Dust Bowl

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.

D.C. Loses a Bit of Its Humanity

In a city starved for indigenous culture (well, indigenous culture that doesn’t involve crazy mayors and crack jokes, that is), today’s fire at the historic Eastern Market is a real tragedy:

Fire ravaged the Eastern Market early Monday, gutting part of the 134- year-old Capitol Hill landmark. Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin said the blaze destroyed the southern half of the city-owned building, which was empty at the time. There were no injuries.

“This is the worst thing to happen on Capitol Hill since I moved here in 1981,” said Patti Cinelli, who lives five blocks away and frequented the market’s fresh produce and meat stands and weekend flea market.

I have to admit that I lived in D.C. for 7.5 years before I ever visited Eastern Market. And I was pretty nonplussed … the average midwestern farm stand offers more and better products. It’s precisely the lack of more amenities like this that caused me to flee D.C. (that, and the general soul-lessness of the place). Still, it’s sad to see the Market go. Small as it is by our Seattle-spoiled standards, it’s one of the few redeeming things about life in the District. Here’s hoping they rebuild quickly.

Is Richardson In It To Win It?

It’s anecdotes likethis that make me wonder if I care about Bill Richardson winning more than he does:

Bill Richardson was noticeably uncomfortable throughout the debate, shifting, sweating, and, at times, starring off stage. In the spin room, Richardson looked equally haggard. ‘I want to leave now,’ he barked to his advisor, Mike Stratton. At least he didn’t look at his watch on camera [NORA McALVANAH]


Seattle to Syria

Seattle-based writer Jonathan Raban has a beautiful piece in today’s Times, where he sums up, in one beautiful paragraph, the schizophrenic experience of living in Washington State:

Less than an hour east of Seattle lies Snoqualmie Pass, and as the road descends, beside the Yakima River, the dry West begins as it means to continue: Douglas firs give way to sagebrush, juniper and piñon pines; on the car radio, rock gives way to country and gospel, then to empty static; bumper stickers change from Democratic to Republican; per capita incomes and house prices sink precipitously. When I first drove this way, 17 years ago, it struck me as being akin to climbing a hill in Wales only to find oneself in Syria.

Read the whole thing.