One man, one family driven from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the west. I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I am alone and bewildered.
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
Abundance can be surprisingly fragile. When the first European settlers hauled their wagons across the Mississippi River and into the western United States, they gazed out at a vast, unending prairie, mind-numbingly unbroken by hill or tree. Surely in this land where grass grew taller than man, wheat and rye would prosper as well. When first turned under, the prairie soil indeed was fertile, and so they plowed and planted more. Soon farm fields, instead of prairie, stretched as far as the eye could see. Then one day, the rain stopped, the soil became parched, the shallow roots of the farm crops withered, and the land blew away in the wind.
During the 1930’s, the United States endured both an economic depression and a severe drought. Deep-rooted prairie grasses could find moisture during the driest of summers, but farm crops died quickly, leaving nothing behind but bare soil. During the ensuing Dust Bowl, clouds of dirt darkened the sun, burying homes and hopes in their wake. John Steinback’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, captures perfectly the desperation and darkness of the era, as the Joad family joins thousands of others fleeing Oklahoma for greener pastures in California.
Eventually, after a decade of struggle, the economy rebounded, the rains returned, and the dust finally settled in the Great Plains states. Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD’s) were formed to help farmers implement conservation practices on their land to prevent large scale erosion from happening again. In Washington County, the Conservation District was established in 1942, and this special-purpose local unit of government has continued to work with landowners since, protecting land and water quality with conservation projects large and small.
This spring, The Big Read in the St. Croix Valley will explore themes of climate change, sustainable agriculture, and human struggle both during the Depression Era and today. Libraries throughout the region will be hosting reading discussion groups for The Grapes of Wrath, and many special events are planned during the months of April and May as well:
- On April 1, 7-9pm: Charlie Maguire, the National Park Service’s first and only “singing ranger,” will sing songs of the era at Phipps Center for the Arts in Hudson.
- April 3 – May 14: ArtReach St. Croix in Stillwater and the Great River Road Visitor & Learning Center in Prescott, WI will host “From a Cloud of Dust” art exhibition, with images inspired by and depicting the stark realities of broken land, human migration and struggles for survival.
- April 9 – 24 – Festival Theatre in St. Croix Falls offer several performances of “The Grapes of Wrath”; and
- April 10, 3-5pm – There will be a Community Sing-In with MN Sings and Bret Hesla at Marine Village Hall.
In addition, Stillwater Public Library will be holding several special events, including guest speakers who will talk about farming, economics, and the environment. For more information about The Big Read in the St. Croix Valley, visit www.ValleyReads.org or call 651-439-1465.
Meanwhile, the Washington Conservation District is taking final orders for its spring tree sale, one of many programs developed locally to help prevent erosion and rebuild wildlife habitat. Bundles of 25 bare-root seedlings are sold for $35 each; pre-order now and then pick up at the Washington County Fairgrounds on April 22 and 23. Conservation District staff are also available to conduct free site visits for farmers and homeowners in Washington County to provide advice about erosion and water drainage issues and connect landowners with financial assistance to complete conservation projects, including planting prairie. Find upcoming workshops, order trees, or schedule a site visit at www.mnwcd.org or call 651-330-8220.