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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Air Date: Week of

This week, facts about...the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, as documented in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" and in songs by Woody Guthrie.



MAN: Listen. That wind's fixing to do something.

MAN 2: Sure it is. Always is this time of year.

CURWOOD: The year was 1939, and John Steinbeck had just published The Grapes of Wrath. The Depression-era classic which was quickly made into a film tells the story of the Joads', a family of sharecroppers forced to abandon their Oklahoma farm during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.


MAN: Who done it?

MAN 2: Listen. That's the who a done it. The dusters. They started it, anyways. Blowin' like this year after year, blowin' the land away, blowin' the crops away! Blowin' us away now.

CURWOOD: You could say the Great Dust Bowl was a disaster waiting to happen. Its seeds were planted during the nation's agricultural expansion in the early 20th century, when farmers plowed up acre after acre of the arid grasslands of the southern Great Plains to sow wheat. When an 8-year-long drought hit in 1931, the wheat plants died, and there was nothing to hold the soil in place. High winds stirred up violent, rainless storms called black blizzards. In his novel Steinbeck describes the inescapable dust: "Men and women huddled in their houses, and they tied handkerchiefs over their noses when they went out, and wore goggles to protect their eyes. When the night came again it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down, and the window lights could not even spread beyond their own yards."

(Banjo and harmonica)

CURWOOD: What Steinbeck did in print, Woody Guthrie did in song, chronicling the ecological devastation of the dust storms and the resulting migration of thousands of families chasing the often empty promise of work in California.

GUTHRIE: (Singing) Lots of folks back east they say is leaving home every day, and beating a hot old dusty way to the California line. Cross the desert sands they roll, trying to get out of the old Dust Bowl, they think they're gong to a sugar bowl but here's what they find. The police at the port of entry saying, "You're number 15,000 for today." Oh, if you ain't got the do-re-mi, friend, you ain't got the do-re-mi. You better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee. California's a Garden of Eden. A paradise to live in or see. But believe it or not, you won't find it so hot if you ain't got the do-re-mi...

CURWOOD: Soil erosion and shifting climate continue to threaten agricultural land. In the spring of 1996, strong winds eroded soil throughout the Great Plains after a fire destroyed crops in that region. By one estimate, annual soil loss from wind erosion alone in parts of the country can reach two and a half tons per acre. This year, in many areas, a scorching drought is withering crops once again, while modern-day troubadours continue to document hard times on the farm.


SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Hey there, mister, can you tell me what happened to the seeds I've sown? Can you give me a reason, sir, as to why they've never grown? They just blow around from town to town till they're back out on these fields. And where they fall from my hand back into the dirt of this hard land.

CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Bruce Springsteen and the Living on Earth Almanac.



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