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

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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 Treeless Windswept Continent of Grass and No Rivers

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

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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.