The Dust Bowl

An Illustrated History, Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, Chronicle Books.

On April 14, 1935, an end-of-the-world-type dust storm turned day to night across much of the Great Plains. In Boise City, Oklahoma, Associated Press reporter Robert Geiger took shelter from this so-called “black blizzard,” and the next day filed a story that began: “Three little words — achingly familiar on a western farmer’s tongue — rule life today in the dust bowl of the continent…. If it rains …” It was the first time anyone used the term Dust Bowl, which would come to refer to a decade-long disaster that turned parts of five states into a dry wasteland, killed crops and livestock, threatened the respiratory health of millions, and led countless families to flee what had been the breadbasket of the nation.

In “The Dust Bowl: An Illustrated History” (Chronicle Books), Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns tell the story of how and why this ecological catastrophe happened. In the 1910s and ’20, American farmers plowed up millions of acres of grassland in hopes of making big profits on wheat. But when the Great Depression came wheat prices plunged, leading farmers to plow up even more land and to grow more wheat. Then came a drought that lasted eight years — and without native sod to prevent wind erosion and to hold the soil in place — massive black blizzards came one after another, including a May 1934 storm that originated on the northern plains but ultimately enveloped the eastern seaboard.

Notably, the book includes more than 300 photographs, many showing dust clouds descending upon the land or farmers contemplating a barren landscape. One particularly poignant picture captures a “rabbit drive,” in which men are seen clubbing wild rabbits to death, part of an effort to combat an explosion in the rabbit population, which farmers saw as a threat to the dwindling supply of food for their cattle.

In the early 1940s the Dust Bowl finally came to end, thanks to normal rainfall and the implementation of conservation practices. (Four million acres had been purchased by the government and permanently restored as grasslands.) 

In the final chapter Duncan and Burns question whether we have learned the core lesson of the Dust Bowl: Take care of the natural environment or pay the price. Some worry that the ongoing depletion of the Ogallala aquifer — an underground reservoir stretching from Nebraska to North Texas — could soon lead to another Dust Bowl. As historian Donald Worster concludes: “We know that it’s possible to turn from savannah to a stark desert and there’s no reason to think it can’t happen in the middle of North America.”