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Dusty Books and Hard Times

It’s getting to be the time of year when you can’t avoid images of smiling people bobbing in the waves at their favorite vacation spot—including tourists swimming above Venice’s Piazza San Marco, where the acqua alta was molto alta. I’m lucky enough to have sauntered around San Marco, as well as the shores of New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland, and I can’t imagine the high waters of the past weeks in any of those places. I’m having a hard enough time with the low waters of Lawrence; a foot less precipitation than usual last year, and this year we’re at only half of “normal.”

It seems Timothy Egan’s National Book Award-winning Dust Bowl book, The Worst Hard Time, soon may warrant a sequel. Ken Burns’s new Dust Bowl borrowed much from Egan, but it borrowed even more from Lawrence’s own Donald Worster, Hall Distinguished Professor of American History at KU. The ad for Burns’s Dust Bowl said, “Experience the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history that nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation.” That the first part of that awkward ad copy is now accepted as truth is directly attributable to Worster’s groundbreaking (ha!) 1979 book, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s. In it Worster explains our role, that of plowing up the prairie, in the making of the Dirty Thirties. One of the first in the burgeoning field of environmental history, his book went on to win the Bancroft Prize.

This September KU celebrated Worster with a day-long gathering of his ex-students, “Nature’s Historians” who shared presentations and personal stories of studying with the man some called “The Don.” I sat in on the afternoon talks, and by my count eight out of nine presenters mentioned how important Worster’s Dust Bowl was on their thinking and educational direction. Later, I dusted off my copy and read it with new eyes. Not surprisingly, where Egan and Burns tell a good story, Worster digs deeper, asking hard questions and finding profound truths that westerners (and, one hopes, eastern policymakers) ponder still.

Dust Bowl was Worster’s warm-up to Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West, published in 1985 and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. 1985, it turns out, was also the last year that we experienced cooling trends—this October was the 332nd consecutive month with an above-average temperature. Studies such as Rivers of Empire tend to look at the Columbia, at California, or, especially, at the Colorado River. As I write, though, there’s concern about barge traffic on the Mississippi River, which may have to be curtailed due to low water levels. Though well thought-out and exhaustively researched, as usual, John McPhee’s essays on dams on the Mississippi in The Control of Nature and on barging in Uncommon Carriers both completely missed the boat on that disastrous possibility. – Jake Vail, Reference

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