Trajectory Matters

After reading William Cronon’s “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative” from 1992, I found it to be one of the best pieces of work we have read all semester regardless of topic or interest in subject. Even though it is 22 years old now, Cronon’s work is brilliant and a must read for all historians, whether studying environmental history or not.  Some of the insight and struggles Cronon alerts to in his narrative to answer the overarching question of “where did these stories come from,” are vital to historical scholarship work in general and certainly hit home with our projects and the stage we are in currently. When I first began to read it I thought it was going to be very dense and theoretical, however; once I really got into it, Cronon, in my opinion, came off as brilliant and well-crafted in his analysis.

Cronon essentially simplifies the argument to explain how our construction of narrative deeply matters. He describes how we take a group of events or facts and then construct them in different ways to make new meanings of the past, yet in doing so we choose our own narrative by deciding what events or facts we use and also the ones we leave out. Interestingly, it ends up creating a sort of narrative arc where the story has its ups and downs but usually ends up in two categories; either a progressive story or a declensionist one. In my brief two years as a history major, I haven’t necessarily thought of historical narrative this way but it makes sense and Cronon does a very good job and detailing how it happens. To expand on his thesis explaining these two end results, Cronon uses the comparison between Paul Bonnifield’s and Donald Worster’s works on the Dust Bowl. Both studied essentially the same works, used the same sources, had the same framework but concluded to completely different things:  natural vs. human disaster in the Dust Bowl; human triumph vs. human failure. That’s the cool thing about history; you can view the exact same thing as someone else but come up with a totally different analysis. In this case, Cronon advocates the progressive route or the declensionist one. The two authors ended up with completely different stories of the Great Plains where one described human triumph and courage while the other described human failure and the faults of capitalism. This simply point by Cronon was pieced together brightly and made for a thesis that really stuck.

Along with that, Cronon made another point that I thought was important; the narrative trajectory matters. He talks about the influence of the beginning, middle and end of a narrative and how the stop and start points completely shape the narrative and the meaning it creates. For example, if you stop a story in 1950 rather than 2000, the story takes on a different narrative and tells a different story. It was interesting how he clarified that with the trajectory of your story, you ultimately shape the narrative and the result of your work. Similarly, Sherwood mentions that the diversity of this narrative is what makes it history and what leads it into the future. Like Cronon, he explains that limiting the narrative instead of diversifying it hurts history and storytelling. Overall, a must read scholarship for historians.

Competing Narratives

Blog Post 10 (for Tuesday, 5/6)

In “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” William Cronon juxtaposes contrasting accounts of the Dust Bowl. Bonnifield argues that settlers of the Great Plains demonstrated determination in the face of adversity, and the “nation today enjoys a better standard of living” as a result (1348). Worster argues that settlers of the Great Plains precipitated ecological and economic disaster by engaging in a culture that “deliberately, self-consciously, set itself [the] task of dominating and exploiting the land” (1348). Both authors considered many of the same materials, but reached drastically different conclusions. Wells writes: “there seems to be a fundamental tension in interpretations of the Dust Bowl.” Certainly there is. But competing narratives are not particular to this event— rather, they form the fiber of all good history.

For example, last week we watched a 1937 film about the rise and fall of the Great Plains farmers. By celebrating the advent of World War I as a “day of new causes, new profits, new hope,” the film offers a different perspective on the question of whether war is disaster. WWI demanded resources. In particular, large quantities of wheat were necessary to feed allied troops overseas. Settlers of the Great Plains contributed to the war effort by satisfying this market. The film represents them patriotically by proclaiming: “wheat will win the war.” WWI briefly rescued farmers from destitution and established the Great Plains as the breadbasket of the world. However, it also resulted in over 16 million deaths. My classmates seemed to favor the humanist perspective, which categorizes war as disaster, but both histories contribute to our understanding of WWI.

Cronon concludes that “to try to escape the value judgments that accompany storytelling is to miss the point of history itself.” Historians should be exploring perspectives, not eliminating them. Diversity enriches the process through which stories both contextualize our past and guide our future.

The ‘Invisible Hand’ Takes Up the Plow: Environmental and Economic Interpretations of the Dust Bowl

As my colleagues Price and Molly have shrewdly noted, there seems to be a fundamental tension in interpretations of the Dust Bowl, one that pits market forces against natural causes. But what’s particularly interesting about this tension, as Price suggests, is its ambiguity. To call the Dust Bowl an environmental disaster is an understatement; to call it an economic tragedy is shortsighted. Instead, I think, we ought to read this particular disaster as a complicated intersection of the two, to understand how people driven by market forces used the land and how, as Molly writes, “the land . . . got its revenge.”

In The Plow that Broke the Plains, Pare Lorentz navigates this tension rather well. Though he states initially that his is “a record of lands . . . of soil, rather than people,” he carefully includes explanations of the political and economic forces that motivated the behavior of plains people. Indeed, as Lorentz explicitly highlights, the rising price of wheat and the crisis of war spurred old ranchers in the “cattleman’s paradise” to take up the plow. Contrary Molly’s suggestion, however, I think that Lorentz remains to true to his “record of the lands” even in this coverage of human behavior. As he explains the underlying forces of farm expansion, Lorentz repeatedly invokes the environmental costs and dangers of the wheat boom, interspersing the phrase “high winds and sun” throughout his dialogue. Moreover, with the advent of the Dust Bowl, Lorentz returns to panoramic shots of the landscape—only covered in dust and death, rather than grassy hills. Lorentz, it seems, characterizes the land as a victim at the hands of humans.

That said, I do think that Molly is right in stressing Lorentz’s attention to humans in the film. Though—as I argued above—Lorentz’s primary focus is the victimization of the land, I think there is something to be said for Lorentz’s treatment of plains people. Particularly at the end of the film, he highlights their suffering, characterizing them as he does the land, as victims. He describes them as “blown-out, baked-out, and broke” and later as “homeless, penniless, and bewildered.” Those affected by the Dust Bowl were certainly victimized. The only question is: by whom? Lorentz, I think, leaves a clear, resounding answer to this question at the very end of film: “the sun and winds wrote the most tragic chapter in American agriculture.”

So, in sum, I think that Lorentz balanced the tension between the environmental and economic causes of the Dust Bowl by stressing two, intertwined instances of victimization: the land at the hands of plains people and plains people at the hand of the land.

 

A Fragile Environment

The video “The Plow that Broke the Plains” places a clear emphasis on the human role in the Great Plains disaster. Nate rightly suggests that there are both natural and manmade elements to this disaster. The narrator repeats phrases such as “high winds and sun” throughout the film, clearly suggesting that the editors and directors of the film believed that the fragility of the Great Plains made the Dust Bowl disaster predictable.  In this way, the makers of the film implied that man essentially set himself up for disaster by settling on a dry land with “little rain” and “high winds and sun.” When put that way, it doesn’t seem that surprising that the plains dried out.

This argument relates back to one our previous class discussions about settling in places that are prone to natural disaster, such as San Francisco. When people choose to settle in fragile or unstable locations, and then in this case change their environment, are they setting themselves up for disaster?

The makers of this film seem to believe that that is the case. They trace the narrative of capitalism in relation to the Great Plains. Demand for wheat increased significantly with World War I, taking a great toll on the Great Plains. Newspaper titles flashed across the screen reiterate the human role in the Dust Bowl Disaster, as the war was clearly a result of mankind.

Film provided a new method of propaganda that had the unique ability to utilize visual imagery as well as sound to convey meaning. The newspaper titles, narration, as well as music all serve to echo the argument of this film.

A Treeless Windswept Continent of Grass and No Rivers

After the opening credits of Lorentz The Plow That Broke the Plains, the first words of narration describe a land of desolation with no natural water sources.  An area fit for only the lone cattle rancher,  at least until the “The Train brought Plowmen”.  In Koppes review of  the Worster text Dust Bowl, he highlights how Worster describes the wrestling of land away from the cattle ranchers as farmers began to populate the Great Plains.  Both the Koppes review and the Lorentz documentary do a good job highlighting the transformation of the Great Plains from a windy grasslands to a desolate dust bowl.

Briefly before World War I, Lorentz described farming in the Great Plains as “Plowing at one’s own peril”, but his tone quickly heightens with enthusiasm as wheat and grain prices began to soar.   “Wheat Will Win The War,” filled the headlines of American Newspapers and the incorporation of Tractors and other gas powered machinery only increased the rate of wheat production.  As Molly described in her post, “The plowmen waged war on the lands, as enemies waged war on the allies,” it makes sense that the wheat boom took off in the fashion that it did.  Lorentz does a good job in foreshadowing the farming conditions subject to the loose and dry soil of the plains.  Periodically throughout the documentary Lorentz can be heard repeating, “High Winds and Sun, High Winds and Sun,” describing the unchanging conditions of the plains because no matter how little farming the land is subject too, there will always be high wind and blistering sun.

Koppes review of the Worster text highlights many of the highs and lows of Great Plains living in the early 20th Century.  “The bison and Indians sometimes broke the grass cover, but it was quickly revegetated,” grass is the glue that holds the earth together in the dry and arid conditions of the Great Plains.  As for the surge of farmers, Koppes highlights the Worster term “Sodbusters” because they did just that, breaking up the sod and unrooting acres upon acres of grass.  Vegetation in the Great Plains can be subjected to subsistent farming, but can’t in an uncontrolled and unregulated farming culture driven by New Deal agricultural reform.  As described by Koppes, Dust Bowl, is a passionate book written by a native of the Great Plains.  Koppes does a good job providing us with an overview of the Worster text that helps us understand why wheat production became a major surplus in the American economy and how the Great Plains became 400,000,000 acres of dusty vacant land.

Overall the Lorentz documentary provides vivid video footage from the height of the Wheat Farming boom to the dust storms stirred up by the high winds common to the Great Plains.  The Koppes text provides a good review for the Worster text, which can be used to understand why and how farmers overused the Great Plains.  The Great Plains farming and tales of the Dust Bowl tie up the gilded age and are a prime example of why regulation/monitoring of particular ventures, in this case plain’s farming, are byproducts of Gilded Age disasters.

The Dust Bowl: Interpreting it as Disaster

The dust bowl is a very interesting historical event to study, with many factors that led to it happening, both natural and manmade. I think Koppes does an adequate job of comparing Worster and Bonnifield, yet he does an incomplete analysis of each source individually. He argues the Worster is more coherent, while Bonnifield’s argument needs polishing.

Like Marston, I was frustrated by not knowing about the two sources Koppes is reviewing. I think that I would have been less frustrated if he approached the two sources differently, as I do not expect everyone who reads his article to have read the two sources that he reviews. He says that Bonnefield’s argument is too incoherent without going in depth as to explain why it is incoherent. With Worster, he presents the book as having a more polished argument. He then concludes his analysis of the book by stating one of its main arguments, an implication of an alternative to capitalism. He then goes on talking about his qualms with the book, yet he does not explain how the book could have argued his points better. Instead, he points out one argument of the book that he liked. He leaves the reader putting an immense amount of trust in his assessment of both sources without really explaining too much why he feels the way that he feels about both of the sources. I feel as though he was too ambitious with the word count that he used, and he should have either narrowed what he was arguing or written more.

So, What Next?

In his book review entitled, Dusty Volumes: Environmental Disaster and Economic Collapse in the 1930s, Koppes evaluates two pieces written on the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Koppes clearly comes down in favor of the piece written by David Worster, agreeing wholeheartedly with Worster’s thesis identifying capitalism as the great cause of the Dust Bowl. According to Koppes, Worster contends that three maxims that are cultivated by capitalism invariably led to the 1930s disaster. The first is that nature must be seen as capital, the second is that man has a right, or even an obligation to use that capital for self-advancement, and third that social order should both permit and encourage this insatiable pursuit of wealth. Worster then goes on to say that it is this capitalist model that produced the consumption of land and disregard for future environmental repercussions that caused the Dust Bowl.

Price, in his post, finds that Koppes’ argument on behalf of Worster is lacking. He contends that Koppes does not have enough evidence, in the form of actual policy records to make this claim; however, I would have to disagree. Worster’s claim does not hinge on the presence of official policy records that would indicate the presence of capitalist interference, nor does it matter that the farmers were born into a capitalist economy, the problem that Worster is trying to identify is one of culture. The three maxims outlined above are essentially a set of core beliefs or values that are cultivated in a capitalist economy. Worster is arguing that the capitalist system is the perfect petri dish for growing these toxic values which contribute to the reckless consumption of natural resources. While it is possible to draw parallels to policy with respect to this analysis, a cultural study of American values and the way that they manifest themselves would be the most relevant method for seeing Worster’s thesis come to life.

Worster’s research has important implications. As the world comes to recognize more and more environmental problems exacerbated by reckless consumption of natural resources, the more we will search for solutions. However, the solution requires sacrifices we are unwilling to make. It requires that we see the world not as a tool for our advancement above all else, meaning we must essentially change our mental framework. The real question then becomes: is that even possible?

The Tragedy of the Commons

I think that Betsy makes a really good point that Koppes is quick to highlight the lack of effectiveness that many initial policies had in reaction to the Dust Bowl, but he then fails to contextualize the evens in the framework of the infancy of the environmental movement. The part of Koppes’ book review that fascinated me most was his depiction of the dust bowl as an example of the tragedy of the commons on page 538. Summed up, the tragedy of the commons is a hypothetical economic situation where there is a patch of free land for anyone to use. It is in every individual’s best interest to use the land as much as they can, but because everyone uses the land it is ruined and its utility is negated. It is a major problem in modern environmental economics because it is hard to convince individuals to act against there best interest.

I must applaud Koppes for recognizing that the individual farmers were not acting irrationally and therefore should not be blamed for causing the dustbowl. Other scholarship he describes is very quick to blame the farmers and not look at the larger structural flaws, and that is an easy logical fallacy to make. I begin to disagree with Koppes because he is very critical of the New Deal government initiatives. While I agree that they weren’t very effective, I’m not sure what he realistically could have expected would be better. I also sense from his tone that he is critical of any government attempts to fix structural environmental problems. He is quick to point to the failure of the Soviet Union to prevent a similar dust bowl scenario in the 1960s, and their system was entirely government controlled. I would be interested to see an analysis of Western and Northern European farming policies and government regulations and interventions and then looking at their effectiveness. These countries have a pretty large amount of government intervention, but aren’t as purely growth at all costs driven as the U.S. in the 1920s or the USSR in the 1950s.

The Plow the Broke the Plains: The Dust Bowl as an End to Agrarian Romanticism in the U.S.

Pare Lorentz’s 1936 documentary, The Plow that Broke the Plains, claims to be “the story of lands, not of people.”  The first scene of the documentary displays a map of the Great Plains Area and the nine states that comprise it.  Next, Lorentz features numerous sprawling shots of the Plains, and the cattle that graze there.  After the exposition however, Lorenz focuses more on human activities on the Plains.  His true focus demonstrates that Lorentz, whose stated purpose was to tell the story of the lands, would have done better to amend the wording of his focus to “the story of how people overused the lands.”

Lorentz indicates a bias about early human activity by Romanticizing the lone cattle rancher.  He films the rancher seated on a white horse from below, indicating a motivation to make the rancher seem larger and more dominant than he might otherwise appear.  One of the shots of the rancher looking after his cattle actually looked very similar to the Romantic painting, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich.  Lorenz makes it clear that he has no qualms with ranchers using the Plains.

Lorentz later accompanies footage of a fence with the statement, “the first fence—progress came to the plains.”  He describes man’s increased activities on the Plains as progress, but quickly follows this statement with the phrase, “The rains failed them,” when referring to early plowmen.  With progress, Lorenz points out, came more problems.

At around 13 minutes, Lorentz juxtaposes scenes of tractors coming from the right with enemy tanks coming in from the left, suggesting through powerful imagery that the people of the time believed that, “Wheat will win the war.”  Plowmen waged war on the lands, just as enemies waged war on the allies.

The land, Lorentz suggests, got its revenge.  After the war and the golden harvest, “the sun and winds wrote the most tragic chapter in American agriculture.”  As Koppes points out in his evaluation, early accounts of the Dust Bowl ignore factors like economics and policy.  Lorentz gives nature a great deal of agency here, and by ending with this line, suggests that ecological factors caused the Dust Bowl.

I agree with Price and Jean that Koppes used his book review “as a platform to voice his own argument.”  Because he presents his bias early on and fails to support his claims with enough evidence, I cannot agree with his final evaluation of the texts without conducting further research.  However, I enjoyed reading the review as helpful in filling in a number of gaps that The Plow the Broke the Plains left in its narrative.

The Dust Bowl: An End to The Gilded Age or a Critique on Government

Clayton Koppes two part book review of Paul Bonniefied’s The Dust Bowl and Donald Worster’s Dust Bowl offers an interesting comparison on two books about the same general topic.  Koppes strongly favors Worster’s book as a more compelling use of the Dust Bowl for a general critique on capitalism, government policy, and technological impact on the environment.  As Price cunningly notes in his post, Koppes praises Worster’s use of the Dust Bowl as an example the failures regarding short term New Deal relief, the flaws in agricultural capitalism, the misuse of land, and the need to blame Midwest farmers for the Dust Bowl.  Further Koppes critiques Bonnefield’s emphasis on natural blame for the Dust Bowl, as Bonnefield insists that capitalism, free market economics, and technology had little impact on this disaster.  From my prospective, it seems almost impossible to argue one way or another about Koppes opinion. As I have read neither book, I am forced to accept Koppes’ interpretation of the author’s arguments as true, well thought out and warranted.  If everything that Koppes interprets and reviews is true, I would say his article seems justified.  Nevertheless, one must be careful as Koppes could very well have had an ideological bias behind his review.

When I was reading this book review, I could not think about the historical significance of the Dust Bowl.  As Koppes notes, there has been little scholarly work covering the Dust Bowl and of the work that has been done, there is still much debate about the cultural, economic, environmental, governmental, and historical significance. There seems to be large scientific evidence (as noted in Worster’s use of the lack of grass cover, diminished crop yield, and the lowered population rate in affected areas) that humans, pushed mostly by the government, attributed to Dust Bowl and the black blizzards.  While we can blame whomever we would like, the question must now be about the historical meaning of the Dust Bowl.  If we consider Worster’s argument and place the entire blame on the government and capitalism does this mean we should extend the Gilded Age through the 1930’s?  If it was truly the government wanting to extend power to large corporations through exploitative measures, certainly this seems justified.  As seen in this course, the Gilded Age was defined by disasters of premature technological innovation and favored the expansion of powerful companies.  However does this mean that the Gilded Age continued into the 1980’s like Koppes mentions?  How much does government favor large corporations and big business even today?  Should we blame capitalism for modern environmental disasters or do we blame the failures of technology and ignorance? Personally, I think Koppes book review opens up many different discussion points about the meaning of the Dust Bowl.  The 1930’s is often considered a hybrid time period mixed between the Depression and World War II and thus many of the events have been underreported.  I do not think we can expand the Gilded Age and place blame for the Dust Bowl on Gilded Age policy or any economic policy. From what I have interpreted about these two books, the Dust Bowl seems more an unknown consequence of government policy.  The New Deal policy was not purposely imposed for the destruction of natural land nor for the promotion of big business.  It was more what FDR thought would be the best temporary fix for the Depression and unfortunately the Dust Bowl was an unforeseen problem.