Dust Bowl

George Will has a column in yesterday’s Post that’s engagingly written, but I can’t really figure out what the point of it is. Ostensibly it’s about how overfarming caused the Dust bowl, and it contains some vivid imagery:

The late 1920s had been wet years, and people assumed that the climate had changed permanently for the better. In that decade, an additional 5.2 million acres — greater than two Yellowstone Parks — were added to the 20 million acres in cultivation. Before the rains stopped, 50,000 acres a day were being stripped of grasses that held the soil when the winds came sweeping down the plain.

In 1931, the national harvest was 250 million bushels, perhaps the greatest agricultural accomplishment in history. But Egan notes that it was accomplished by removing prairie grass, “a web of perennial species evolved over 20,000 years or more.” Americans were about to see how an inch of topsoil produced over millennia could be blown away in an hour.

This reminds me of one of my favorite Harper’s articles of the past few years, which I never tire of recommending to people:

Corn, rice, and wheat are especially adapted to catastrophe. It is their niche. In the natural scheme of things, a catastrophe would create a blank slate, bare soil, that was good for them. Then, under normal circumstances, succession would quickly close that niche. The annuals would colonize. Their roots would stabilize the soil, accumulate organic matter, provide cover. Eventually the catastrophic niche would close. Farming is the process of ripping that niche open again and again. It is an annual artificial catastrophe, and it requires the equivalent of three or four tons of TNT per acre for a modern American farm. Iowa’s fields require the energy of 4,000 Nagasaki bombs every year.

Iowa is almost all fields now. Little prairie remains, and if you can find what Iowans call a “postage stamp” remnant of some, it most likely will abut a cornfield. This allows an observation. Walk from the prairie to the field, and you probably will step down about six feet, as if the land had been stolen from beneath you. Settlers’ accounts of the prairie conquest mention a sound, a series of pops, like pistol shots, the sound of stout grass roots breaking before a moldboard plow.

The author’s conclusions are pretty daft and unsustainable, but the story he tells along the way is unforgettable.

D.C. Loses a Bit of Its Humanity

In a city starved for indigenous culture (well, indigenous culture that doesn’t involve crazy mayors and crack jokes, that is), today’s fire at the historic Eastern Market is a real tragedy:

Fire ravaged the Eastern Market early Monday, gutting part of the 134- year-old Capitol Hill landmark. Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin said the blaze destroyed the southern half of the city-owned building, which was empty at the time. There were no injuries.

“This is the worst thing to happen on Capitol Hill since I moved here in 1981,” said Patti Cinelli, who lives five blocks away and frequented the market’s fresh produce and meat stands and weekend flea market.

I have to admit that I lived in D.C. for 7.5 years before I ever visited Eastern Market. And I was pretty nonplussed … the average midwestern farm stand offers more and better products. It’s precisely the lack of more amenities like this that caused me to flee D.C. (that, and the general soul-lessness of the place). Still, it’s sad to see the Market go. Small as it is by our Seattle-spoiled standards, it’s one of the few redeeming things about life in the District. Here’s hoping they rebuild quickly.

Is Richardson In It To Win It?

It’s anecdotes likethis that make me wonder if I care about Bill Richardson winning more than he does:

Bill Richardson was noticeably uncomfortable throughout the debate, shifting, sweating, and, at times, starring off stage. In the spin room, Richardson looked equally haggard. ‘I want to leave now,’ he barked to his advisor, Mike Stratton. At least he didn’t look at his watch on camera [NORA McALVANAH]


Seattle to Syria

Seattle-based writer Jonathan Raban has a beautiful piece in today’s Times, where he sums up, in one beautiful paragraph, the schizophrenic experience of living in Washington State:

Less than an hour east of Seattle lies Snoqualmie Pass, and as the road descends, beside the Yakima River, the dry West begins as it means to continue: Douglas firs give way to sagebrush, juniper and piñon pines; on the car radio, rock gives way to country and gospel, then to empty static; bumper stickers change from Democratic to Republican; per capita incomes and house prices sink precipitously. When I first drove this way, 17 years ago, it struck me as being akin to climbing a hill in Wales only to find oneself in Syria.

Read the whole thing.

On the Other Hand, Giddiness!

Yesterday I noted the failure of some big reconstruction projects in Iraq, as reported by an article in the New York Times. I woke up this morning to find my Sunday copy of the physical paper, in which that article shares A1-above-the-fold billing with this one:

Violence has fallen swiftly throughout Ramadi and its sprawling rural environs, residents and American and Iraqi officials said. Last summer, the American military recorded as many as 25 violent acts a day in the Ramadi region, ranging from shootings and kidnappings to roadside bombs and suicide attacks. In the past several weeks, the average has dropped to four acts of violence a day, American military officials said.

On a recent morning, American and Iraqi troops, accompanied by several police officers, went on a foot patrol through a market in the Malaab neighborhood of Ramadi. Only a couple of months ago, American and Iraqi forces would enter the area only in armored vehicles. People stopped and stared. The sight of police and military forces in the area, particularly on foot, was still novel.

The article also notes that “the progress has inspired an optimism in the American command that, among some officials, borders on giddiness.” It’s worth noting.

But keep in mind, we’ve seen this before. There was a time when Fallujah was coming back to live, after an intensive American effort, and before that there was Tal Afar. And yet, over time, both have fallen again to the insurgents.

Update: Andrew Sullivan puts this in the proper context: “What Anbar shows is that relative peace and stability will come only when Iraqis themselves, for reasons of their own, defend their own country from al Qaeda’s poison.”


You know the rebuilding effort in Iraq is stalling when we can’t even point to the freshly-painted schools:

Curiously, most of the problems seemed unrelated to sabotage stemming from Iraq’s parlous security situation, but instead were the product of poor initial construction, petty looting, a lack of any maintenance and simple neglect.

A case in point was the $5.2 million project undertaken by the United States Army Corps of Engineers to build the special forces barracks in Baghdad. The project was completed in September 2005, but by the time inspectors visited last month, there were numerous problems caused by faulty plumbing throughout the buildings, and four large electrical generators, each costing $50,000, were no longer operating.

The problems with the generators were seemingly minor: missing batteries, a failure to maintain adequate oil levels in the engines, fuel lines that had been pilfered or broken. That kind of neglect is typical of rebuilding programs in developing countries when local nationals are not closely involved in planning efforts, said Rick Barton, co-director of the post-conflict reconstruction project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research organization in Washington.

It’s interesting that it’s not the security situation so much as the follow-up, the training, the little things that separate success from failure.

So here we are, in 2007, with our rebuilding efforts flailing, an Iraqi army that can’t shoot straight, and a local governent that can’t get its act together. Remind me again why sticking around for another six months is going to turn this thing around?