My current book on tape, The Worst Hard Time, is feeling pretty familiar these days. The book’s about the Dust Bowl, a largely man-made phenomenon whereby some 100 million acres of previously lush grassland were reduced to completely lifeless hardpan inside of one generation of intensive wheat farming.
The people most responsible for this calamity were, of course, the ignorant sodbusters and the predatory salesmen and government agents that promised them unending prosperity, if only they would grow more. It worked for a few years and then came drought, the stock market crash and utterly exhausted soil. Winds swept up the topsoil and blew it into choking dust storms, known as Black Rollers for the way they moved across the land, burying cars and what little crops remained overnight. Babies died of dust pneumonia, chickens and cows from dust-blocked insides. And there was almost nothing to eat.
Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” told the story of many high prairie homesteaders who picked up and left for California. And in a scene eerily reminiscent of today’s circular firing squad of irresponsibility regarding the lending crisis (is the lenders or the homeowners who bought too much house on shaky terms?), a man struggles to figure out exactly who is removing him from his land and why.
The movie, like pretty much everything Steinbeck did, is brilliant and utterly heartbreaking (James Dean will make you cry in “East of Eden,” if not for his largely improvised performance than for the promise of what could have been had he lived past the age of 24…the man made three movies.). It is utterly timeless. But the most amazing thing is how little of our accumulated knowledge lasts more than a generation or two.