January 03, 2008

Dust Pneumony

Continuing to find books for the nature-writing class, I decided to give them a selection from Timothy Egan's The Worst HardTime.

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s ("the nation's worst prolonged environmental disaster") pretty well centered on the southeast corner of Colorado. I have used some of Donald Worster's excellent Dust Bowl in class before, but Egan follows a small, memorable set of characters from the agricultural prosperity of the World War I years through the subsequent collapse of grain prices, the regional economy, and the land itself.

Is the Dust Bowl is simply disappearing from the popular consciousness? Maybe we should watch The Plow that Broke the Plains as well. Netflix has it. And then go out to the national grasslands and think about blizzards of dirt that lasted for days.

My mother's family, in Colorado Springs, was slightly removed from the worst of the Dust Bowl, although my grandfather's furniture store went bust in the late 1930s, since furniture purchases are among the first to be postponed when times are hard.

Earlier, my grandparents had run a general store in the High Plains town of Arriba, but they luckily sold out before the big collapse of prices and population.

My father, meanwhile, was growing up in Tulsa, where, he said, "There was no Depression" -- or at least that is how he remembered it from a teenaged perspective.

Reading Egan's book in bed last month, I turned out the light, lay back on my pillow, and started coughing. It was persistent cough--something irritating the airway that would not shake loose. Pretty soon I was imagining "dust pneumonia."
I got that dust pneumony, pneumony in my lung,
I got the dust pneumony, pneumony in my lung,
An' I'm a-gonna sing this dust pneumony song.


mscriver said...

The vignette that sticks with me is the mother by the bedside of her little boy who had just died. The doctor is putting away his stethoscope. He says, "I'm sorry, Mother. He's just all filled up with dust."

They say it was an era of mass murder on the scale of some of today's, except that usually it was the father who had taken his family down into the cellar, shot them all, and then himself -- because there was no way to stay alive and no money to leave.

Prairie Mary

Chas S. Clifton said...

One perception that I gained from Egan's book is how frequently residents of the Dust Bowl chose not to leave. They believed that their chances were worse in the cities, where unemployment was high and social services mostly nonexistent.

Other agricultural areas were having their own problems. So they hung on where they were and ate green tumbleweeds in soup, or worse.