Sky of blue, sea of grain

Pasatiempo - - Pop Cd Reviews - Michael Abatemarco I I For The New Mex­i­can

Lit­tle by lit­tle the sky was dark­ened by the mix­ing dust, and the wind felt over the earth, loos­ened the dust, and car­ried it away.

— John Stein­beck, The Grapes of Wrath

If you are driv­ing along the high­way from Springer to Clay­ton in north­east New Mex­ico, stretch­ing out be­fore you is an ocean of grass. Tall stems of gama grasses in bunched tufts of gold and green bend and sway against the pres­sure of the wind. Here and there along the route, mod­ern farm equip­ment at­tests to the till­ing of the soil. De­spite the oc­ca­sional pres­ence of ru­ins dat­ing back to the 1930s, it is hard to imag­ine that this land, now so boun­ti­ful, was once buried un­der a canopy of dust that oblit­er­ated pros­per­ous farms and dev­as­tated en­tire com­mu­ni­ties. Some of the towns in this re­gion of North­ern New Mex­ico never re­cov­ered from the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Some of the towns that flour­ished then no longer ex­ist. To­day, parts of Hard­ing, Col­fax, Mora, and Union coun­ties con­tain the Kiowa Na­tional Grass­lands, one of 20 grass­lands in the west­ern United States es­tab­lished by the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, beginning in 1960. Were it not for the ef­forts of a few ded­i­cated in­di­vid­u­als, in­clud­ing pho­tog­ra­pher Dorothea Lange, the re­gion might look very dif­fer­ent to­day. How Lange ended up doc­u­ment­ing the Dust Bowl in New Mex­ico is a story tied to a na­tional legacy.

“The in­sti­ga­tor of the Dust Bowl was the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave 160 acres of free land to set­tlers,” said Jerry Phillips, a re­searcher at the Herzstein Memo­rial Mu­seum in Clay­ton. An exhibit at the mu­seum fea­tures im­ages by Lange and other pho­tog­ra­phers. “To in­vite set­tlers to come out here, set­tle in this coun­try, and do dry farm­ing, a lot of real es­tate agents, rail­road land agents, were a lit­tle un­scrupu­lous. They sent a lot of pro­pa­ganda— in the form of brochures and dif­fer­ent printed in­for­ma­tion— not only back east, but even to Europe.” “ ‘GoW­est, young man,’ is what it boiled down to,” said Jimmy Hall, a re­tired em­ployee of the U.S. For­est Ser­vice.

Prof­its de­rived from sell­ing land to set­tlers from the east­ern U.S. and Europe, who were ea­ger to pur­chase land in the Plains, drove sales of land that was not con­ducive to farm­ing be­cause it was not lo­cated near vi­able wa­ter sources that could be ex­ploited for agri­cul­ture. Up un­til the late 1920s, farm­ing in New Mex­ico, par­tic­u­larly of wheat crops, met with some suc­cess. “Af­terWorldWar I, the price of ev­ery­thing went down. And they hit the De­pres­sion, theWall Street col­lapse in 1929, and then things started turn­ing dry,” Hall said. “If you look at a 10-year span of rain­fall in this area you might find one year that’s above av­er­age, two years that are av­er­age, and then the rest of them are be­low av­er­age. Once the drought set in, they still tried to raise crops. As peo­ple look at it to­day, they say the Dust Bowl was cre­ated by the farm­ing prac­tices they had back then.”

Th­ese farm im­ple­ments should never have been used for they de­stroyed a nat­u­rally rich graz­ing area, reads the cap­tion of one of Lange’s im­ages in the col­lec­tion of the Li­brary of Congress that shows drifts of dust amid aban­doned tools. There were a num­ber of fac­tors that con­trib­uted to the for­ma­tion of the Dust Bowl, in­clud­ing over­graz­ing and short-sighted farm­ing tech­niques.

Top, Dorothea Lange: Dust storm. It was con­di­tions of this sort which forced many farm­ers to aban­don the area. April 1935; Li­brary of Congress LC-USF34-002812-E [P&P] Right, Dorothea Lange: Dust Storm near Mills, New Mex­ico, May 1935; Li­brary of Congress LC-USF344-003788-ZB [P&P]

“They started ask­ingWash­ing­ton for help,” Hall said. “Of course, Wash­ing­ton was ig­nor­ing this part of the coun­try be­cause of prob­lems else­where, with all the peo­ple out of jobs. An in­di­vid­ual by the name of Hugh Ben­nett of the Soil Ero­sion Ser­vice had an idea about car­ing for the land. He was lob­by­ing Congress, and he knew there was a big dust storm headed east. He wasn’t hav­ing any luck with get­ting any­thing out of Congress.” Ac­cord­ing to Hall, while speak­ing to Congress on April 27, 1935, Ben­nett went over to a win­dow just as the skies dark­ened and the air grew thick with dust, and said, “Gen­tle­men, there goes Kansas.” Congress sub­se­quently passed leg­is­la­tion that lead to the es­tab­lish­ment of the Soil Con­ser­va­tion Ser­vice. Ben­nett ran the bureau un­til the early 1950s.

The USDA cre­ated the Farm Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion (which be­gan as the Re­set­tle­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion) in the mid-1930s. The FSA doc­u­mented the dev­as­ta­tion of the land and the lives of mi­grant fam­i­lies with the goal of us­ing pho­to­graphic ev­i­dence to per­suade Congress to fund re­lief ef­forts. The re­sult was a se­ries of com­pelling im­ages of dust storms, aban­doned farms half buried by the storms, and poignant por­traits of the sur­vivors. Among the best-known pho­tog­ra­phers who worked for the FSA are Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, and Rus­sell Lee.

Lange, who pho­tographed for the Re­set­tle­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion in the mid-1930s un­der Roy Stryker, made iconic im­ages of mi­grant fam­i­lies and doc­u­mented the in­flux of refugees into Cal­i­for­nia. Lesser known but equally com­pelling are her im­ages of aban­doned New Mex­ico farms and prairie lands en­veloped in dust. Lange took a pho­to­jour­nal­is­tic ap­proach to her work and helped put a hu­man face on the Dust Bowl. While Lee cap­tured the ef­forts of mi­grants to start over, Lange doc­u­mented a stark record of hu­man fig­ures oblit­er­ated on the land­scape by dust and car­a­vans flee­ing storm-rav­aged ar­eas. Much of her work in New Mex­ico was done in the area of Mills, a town about half­way be­tween Ab­bot and Roy, right in the mid­dle of what is now the Kiowa Na­tional Grass­lands. The ti­tles are de­scrip­tive, pro­vid­ing her im­ages with heart-wrench­ing con­texts. The town of Mills, New Mex­ico. The grain el­e­va­tor in back­ground at right has been long ago aban­doned. The bank is closed, reads the cap­tion of an­other im­age in the Li­brary of Congress col­lec­tion. A child stands in the fore­ground, the only liv­ing fig­ure in what looks like a ghost town.

It takes im­ages from a pho­tog­ra­pher of Lange’s cal­iber to ap­pre­ci­ate how suc­cess­ful re­seed­ing ef­forts have been in this re­gion. To­day, though the wind still blows, the grass­land has come back and the dust has van­ished, a few scat­tered ru­ins the only record of its by­gone wrath.

Dorothea Lange: The rolling lands used for graz­ing near Mills, New Mex­ico, De­cem­ber 1935; Li­brary of Congress LC-USF344-002768-ZB [P&P]

The Kiowa Na­tional Grass­lands in North­east New Mex­ico

Dorothea Lange: Th­ese farm im­ple­ments should have never been used for they de­stroyed a nat­u­rally rich graz­ing area, Mills, New Mex­ico, May 1935; Li­brary of Congress, LC-USF34-002816-E [P&P]

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