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.