By Karen Stoff
The clouds came darker, thicker than the towering thunderstorms with their twisters so common along the prairie lands. Great Aunt Willamet said they reminded her of the locust swarms when she was a child, which swooped down upon the homesteaders in the 1870s. I’d have taken that over the damned dust, something to fight against and kill instead of cursing the very dirt needed to grow my crops.
The sky always lit up with sharp, blue sparks off the barbed wire. Ozone hung in the air, a tang in your nose that warned not to get close to anyone or anything. When the first storm blew in back in ’34, even the limestone fence posts hummed with electricity. Back then, when the air turned brown on the leading edge, you didn’t dare touch another soul lest you wanted a shock big enough to make you jump outta your britches.
One storm lasted two days, at least we took it as that long because Great Grandad Mauer’s clock’s celestial symbols had cycled around twice. At twelve noon, with the yellow sun against a light blue background on its face, the darkness outside resembled a moonless night. My Prudence and little Glen complained about the stench from the piss-pots, so I crawled with a rope around my waist in the direction of the outhouse, the well-worn path invisible under inches of dirt. We kept it up after the sky had cleared just in case, but never realized how much we’d use that rope.
Didn’t know a lot of things at the beginning, but we found out about the danger of the dust, especially after that two-day-er when Bessie’s calf keeled over—we butchered it, and mud filled all four stomachs. Then we always kept a kerchief around our necks to keep the dirt out of our own gullets. I also made sure to get Bessie and the horses in the barn and cover the coop. The cats seemed to know to burrow in the hay, and the dogs stayed in the house with us. No living creature deserved to die that way.
We found out Old Man Rubens from two sections over had died of dust pneumonia. Great Aunt Willamet remembered how her brother died of the influenza after the war with water on the lungs. With her gnarled hands, she’d tie kerchiefs around our necks whenever we left the house because she didn’t wish the same kind of choking death on her only living family. You could always see the dark wall barreling across the land, just enough time to get the blue cotton over your nose before the first gust and to pray the clouds would contain rain instead of dust.
That was the story my Grandpa Will told, always after supper, sitting at the kitchen table while he drank coffee in the few hours of dusk before bed. He had a routine: memories about relatives long dead, little snippets of gossip he heard at the co-op, a rant about politics, and if a gust of wind hit the house then came his Dust Bowl account. Since the house sat sentinel on the prairie, the wind always struck it.
As a kid, I never paid much mind to his recollections, more interested at the age of ten about a new band calling themselves The Beatles. Yet by then, I could recite Grandpa Will’s monologue about the Dust Bowl word-for-word the same as The Lord’s Prayer. His tale made no sense because all around me the fertile, bread-basket plains fed the world. Now at eighty, I look at my teenage granddaughter’s brown-tinged blonde hair and realize she can’t relate to my reminisced world, either. The dust has returned.
Folks say this will pass, a mere cyclical pattern of nature, how not enough people settled in these prairies a century before my Grandpa Will to record such storms, that we’re caught up in a centennial-year topsoil reset. But those of the First Nation roamed free across these plains hundreds of sun-cycles before us, the chert arrowheads uncovered by plows evidence of it. Their lore explains whirlwinds, not days and nights of endless dust.
Then again, no one listens to tradition-focused people. The way the giants of my generation paid no heed to the farmers whose plantings drowned in annual five-hundred-year floods. Or the fishermen whose nets emerged empty. The zookeepers who ran out of room for the endangered species. The youngsters who didn’t know how to draw a Monarch butterfly. Or the mockingbirds who had no call.
Now mankind has no choice but to hear. The dust doesn’t discriminate. It pulverizes all colors of skin, infects the lungs of believers and agnostics, dirties rich and poor. I’m too old to escape, a farmer who has land but no soil. I done shucked my corn, so now I gotta eat it.
All I can do is tell my sweet, young granddaughter Willa to follow the wind to where air heavy with moisture makes the dirt-laden clouds settle. There she can join the dust of her ancestral home and erect new fence posts, a new barn, and a new house better aligned to the environment than those of her own Grandpa Will’s farm. And after a long day working the fields, she and her family can watch the moon on Great, Great, Great Grandad Mauer’s clock come ‘round to harmonize with the bright stars of the night sky.