Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Learning from the past

Last night, I was searching for something in the depths of my computer and came across a short piece I'd written when I worked for a company that digitized the pages of historic newspapers. I have absolutely no recollection of writing this, except I know that it was done as a personal project, likely when I was bored one day after writing marketing copy for our Texas historical newspapers product. Anyway, I thought it was worth posting here. Though it's important to look to the future and come up with modern, original solutions to our climate and environmental crises, we mustn't forget to look to the past as well. Progress isn't always forward-moving.


In the mid-19th century, it seemed to Americans that the world was changing at an unprecedented rate. The American West was opening up. All over the East Coast, people in overcrowded cities and over-farmed land were suddenly struck with Oregon Fever, Gold Fever, a sudden urge to pack their belongings into a wagon and populate this great country from sea to shining sea. 

Smallpox and other European diseases had considerably lessened Native populations in the West, and vast tracts of land were newly open for the taking. Best of all, in the 1870s, places once considered too arid for farming were being deluged with enough rain to grow shoulder-high wheat and basketball-sized melons. Thanks to countless massacres, buffalo populations were decreasing too, and would-be ranchers were tempted with enough space to graze record herds of cattle. Newspapers from the time chronicled a national obsession with progress, with looking ahead to the future and ignoring the past.

“The American people, sir, are a forward going people,” wrote Stuart Perry in an 1841 editorial urging settlers to come to Texas. “The wild geese [here] are very tame... and can be easily killed with your pistols. Oysters are in great abundance... deer and wild turkeys are very numerous... [and] sugar and cotton grow by rattoon. There are many who can testify to four thousand pounds of seed-cotton having been produced in one year from one acre of land.” It would take ten years, Perry added, to produce such bounty in the eastern states. 

What Perry does not mention, however, is that a century earlier, valley soil in the East had been just as fertile as that he describes in Texas. But farmers rarely practiced the crop rotation necessary to keep fields productive over time. Why did they need to? There was more than enough land in the Americas. 

Amidst the mad rush to move forward, a few men looked to history and strove to make their voices heard. Observing the declining productivity of eastern farms and hoping to avoid the same in the West, an unidentified author in the Texan Advocate prophesied in 1848 that “the production of one or two great staples for export, neglecting...a wise rotation of crops, is sure to exhaust the soil, impoverish the people, and depopulate large and once-fertile districts.” The author goes on to admonish the British colonial system, which derived goods “from distant countries” and advocate sustainable local food produced “without impairing the natural fertility of the earth.” 

But as usual, sensational ideas generated far more attention than sensible ones. In 1885, a writer identified as N.A.T. from the Dallas Morning News reported on a new scientific phenomenon known as “rain follows the plow,” which hypothesized that increased human populations led to increased rainfall. “The annual precipitation [in the Texas panhandle] is far greater now... than it was when settlers first came into the country” N.A.T. wrote. The crops planted by settlers “serve as so many pumps, which, by their millions and millions of tiny roots suck up from the subsoil the water which lies hidden there, out of reach, and then by means of their leaves set free the water into the atmosphere.” 

While the notion seems quaint today, it had serious implications in its time. People flocked to the Texas plains, lured by promises of fertile land, easy profits and the ability to conquer the weather. They replaced native grasses with rows of cotton and failed to plant ground cover in the winter. They overgrazed cattle and didn't rotate crops. Nonetheless, for the next century at least, the weather generally cooperated and many settlers prospered.

Here’s where 4th grade history comes in: in 1930s, a natural drought combined with eroded soil and a lack of native grasses began to cause massive dust storms. “Texas in Need of Heavy Rain!” proclaimed one contemporary headline. “Black Blizzard: Visibility Zero at Amarillo as Dust Blots Sun” declared another. While some Texans resorted to prayer—or exploding TNT into the skies in hopes of generating precipitation, a tactic also employed today by the Chinese government—Dallas Morning News agricultural editor Victor H. Schoffelmayer had a more practical solution. He urged farmers to plant vegetative land cover to decrease soil erosion and help curb the effects of the weather, if not the weather itself. But even as devastating dust storms killed livestock and humans and destroyed crops and livelihoods, Schoffelmayer recognized that “to expect farmers to think first of the soil and later of their own interest may be expecting too much.”
However, he wrote, “the time is here when they must think in those terms.” Those words could well be echoed today.

The sun bakes the ground at the Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. Much of the arid West was settled during a time of above-average rainfall; now, as droughts become the new normal, cities and farms are struggling not to go the way of the Anasazi, the ancient people who built civilizations among desert cliffs during a similarly wet era and disappeared when the rains dried up.

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