Monday, January 12, 2009

2008 Reading Roundup?

Not exactly.

Everyone else has done their end-of-year roundups, and I've enjoyed visiting everyone's blogs and seeing what everyone enjoyed reading and, of course, adding to my TBR list, which is now up to 417 items!  Thanks, guys!  ;)

Instead of a "best of" list though, I wanted to highlight a couple of books that I have thought about more and more as the year has gone on and on and that I would highly recommend reading given the current economic situation.  One is The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan.  The other is The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan, which I reviewed  here and here.  As well as being interesting reads, I think these two books do a great job of illustrating how we screw things up when we try to manipulate them too much and how well things can work if we would just let them do what they are supposed to do.  

At first glance, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl may seem like completely separate, sadly coincidental events, but their relation to one another is strong.  For years, YEARS I tell you, Native Americans took advantage of the animals and the plants that were naturally occurring in North America.  Americans of the non-Native variety, encouraged mightily by their government, decided that the best way to move forward and prosper would be to kill off all those pesky buffalo, dig up all that stupid grass that they eat and grow wheat and cows instead.  Great idea.  Hey, I know, after we've done that, let's go to the desert, pull out those pesky cacti, kill off all the rabbits and instead we'll raise fish and bananas!  Huh.  The bananas and the fish are all dried up, and the coyotes are eyeballing our children.  Why isn't this working??

To give the people credit, these were the true pioneers of our nation.  These were the people who were brave enough to leave their homes behind and venture out to places like Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico and other wide open places where they could stake out hundreds, even thousands, of acres for themselves and try to make a life for themselves and their families.  These people had a lot of faith and determination and, for that, I admire them.

At first, things looked good.  People were making lots of money selling wheat, farmers were riding around in their Prada saddles, wearing their Gucci cowboy boots; driving their BMW tractors, you know, the ones with the gold rims and the diamond-tipped plows; women were decorating their houses in the latest Martha-Stewart-approved styles; and the kids all had their own iPhones. (It's been a while since I read the book, but that was the general feel of things if I remember correctly.)  Then the Depression hit.  And then.  THEN the Dust Bowl hit.  Y'all.  I had NO IDEA.  I can't believe I had never heard more about this other than, "and then the Dust Bowl hit and farmers had a really hard time."  (No, I haven't read The Grapes of Wrath, why do you ask?)  Clouds like giant, rolling thunderheads of dirt would sweep over entire states.  People in New York were getting hit with dust from Kansas.  Cars were buried.  Seriously.  I had no idea.  People looked up and saw this coming at them:    

I don't know about you, but that would scare the crap out of me.  I found this picture of a "black blizzard" over Prowers, CO, around 1937 at this web site.  Please go check out their other pictures.  

So, anyway, farmers are sitting high on the hog, growing tons of wheat, so they decide, this is great!  I'm going to plow up another 1,000 acres next year and plant some more!  Well, eventually everyone's thinking the same thing and the market is flooded with wheat.  Oh, also, Wall Street fails.  Prices start to drop, so the next year, the farmers have to plow up 2,000 acres because now they're only getting $.03/ton instead of $.27/ton (my prices could be off, but come on, everything cost like $.03 in 1931.  Inflation's a bitch.)  Eventually, millions of acres have been plowed and planted, then the drought hits, crops die, the top soil dries up and blows away, now there is no good land and no water.  What's a farmer to do?  Try to plant more next year.  Except next year's even worse.  Eventually, millions of acres of land have been plowed under in an attempt to get even a few acres of crops to market.  The worse the storms, the worse the crops; the worse the crops, the more land has to be plowed, the more land that is plowed, the worse the dust storms.  America is in the throes of the Great Depression, nobody has any money to spend on groceries, and nobody can grow anything to feed themselves.  This is a bad situation.  This timeline from the 1930s seems eerily familiar-read a little bit about the events leading up to the Depression and see if they don't strike a little too close to home right now.  (Thanks to PBS for the timeline-they have a lot of other information that you can link to on their site regarding the Depression and the Dust Bowl).

Cut to The Omnivore's Dilemma, present day (roughly).  Pollan examines some of the agricultural standards that are in practice today and contrasts and compares them.  Of course, when it comes to feeding the masses, corn-fed beef on a giant feedlot seems like the best solution, but what happens if all of your corn crops are wiped out?  What happens if a particularly deadly virus sweeps through your cattle who are already relying on all kinds of supplements and antibiotics to keep them alive?  What if this year's batch of vaccinations is contaminated?  What happens if there's a fire at the plant that manufactures all of your synthetic fertilizers?  Enter the small organic farmer who raises chickens, rabbits, pigs, and cows who are allowed to roam free and graze on climate-appropriate grasses that their systems are naturally adept at digesting.  These grasses are rotated with other crops and replenished by the animals' manure as they wander amongst the fields-no synthetic fertilizers are needed.  On a one-to-one basis, there's no way the small farm can feed as many people as the big industrial farm, but the potential for loss is also less.  If all your corn is wiped out one year, hopefully you will still have wheat, beans, and onions to sell.  If all your chickens take ill, hopefully the cows will remain unaffected and another small farmer nearby will be able to give you a couple of his chickens.  If, heaven forbid, your farm should go out of business, hundreds of other people will not be out of their jobs.  

Between these two books, there are lessons to be learned, I'm sure of it.   

I know this sounds like a bunch of doom and gloom, but the intent of this post isn't to scare anybody or convince anyone that the sky is falling.  I think this is a good chance to take a good look at the past and try to prepare for what might be coming.  I think things are going to get worse before they get better.  I don't think we are anywhere near the end of this financial debacle that we seem to have gotten ourselves into, but I think this is a good opportunity for everyone to start thinking about the little things.  

There has been a lot of talk about reviving the vegetable garden a la the Victory Gardens of the 1940s-is it ok to have a vegetable garden in your yard?  (Thanks to Garden Rant for that link!)  Will the neighbors think you're a hillbilly?  Is it worth it financially?  Nutritionally?  Socially??  Can it make a difference on a national level if we are all growing our own tomatoes instead of having them shipped all over the country? Is Obama going to have a vegetable garden at the White House and will it be organic?  Will it be just big enough to feed his family or will it supply food banks and local schools?  In what direction will that one seemingly small decision lead our country?  Maybe no where, maybe to great places.  Who knows?  

If you have reviewed either of these books, or if you have any other thoughts about this post, please leave me a  comment!      


Heather J. said...

I've always been fascinated by the events of the Dust Bowl era. This is a great post - summarizing the main causes and comparing them to modern events.

Dreamybee said...

I'm so glad you said that! I was afraid it was kind of rambly and disconnected.

Mike said...

I saw a show on TLC (I think) about the dust bowl years. I think it was called 'Black Blizzard'. It was really interesting. Like you, I didn't realize how bad it was back then. They were talking about people dying because of dust in their lungs and everything else. If you haven't seen it try to find it when it repeats. It's depressing, but also interesting.

Jeanne said...

It seems pretty silly to worry that your neighbors will think you're a hillbilly for having a garden. But maybe I just think that because my family's from Arkansas.

Dreamybee said...

Mike-I'll definitely have to look for that!
Jeanne-I totally agree, but that's a discussion that I remember seeing somewhere. I'm sure this probably applies more to people living in places where there are housing associations and things like that.