Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Dusty Epilogue

Roosevelt seems to have had an amazing, iconic ability to be at the right place at the right time. He arrived in Amarillo, TX, on July 11, 1938, to review firsthand the southern plains drought. 

It rained. The drought was broken.

Egan recounts how the President remained unfazed by the heavy rain as he rode in an open car to the review stand, stood bareheaded in the rain and gave his stump speech, using special leg braces that locked his knees so he could stand. It's no wonder that he was regarded as practically a demigod.

There are two passages that put paid to the story.

Only a handful of family farmers still work the homesteads of No Man's Land and the Texas Panhandle. To keep agribusiness going, a vast infrastructure of pumps and pipes reaches deep into the Ogallala Aquifer, the nation's biggest source of underground freshwater, drawing the water down eight times faster than nature can refill it.  The aquifer is a sponge, stretching from South Dakota to Texas, which filled up when glaciers melted abouth 15,000 years ago. It provides about 30 percent of the irrigation water in the United States. With this water, farmers in Texas were able to dramatically increase production of cotton, which no longer has an American market. So cotton growers, siphoning from the Ogallala, get three billion dollars a year in taxpayer money for fiber that is shipped to China, where it is used to make cheap clothing sold back to American chain retail stores like Wal-Mart. The aquifer is declining at a rate of 1.1 million acre-feet a day -- that is, a million acres, filled to a depth of one foot with water. At present rates of use, it will dry up, perhaps within a hundred years. In parts of the Texas Panhandle, hydrologists say, the water will be gone by 2010.
Approaching his ninetieth birthday, Ike Osteen lives with his wife, Lida Mae, not far from the dugout where the family of nine children passed their days in a hole in the ground. After leaving Baca County, Ike worked on the railroad and road projects, and then joined the Army. By the time Hitler's forces occupied most of Europe, Osteen was in boot camp. The soldier from the dugout landed in France on D-Day, June 6, 1944, fought the Germans through hedgerows, saw friends bleed and die. When the war was over, he thought about his place in the world and was drawn back to Baca County. It takes a certain kind of person to make peace with land that has betrayed them, but that is the way with home. Ike's mother died at the age of ninety-two. Most days, Ike puts in a full day's work around the house and usually spends some part of an afternoon sorting through the living museum of his life on the High Plains. He loves it still.
These passages illustrate the legacies of the Dust Bowl years.   FDR saved the farmers' lives and livelihoods; saved the region from what was then its imminent abandonment and desertification, by implementing programs like farm subsidies and soil conservation districts.  Farm subsidies and irrigation districts have morphed into gigantic corporate welfare payments, that eventually destroyed the very small farms they originally saved.

At the same time, the human legacy is touching.  I admire the toughness and I am moved by the will of people who asked for little -- only to be able to make their own way -- and were steadfast in pursuit of that desire.

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