An animated music video describing life during the dust bowl era.

By 1929 and the crash of the stock market, South Dakota, was already beginning to wither on both the climatic and economic vine. In fact, one writer suggests that when all the commotion about Black Friday on Wall Street hit the papers, the folks in South Dakota were saying something like "been there done that already".... only worse.

It was a day and age when the "science" suggested that anthropogenic climate change could not only be induced, but also manipulated by farmers plowing their fields....the result being rain! The added benefit of this fulfilled the desires of a government obsessed with manifest control of the plains, and the dreams of land boosters eager to make big money on the prairie.

But to explorer-scientist John Wesley Powell, who extrapolated real climatological data from field observations, the notion of thousands of little homesteads on the prairie was a paradox. As he observed, this region was prone to drought and required special choices, (not necessarily conventional ones) on behalf of those who wanted to survive there.

Nevertheless, the unconventional party surged unto the plains anyway and for a little while, in the 1870s and 80s they toasted their glasses to what seemed to be a victory over the atmosphere. But the outcome of mixing up this cocktail of teleological, wishful scientific thinking with the stubborn ways of Mariah produced an ecological disaster that in the end put nothing but sand in everyone's glass. There was another opinion out there....it just wasn't as politically appealing as believing that "rain would follow the plow." Mariah's wrath was delivered without malice or mercy. Rather, it was a society steeped in policies made to profit egos as well as bank rolls that induced something other than what their prophets promised to become a utopian Garden of Eden. And for the rest, the honest folks, who just believed, they suffered, while the prairies burned like Hades.

This is the story of a Dust Bowl Christmas. It could have taken place in South Dakota or practically anywhere from Texas to Saskatchewan. From the late 20s into an era known as the Dirty Thirties, living in the Dust Bowl region was a tough nut to crack. Although some left it all for "pastures of plenty" (only to find that those pastures contained almost as slim a pickings as from where they had fled) still, some statistics suggest four out of five dust bowl residents stuck it out. What made them stay?

The reward of their commitment would ultimately come into fruition decades later...with the advent of highly advanced irrigation systems and scientific applications to farming. The commitment to stay was a tough go. As farmers and their neighbors lost their land and homes to the banks and to the wind, for some, even the holidays were bleak. Help would ultimately come much later from the government. But in the mean time, despite dust filled lungs, and pockets lined with more dust than money, despite more failed crops and barren gardens, somehow, even after most of their world had blown away, and Eden had gone bad, some stayed the course, with perhaps only love to sustain them.
Dr. Marian Mustoe
Geographer
Eastern Oregon University

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