'Hard times' is a relative term

"Between the earth and that sky, I felt erased, blotted out."— Willa Cather.

I tend to be a worry wart when it comes to the economy and our future. These are not Rockdale's finest hours with job loss and people tightening up. And on a national level I worry that the sheer size and spending of our federal government "fixes," coupled with questionable corporate bailouts, will run this country into the ground.

But I am reading a fascinating book right now that certainly gives me perspective and reason to be thankful for, yes, how good we have it right now.

"The Worst Hard Time," by Timothy Egan, describes the history of the Dust Bowl, what caused it and how people lived through it (most of them, anyhow).

The book describes a rugged people looking to make a living off an inhospitable land. No one was looking for a handout, though some were sucked in by unscrupulous marketers:

"Why, this wasteland could be England or Missouri, if plowed the right way. Brochures were distributed in Europe, the American South, and at major points of entry to the U.S.: '500,000 acres offered for sale as farm homes' and cheap, as well, the land selling for $13 an acre.

One real estate man from Iowa bought and sold pieces of the XIT Ranch, touting: "Riches in the soil, prosperity in the air, progress everywhere. Get a farm in Texas while land is cheap—where every man is a landlord!"

Some brochures had illustrations of Boise City, Oklahoma, with aged trees, artesian wells and large homes. Those who bought one of the 3,000 town lots, at $45 a pop, arrived to find nothing more than grassy plains with stakes in the ground. It was pure fiction.

Miles upon miles of native grasses, which had supported wild buffalo herds for hundreds of years, was plowed up in an attempt to ranch cattle or grow traditional crops in a part of the country where rains were scarce.

There were some quack farming claims as well, designed to combat the fact that rainfall averaged less than 20 inches a year, the threshold for crop growth.

They claimed that plowing up the land would increase moisture in the atmosphere and, thereby, produce more rains. "Rain follows the plow" was the slogan of the day. They claimed that fall rains could produce sprouts which would lie dormant through the winter, then get going again in the spring. They claimed one could use the dust for mulch—to hold the moisture in the ground.

Cattlemen tried to tell new farmers their own slogan: "Miles to water, miles to wood, and only six inches to hell."

For myself and others in my generation, this book can give perspective. We've never lived through a really hard time.

We early 40-somethings missed drafts for the big wars, and have only read about the Depression, though we take great pleasure in griping that our technology stocks and retirement funds have been devalued.

We can't imagine having to store up food for a winter, but we can gripe when milk goes to $3.50 a gallon. Even when gas prices spiked last summer, we didn't face the long lines people did in the 1970s.

It's a different kind of misery for sure, one which our ancestors probably give a smile and a wink, or a look of derision. Our pains are like paper cuts compared to what they have lived through.

Our drought is bad this year, possibly even historic. But imagine drought accompanied by a driving brown cloud making its way over the land.

One farmer's diary entry summed up the times: "I placed a thermometer out in the field beside a stalk of corn, it registered 140 degrees! No wonder things burn! A carnival is in town but I haven't been to one for a long time."

The book is dedicated to Egan's father, "...raised by his widowed mother during the darkest years of the Great Depression, four to a bedroom. Among many things he picked up from her was this skill: never let the kids see you sweat."

There's a lot to learn from this book, not the least of which is to marvel at everything we have today.

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2009-07-02 digital edition

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