I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.

Great Plains II: Agriculture and Settlement

  • James C. Malin, History & Ecology: Studies of the Grassland (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984). 
  • Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979). 
  • David C. Jones, Empire of Dust: Settling and Abandoning the Prairie Dry Belt (Calgary, Alberta: University of Calgary Press, 2002). 
  • Barry Potyondi, In Palliser’s Triangle: Living in the Grasslands, 1850-1930 (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: Purich Publishing, 1995. 
  • Bill Waiser, Saskatchewan: A New History (Calgary, Alberta: Fifth House, 2005). 
  • Willam Cronon, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” in The Journal of American History, Vol. 78, No.4 (March 1992): 1347-1376. 
  • Geoff Cunfer, On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment (College Station, Texas A&M University Press, 2005).  
  • Geoff Cunfer, “Scaling the Dust Bowl,” in Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship, ed. Anne Kelly Knowles (Redlands, California: ESRI Press, 2008).

James C. Malin was a North American grasslands historian and a professor of history at the University of Kansas. History of the Grassland: Studies of the Grassland is a collection of Malin’s essays assembled by Robert P. Swierenga, former Kent State history professor and current professor at the A.C. Van Raalte Institute at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, who states that the essays selected best “illustrate Malin’s path-breaking ideas, findings, and methods for studying the Great Plains grassland.” Malin’s work is groundbreaking largely because he was one of the first historians to study and interweave ecologic considerations into his historical narratives. Similarly to Fernand Braudel and Marc Bloch, Malin viewed history as a long-term process, in which the human story, both past and present, was part of the region’s natural history. Swierenga states that Malin believed that the historian was obligated “to tell the story of particular past peoples in particular places at particular times, with the primary focus on the myriad ways in which people interacted, successfully or not, with their natural environment, both changing it and being changed by it.” (ix) Malin considered humans to be a part of nature, not apart from it. The environment, according to Malin, provided humans a certain set of parameters in which a wide degree of cultural variability was possible. He contended that the concept of a deficient environment was a false cultural construct; every environment is adequate in and of itself.  

Swierenga states that Malin is the third of a trio of seminal Great Plains historians–the other two being Frederick Jackson Turner and Walter Prescott Webb—however, of the three, he asserts that Malin was the most efficient at determining the connections between human history and the physical environment, particularly over long periods of time. Malin also pioneered the meticulous quantitative study of specific case studies, most often Great Plains communities. The history of the Great Plains, according to Malin, is that of a European forest-culture people evolving their land-use techniques very slowly and in a disorganized fashion. The history of humanity and human progress is a never-ending process of adaptation to dynamic environmental changes and evolving technologies.  

Malin openly rejected Turner’s concept of the closed-frontier. Malin asserted that the availability of land in the West is not an issue because it has and will always be the same. What changes is the way in which the land is used. The frontier will never close; it will simply be used in ever-changing capacities. Malin also rejected the popular assumption that nature is a stable entity championed by early figures like George Perkins Marsh in Man and Nature and the Clements School. Malin was particularly contentious towards the Clements School claim that the Grasslands was a permanent climax environment, in which the plants and animals had reached the final, perfected stage of ecological succession, and thus particularly susceptible to disruptions and abuse. This idea was adopted by the United States Department of Agriculture in the 1930s during the Dust Bowl—most famously in the film The Plow that Broke the Plains—as a way of explaining the origins of the Dust Bowl and placing the blame on foolish and misguided farming practices. Malin, aided by his conservatively-based political fear of the liberal totalitarianism he believed the New Deal represented, viewed this explanation of the Dust Bowl as pure propaganda and used evidence and case studies to demonstrate that such environmental disturbances have taken place regularly throughout the historical record. Instead of inherent natural stability, Malin supported the concept of unstable equilibrium, which acknowledgements the likelihood of dynamic fluctuations and alterations in any given ecosystem.  

Employing Malin’s case study approach, Donald Worster comes to a very different conclusion than Malin concerning the origins of the Dust Bowl, marching firmly into the declensionist camp. Worster’s book, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, is largely based on two case studies: Haskell County, Kansas and Cimarron County, Oklahoma. Worster, who also spent most of his career at the University of Kansas, operates under an assumption that the story of man’s infiltration into the Great Plains is a story of steady degeneration from a pristine environment to a deeply damaged and abused landscape. Although very few individuals, today, look upon the Great Plains favorably, Worster acknowledges that the region was at one point the center of the American frontier dream, as described by Turner. Despite having lost its initial shimmer, the region is still very important to the United States and the world as a food source. Worster, unlike Malin, contends that humanity has yet to properly adapt its institutions to the Great Plains environment or learn from past mistakes. The Dust Bowl, Worster argues, “was the darkest moment in the twentieth-century life of the southern plains” (4) and serves as the perfect example to illustrate the ecological insensitivity of our culture. The Dust Storm, he argues, is one of the three worst ecological disasters in history; the other two being the deforestation of China’s uplands and the destruction of Mediterranean vegetation by overgrazing. The difference between these two earlier events and the Dust Bowl, he asserts, is that the first two took centuries to unfold while the Dust Bowl took only about fifty years. The Dust Bowl came to pass so quickly due to the cultural milieu of the United States, which was, and still is, almost inextricably tied to the economic system of capitalism. The Dust Bowl, he states, did not occur due to error or naivety, but rather because “the culture was operating in precisely the way it was supposed to.” (4) The American movement west was accompanied by a fervent desire to tame and use the environment for profit and progress. Worster calls the Dust Bowl inevitable, stating that America’s drive to milk the environment of the Great Plains for all that it was worth was bound to end in this kind of catastrophe. The Dust Bowl was a man-made event, not a natural disaster. 

Worster connects the two major, simultaneous disasters of the 1930s, the ecological Dust Bowl disaster and the economic Great Depression calamity, as twin indicators of the essential limitations of the established culture of the United States. Both indicated the crisis of capitalism. “Capitalism,” he states, “…has been the decisive factor in this nation’s use of nature.” (5) It was capitalism that drove the country’s population to the West in the first place. The culture of capitalism teaches its adherents three main values. Firstly, it teaches that nature is to be treated as capital. Secondly, man is to use this capital for his own personal advancement. Thirdly, the social order should enable and promote this path to personal wealth. Under this mantra it is difficult for man to accept that nature places limits on his activity, and thus man works all the more energetically to prove these limits false. In the 1920s, Worster argues, the farmers of the Great Plains, aided by newly mechanized equipment, plowed an unprecedented quantity of land, ridding a fragile ecosystem of its protective, natural flora. There was no cultural institution in place to check this seeming progress, and thus the farmers of the Great Plains plowed past the limitations of their environment. Capitalism is a fatalistic society because it blindly prescribes to the idea and virtue of progress.  

Worster acknowledges that drought and high temperatures also played a role in the making of the Dust Bowl, however, he consistently contends that it was the widespread plowing of the earth that was the central cause. He states a little too assuredly that dry spells had undoubtedly occurred in prior eras, but that they were not as severe as that in the 1930s. The white man is the antagonist of Worster’s tale, not the Indian or humanity at large. Worster dismisses any claims that the Indians dramatically manipulated the environment, and balks at the idea that the plains was created by Indian-managed wild fires, something that later historians, including Stephen Pyne and Robert Boyd insist was certainly the case. Unlike Richard White, who in Land Use, Environment, and Social Change is adamant that technological advancements do not necessarily mean increased environmental degradation, Worster continuously points to farming technology as one of the key factors in the ignition of the Dust Bowl.  Worster uses cultural indicators, such as the back-to-the-land movement and the works of artists like Woodie Guthrie and John Steinbeck to demonstrate the severity of the Dust Bowl. Worster pessimistically concludes that the New Deal initiatives, which were based on good and well-founded intentions, was ultimately a failure because society has yet to learn from its mistakes and is still highly vulnerable for a Dust Bowl-esque disaster in the future.  

David C. Jones, a professor in the Education Department at the University of Calgary, paints an equally bleak picture of the history of the Canadian prairie in Empire of Dust: Settling and Abandoning the Prairie Dry Belt. The boom-turned-ghost town of Alderson, Alberta (initially known as Carlstadt), which Jones describes as the “quintessential sample and symbol of overexpansion,” (xx) serves as the focal point of Jones’ study. Jones opens with a grand flashback to the days when Carlstadt was advertised as the “Star of the Prairie,” a transportation hub for the newly opened West in the early twentieth century. The story of Carlstadt/Alderson is the embodiment of the expansionist movement that Doug Owram describes in Promise of Eden, a movement fueled by false promises and smashed by the onslaught of harsh reality. Jones describes the story as the “a journey that begins with man at the pinnacle of his spiritual powers and ends with him cloaked in the darkness of the long night of the soul.” (3) Like Worster, Jones’ narrative is not one of progress, but rather of disintegration.  

The area in question in Jones’ study is located in the region known as Palliser’s Triangle, a semi-arid region named after the mid-nineteenth century Canadian surveyor, John Palliser. Initially, the region was believed to be too dry and cold for any kind of settlement or agriculture. However, Jones argues that it soon became clear that the region could support grazing due to the fact that it had supported large bison herds for centuries. Jones, writing before William Dobak’s questioning of this assumption, readily asserts that the downfall of the bison occurred due to reckless killing sprees led by white capitalists at the end of the nineteenth century. The acknowledgement of the area’s wealth in pasturage led to the government actively promoting the development of large-scale ranching in the region beginning in the early 1880s. Yet, it was still believed that the region was ill-suited for widespread settlement. 

Jones, as Bill Waiser wrote in The Field Naturalist, points to botanist John Macoun as one of the key players in changing the country, particularly the government’s, attitude toward the region. Macoun lamented the unfounded demonization of the region’s climate and claimed emphatically that the desert of the West was a myth. The region was more than adequate for agricultural settlement. The propaganda campaign that Owram describes in detail, was, as H.V. Nelles points out in The Politics of Development, another example of private and government cooperation. The main private player in the development of the region’s usefulness, as was the case with western national parks such as Banff and Jasper, was the Canadian Pacific Railway and a couple other lesser rail companies. Both the railroad and the government viewed the discrediting of the supposed aridity myth as an opportunity for economic gain and expansion. Jones describes what he calls the “rush of fools,” or the influx of immigrants, both eastern Canadian and foreign, to the southern Canadian plains who believed the promises made by the government. They truly believed that the land was one of opportunity. One the first rush of immigration was complete, reality promptly set in. As the settlers scrambled to enact remedies such as irrigation, it became increasingly clear that the environment was not the idyllic garden that they had been told it was.  The promises had been flagrant lies. The tale that follows is similar to that told by Worster. The 1920s and 1930s were times of great upheaval, as the land rebelled, causing dust storms which resulted in many families fleeing the region, often for the North. However, unlike Worster’s Dust Bowl, which places the blame on the people and the capitalist system of which they are slaves, Jones’ Empire of Dust does not blame the settlers or their agricultural practices nor does he blame the environment. The tragedy of the region was inevitable, but only because these environmental events—drought, heat, and wind—are inherent to the region. The villain in Jones’ narrative is largely the federal government and its corporate cronies who, at times knowingly, led these individuals into disaster. 

In Palliser’s Triangle: Living in the Grasslands, 1850-1930, Barry Potyondi, founder of Great Plains Research Consultants, a research firm based in Calgary, presents a similar, though more declensionist, tale to Jones’ in southwestern Saskatchewan. Like Worster in the American Great Plains, Potyondi marks the entrance of European settlers to the region as the point at which wide-scale change began to be exacted on the environment. It is the loss of the native grasslands that demarks the destructive hand of man in southwestern Saskatchewan, according to Potyondi, who describes the agricultural settlement of the region as a “relentless process.” Potyondi’s narrative of this region of Saskatchewan is similar to the New England narrative presented by William Cronon in Changes in the Land. Like Cronon, Potyondi asserts that the human populations that inhabited the land before European farmers arrived, modified the land, but did so in a manner that was sustainable. “Between 1850 and 1908,” Potyondi writes, “it was home successively to Native Peoples, Métis, and cattle ranchers, each of whom understood and used the local resources very differently.” (6) It was the homesteading movement of the 1910s that was ultimately an unsustainable use of the region. 

As was demonstrated in Empire of Dust, the homesteading and abandonment process occurred over a short amount of time. Potyondi states that the process took a total of about twenty-two years. What is particularly of note is the quick succession of land use cultures that took part in southwestern Saskatchewan between 1850 and 1930. Potyondi identifies three main cultures that dominated the region during this time, which both used and modified the natural environment. Potyondi writes that “this rapid succession of very different communities, each with its own economic imperatives, presents a rare opportunity to examine the relationship between culture and ecology within a reasonably well-defined area.” (6) The first culture is that of the native peoples and Métis who relied upon the buffalo for the mainstays of their survival and traditions. Like the Indians of Cronon’s New England, these natives traveled as the herds and weather shifted throughout the year. Potyondi also notes that these native peoples used fire to better sculpt the environment to their needs. Again, not taking note of Dobak’s conclusions, Potyondi, drawing on an understanding of nature that is based on it being naturally balanced, states that the abundance of wildlife in the region suggests that the native way of life and semi-nomadic existence enabled them to better maintain ecological balance than subsequent groups of people. Like J.G. Nelson in The Last Refuge, Potyondi laments that the commercialization of their lifestyle ultimately led to the demise of the native’s culture.  

The second culture is that of ranching. The devastation of the buffalo meant that the grassland was now open for other grazers, namely cattle. In the late 1890s, the cattle industry grew exponentially in southwestern Saskatchewan. Initially, the ranchers used an open range tactic to manage their cattle. However, after the brutal winter of 1906, the ranchers rethought their strategy and began fencing their cattle in and providing winter fodder. Potyondi argues that the ranching industry during the years of the open range was ecologically stable because the ranchers did little to change the ecosystem. However, once the range became fenced in, overgrazing began to occur because the cattle were limited to particular sections of land. Ranchers also modified the environment by suppressing fires and eliminating predator animals. The third culture is that of the homestead, dryland farmer, the people that were attracted to the West by the propaganda described by Owram and Jones. Like Worster, Potyondi points to these settlers’ technological and scientific capabilities as instruments of ecological change on a scale must grander than their forbearers. Unlike the natives, Métis, and ranchers, Potyondi argues that these settlers were not prepared to accept the inherent potential of the prairie environment and instead work steadily to shape the land into what they believed it could be. “Natives, Métis, and ranchers all produced their commodities within the existing natural order to a marked degree,” he concludes, “…farmers differed from these three groups because they created an entirely new environment that had no inherent capacity to sustain itself.” (7) 

In Saskatchewan: A New History, Bill Waiser illustrates the centrality of this homesteading experience to the province as a whole. Saskatchewan, which became a province in 1905, came into being due to and in the midst of the great migration westward. The Canadian government and populace expected that the land, due to reports of its rich and fertile soil by people like John Macoun, would easily become an agricultural Mecca. The creation of this farming region was viewed as being crucial to the future of the country as a whole. Progress relied on the ability of the millions of expected immigrants to make the once forsaken land sing with productivity. If this agricultural heartland was not created, it was believed that the country would be vulnerable to the expansionist tendencies of the United States. Having such a vested interest in the region, similarly to the development of Ontario in Nelles’ The Politics of Development, the federal government, during the region’s territory days, insisted on directing the settlement and development of the West so as to ensure that the project developed in the manner that they wished. Waiser states that the founding of the twin territories of Alberta and Saskatchewan was largely a haphazard affair. Saskatchewan, he writes, is the only territory that is made of completely artificial boundaries. As a result, the province at its birth had a great task ahead of them, uniting disparate people and creating a provincial consciousness. One belief bound most Saskatchewanians, the belief that the future of the province was to be bright.  

Waiser illustrates that this future, according to most settlers of European descent, was to come into being sans the First Nations people of the province. Waiser states that the Indians “symbolized a dark, premodern past that the new province wanted to put behind it.” The process by which the government finagled guaranteed access to the North’s land and natural resources in exchange for supposed government protection for native peoples under Treaty 10 is comparable to the process used to discredit native wildlife in Canadian parks and nature reserves as described by John Sandlos in Hunters at the Margins. In both instances it is understood that white aims carry precedence over those of the First Nations. Like Potyondi, Waiser writes about the presence of ranchers, which he argues had little effect on the environment, at the beginning of the province’s existence and the devastating effects that the winter of 1906 had on the industry. Ranchers, Waiser argues, were more likely than farmers to adjust their tactics to the weather and landscape conditions of any given period or area.  As he also demonstrated in The Field Naturalist, Waiser emphasizes the folly of John Macoun’s insistence that the region was perfect for agricultural development. “This portrayal of the grasslands as a kind of agricultural Eden was reckless and potentially harmful,” Waiser writes. Jones, Potyondi, and Waiser’s stress on their inappropriateness of wheat monoculture on the Canadian plains is similar to Worster’s insistence that the Great Plains of the United States were not naturally suited to agriculture. One of Saskatchewan’s major mistakes, according to Waiser, is that they placed too much reliance on one crop, wheat, the sale of which, particularly during World War I, was dependent on foreign markets. Like in the United States, the 1930s marked a time of both economic and ecological turmoil for the farmers of Saskatchewan, many of which abandoned their homesteads and headed to the northern reaches of the province.  

Although aforementioned narratives of plains land use in Canada do not vary as substantially as Malin’s and Worster’s versions of the American experience during the Dust Bowl, they are still not identical, nor are they expected to be. Yet, why is it that differing narratives and explanations of a single event, era, or region can be considered equally, if not valid, then at least respectable? William Cronon tackles this dilemma, which he states, “transports us inot the much contested terrain between traditional social science and postmodernist critical theory,” (1349) in his article, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative.” The inspiration for Cronon’s article is Worster’s Dust Bowl and Paul Bonnefield’s The Dust Bowl, both published in 1979 and both of which come to very different conclusions, and even very different stories, surrounding the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Bonnefield views the Dust Bowl as a natural disaster, which incited the ingenuity of humanity and ultimately led to a better standard of living within the region and the entire country. Worster, on the other hand, as has already been discussed, views the Dust Bowl as a man-made disaster caused by a, temporary, cultural collapse of the capitalist order.  

The narrative dilemma is particularly pronounced in the field of environmental history because the environmental historian is supposedly more dedicated to objective, scientific details, and yet the environmental historian remains just as dedicated to the narrative form as other historians. Just like other historians, environmental historians use their own judgment to decide what makes it into the narrative and what is omitted. Cronon views the history of the Great Plains as an effective platform on which to examine the place of narrative in environmental history. Cronon states that there are two main narrative avenues that the environmental historian can take when writing about the Great Plains or any other landscape; these two narrative types are the progressive storyline and the declensionist storyline. Both narrative types have one thing in common, they support the political and/or moral agenda of the writer. Turner, for instance, presented what has become the quintessential progressive narrative in order to give strength to burgeoning American nationalism at the turn of the nineteenth century. Malin’s progressive narrative was largely in response to his personal abhorrence of New Deal legislation. These progressive narratives often portray the environment as an unruly, harsh entity that deserves to be tamed. New Dealers used a declensionist narrative to their advantage so that they could gain uncontested control of the situation; the inhabitants of the Great Plains had to believe that they were the ones to blame and that they could not get out of their self-induced mess without themselves. Worster’s declensionist plot reverses the frontier process by ending the tale with a wasteland. Cronon argues that environmental historians continue to cling to the narrative form because it provides a way for which an individual can grasp the information. Humans live in a storied reality, which provides the basis for human understanding in general. Cronon acknowledges that the idea that history is made up of a collection of biased stories is inherently troubling, but concludes that the benefits of the narrative form outweigh the detriments. The narrative form when used in environmental history is also kept in check by three realities, Cronon remarks. Firstly, the stories of a historian cannot breach known facts about the past. Secondly, “given our [the environmental historian’s] faith that the natural world ultimately transcends our narrative power, our stories must make ecological sense.” (1372). Lastly, historical stories are not created in solitude because the historian is also a member of an academic community, and, therefore, the historian must ensure that the story he tells is palatable to academia at large.  

On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment, Geoff Cunfer states that he is attempting to find the middle ground between the progressive and declensionist narratives of Great Plains history. Cunfer asserts that each of these narratives over-simplify the situation in order to further a particular ideology or moral lesson. In reality, the history of land-use in the Great Plains is one that includes an equal distribution of failures and successes. Cunfer does not trust the common dichotomy placed between humans and nature. He does not believe in an all-powerful human ingenuity, nor does he prescribe to total environmental determinism. Humans are part of the environment, according to Cunfer, and therefore their institutions are inextricably linked and limited by environmental realities. Farming, Cunfer argues, is the best example of this complicated interaction between mankind and nature. The main purpose of farming is too manipulate natural processes to achieve human goals, however this manipulation is limited by and often thwarted by the power of nature. The story of agriculture in the Great Plains is one of constant adaptation to the changing rhythms of the environment, an environment that is governed by Malin’s unstable equilibrium.  

A large fraction of Cunfer’s analysis is based on statistical research and quantitative analysis, which he believes helps him to avoid the ideological pitfalls that ensnare the cultural and social environmental historian. Using data, particularly acreage sums, from Agricultural Censuses, Cunfer plots the data on maps using a Geographic Information System or GIS. The GIS creates a map that is easily readable and makes patterns in the land and environment straightforwardly discernible. In an effort to soften the harshness of his empirical research, personal stories and case studies are interspersed amongst the numbers and maps. The story of Elam Bartholomew is used as an exemplification of the typical experience of a farmer during the plowing revolution in the Great Plains. By plotting percentages on a map of the Great Plains, Cunfer is able to dispel the conviction that much of the Great Plains has been altered by the plow. In fact, Cunfer is able to show that only seventy percent of the Great Plains as has ever felt the harsh clawing of the plow. However, Cunfer is quick to state that this is not due to any kind of preservationist agenda on the part of the farmers. If left to the will of capitalism and other economic and political incentives, it is likely that all of the land would have gone under. Human ideology and determination is often no match for environmental limitations, however. Similarly, by mapping the percentage of acreage used for cattle, Cunfer is able to note that water distribution determined where cattle grazing could occur and limited the number of cattle that could be sustained. Thus, cattle ranchers in Great Plains, like those in Canada described by Potyondi and Waiser, were forced largely to obey the rules of the ecological systems that were already in place. Charting the diversity in croplands, Cunfer is able to show that monoculture has never been the norm in the Great Plains, although it is threatening to become so in the present-day. He also tracks the growth of tractor usage in the Great Plains to illustrate the pattern of the shifting of labor intensity.  

The most groundbreaking portion of Cunfer’s study is his work on the origins of the Dust Bowl. Directly challenging the claims of Worster and other environmental historians, Cunfer does not believe that over-plowing, due to the pressures of evil capitalism, was the main impetus for the environmental catastrophe. Instead, using GIS technology, Cunfer is able to show that drought and high temperatures, which are natural disruptions, were the real cause of the Dust Bowl. Cunfer believes that environmental historians must start taking these natural disruptions and other natural forces into better consideration when analyzing the history of human interactions with the land. Environmental history has swayed too far to the cultural camp, causing it to lose sight of the very nature that it set out to study, and must swing back towards the inclusion of proportional amounts of environmental determinism. Cunfer’s analysis is based on a particular understanding of sustainability. Cunfer does not equate sustainability with economic patterns, but rather with the stableness of land-use. The people of the Great Plains are constantly involved in the dance of unstable equilibrium, constantly making adjustments to their system in order to keep stability. The fact that, despite economic upturns and downturns, the land use of the Great Plains has remained the same for nearly one hundred years denotes, according to Cunfer, that their agricultural practices are sustainable. This does not mean that environmental degradation has not occurred, as any system placed on the land changes it, but rather that the Great Plains agriculture has been able keep a level of diversity that is necessary for sustainability. Increased pressures from agro-corporations threaten to disrupt this balance. The moment the people of the Great Plains step out of their environmental limits their agricultural system will no longer be sustainable and either they will have to take a step backward or abandon their way of life for a new one.  

In Cunfer’s article, “Scaling the Dust Bowl,” published in Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship, he revisits many of the findings he presented in his chapter on the Dust Bowl in On the Great Plains, demonstrating that the dust storms most likely occurred due to drought and high temperatures, rather than because of rampant over-plowing. The common story of the Dust Bowl, one best represented historically by Worster, is so prevalent in America’s consciousness because it has been told and retold time and again in the country’s popular culture, Cunfer states. Like Cronon, Cunfer states that this narrative was originally created by New Deal reformers who wished to gain control of the agricultural sector during the Great Depression in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl. Cunfer states that one of main goals of the article is to “[argue] that varying scale can dramatically alter our understanding of the past.” (100). In the case of Worster’s Dust Bowl, which was written when quantitative methods like GIS were not yet easily accessible, his case study’s, which focus on two communities during a limited time frame, support his argument. However, if one is to study the region as a whole over a longer period of time, one finds that Worster’s argument falls apart. By stepping back and looking at the region as a whole, Cunfer is able to demonstrate that the land was not as plowed under as Worster claims. By increasing the time scale, Cunfer is able to illustrate the inherent invariability of the Great Plains climate, and is able to reveal that there is “unequivocal evidence of routine dust storms on the southern plains through the second half of the nineteenth century, when native grasses had yet to succumb to the plow to any great extent.” (102). The reason that the Dust Bowl is so well-known and believed to be so severe and unusual is because it has received extensive publicity ever since the days of the New Deal, while the dust storms of the nineteenth century have remained locked in the records of the past.  


Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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