes in California was a lark compared with pulling cotton in Texas. But the young couple quickly moved on to San Luis Obispo, where J.C. got a job with Southern Pacific Railroad. The family returned to Texas most summers to visit but never to live.
My husband, our daughter and I went back to Texas this fall to visit my husband's Uncle Dan, the gifted storyteller. Retired from ranching, cotton farming, trucking and cotton ginning, he lives quietly in Lubbock. His son is a major operative in the cotton export business, supervising the shipment of Texas cotton onto container ships bound for China. Dan's nephew, my husband's cousin, still farms 7,000 acres of ranch and cotton land not far from where Uncle Dan watched the dust blow as a child.
The area has fewer people than it did back in the '30s. The mules are long gone, replaced by huge combines with air-conditioned cabs and computerized controls. The cotton is planted in contours and terraced to guard against erosion, one of the positive legacies of the Dust Bowl era.
Texas is in the midst of another drought, but farmers are less dependent on the vagaries of weather these days. My husband's cousin runs a government-backed crop insurance business. Despite the lack of rain that produced another "sorry crop" this year and last, the cousin is doing just fine, thank you very much.
But new environmental dangers lurk. Scores of drilling rigs dot the landscape. A new oil boom is just getting under way. The drills go down 750 feet, then turn sideways, shattering rich deposits of oil-bearing shale. The controversial extraction technique, called fracking, is a water-intensive process that consumes millions of gallons from a vast underground aquifer.
Some locals worry that it will dry up or contaminate the underground springs that feed a few shallow lakes. But the lure of oil wealth is such that few are willing to stand in the way.
Like their fathers and grandfathers from the Dust Bowl era, they scan the horizon waiting for the drought to end and praying for rain to replenish their parched land again.