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Echos of Dust Bowl Days

My parents were of the generation Tom Brokaw labelled America’s “Greatest Generation”. Many of their earliest adolescent memories came out of the depression years of the 1930’s, a time of extreme poverty compounded by a multi-year drought, a time my Dad always referred to as “the Dirty Thirties”. To quote from the Ken Burns documentary, “The Dust Bowl”:


As the nation sank into the Depression and wheat prices plummeted from $2 a bushel to 40 cents, farmers responded by tearing up even more prairie sod in hopes of harvesting bumper crops. When prices fell even further, the "suitcase farmers" who had moved in for quick profits simply abandoned their fields. Huge swaths of eight states, from the Dakotas to Texas and New Mexico, where native grasses had evolved over thousands of years to create a delicate equilibrium with the wild weather swings of the Plains, now lay naked and exposed.


Then the drought began. It would last eight straight years. Dust storms, at first considered freaks of nature, became commonplace. Static charges in the air shorted-out automobiles on the road; men avoided shaking hands for fear of shocks that could knock a person to the ground. Huge drifts of dirt buried pastures and barnyards, piled up in front of homesteaders' doors, came in through window cracks and sifted down from ceilings.


Some 850 million tons of topsoil blew away in 1935 alone. "Unless something is done," a government report predicted, "the western plains will be as arid as the Arabian desert."


Fortunately, something was done. The government bought up land to restore to native grasses, it employed a Civilian Conservation Corps to plant rows of trees to slow the winds and incentivized farmers to try new techniques to minimize erosion and preserve the soil. Actions taken along with the return of wetter years during the forties, brought the land back again and those farmers that managed to hold on through the tough years thrived.


Mom and Dad wouldn’t have thought of themselves as “conservationists”, but the difficult years of the 1930’s left its mark on their thrifty approach to life. When I was growing up, Mom would regularly shoo us out of the house to use the outhouse to save the electricity required to pump the well water needed to flush the indoor facilities. Much of our food came from the garden, fresh when in-season or from the jars home canned the previous summer. There was the freezer full of meat of course, mostly beef, pork, and chicken raised at home, sometimes fed from the table scraps that in this day and age end up in the landfills that dot the landscape around our cities and towns. By their actions, my parents demonstrated respect for the land and the weather, planting corn or wheat where it made sense but leaving most of the land to the prairie grasses for the cow herd to graze during the warmer months.


Sometimes I wonder if the recent wild swings in weather would have evoked in my parents a sense of déjà vu, taking them back to those dust bowl days, and wondering if the wet years would ever return again like they did in the 40’s. I know that Dad would have noticed the warm almost snowless winters and the longer dry periods punctuated by the occasional flooding downpours that serve mostly to wash away more and more of the precious topsoil.


Some will say that only God can fix the climate and I suppose there were many who thought the same thing during the 1930’s. But it was the farmers wielding their machines without a deep understanding of the earth and the environment who plowed up the native prairies during the 20’s and 30’s, and like many events in history, it’s hard to see the direct influence of God in that particular episode.


So now, we’re facing climate issues that go way beyond the regional problems that American farmers faced almost 100 years ago. This time, by all accounts, changing the direction of history is going to take more time and a lot more effort by all concerned, governments, industries, and even churches like First Presbyterian of Valparaiso.


Towards that end, I recently agreed to join a special church sub-committee charged with investigating more efficient and/or renewable energy options as we plan the needed upgrades to our building HVAC systems. As part of that effort, session has recently approved a rooftop solar installation for FPCV which will substantially reduce our electricity demands (and our utility bills) going forward. You may also begin to hear more discussion of other projects such as butterfly gardens and native prairie grasses as part of our Faith Formation activities this spring. Please don’t hesitate to let us know if you’re interested in joining in as we work towards becoming a Presbyterian “Earth Care” congregation.


Peace be with you in this sacred season of Lent,



Jerry Kahrs


“They ravaged neither the rivers nor the forest, and if they irrigated, they took as little water as would serve their needs. The land and all that it bore they treated with consideration; not attempting to improve it, they never desecrated it.”

― Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop


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