The Worst Hard Time – The Psychological Experience of Empathy with those who are besieged.



Dust bowl is both a term that is part of my professional vocabulary and one I grew up with.  I live in a fly over state.  It is in the Midwest, but I like to think of it as the true Midwest while the Plains States are the other Midwest.  The Dust Bowl happened in the other Midwest – as what I think of as the drive through states – Eastern Colorado, Western Nebraska and Kansas, and the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas.  States that it takes forever to get across when you are headed to your destination - the mountains.  States that are flat and boring.  Our Midwest, the one east of the Mississippi river, is one that used to have the Big Ten Schools firmly in it (while the plains states had the Big Twelve), but those conferences are now all muddled, and, frankly, psychology has always muddled them.  The psychology departments in both conferences are in huge land grant institutions with huge enrollments and huge available undergraduate populations to engage in psychological experimentation on, and they have long been bundled together as Dust Bowl Psychology Departments – distinct from the departments on the coasts (and, truth be told, some in their midst) that have more traditionally been involved in psychoanalytic and humanistic psychology – the dust bowl psychologists have focused on the average person by looking at the herd, not, as in the other camp, on the individual. 



Statistical analysis is at the heart of dust bowl psychology – and the statistics come from: agriculture.  The land grant institutions were places where farmer’s sons (and daughters) went to study how to grow better crops.  They planted those crops in plots and determined whether this plot or that plot grow better with statistical tools like ANOVA and its split plot function.  We lifted that methodology to see whether this or that psychological treatment had a better outcome (as if treating clients is a bit like growing healthy crops).

 Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time – a book about the actual dust bowl itself – is a brutal book.  It is about the people who are similar to J. D. Vance’s Hillbillies in his Hillbilly Elegy – a group of Scots-Irish descent – the other WASPS – the ones who came here not as landowners, but as indentured servants.  The ones who Ta-Nehisi Coates equated with the first slaves but who, slowly, over time, came to see themselves as poor but better than the blacks.  And it is this group of “whites” – along with other groups of “whites” (as if white were a culture or an ethnicity or a race that had some kind of integrity) - that were a significant group in propelling Trump into the Presidency (and the characters in this book are white and overtly racist - against both blacks but also, to a lesser extent, native Americans).

So, I read this book with curiosity.  Who are these people who live among us and think so differently from the way that I do?  Who are these people who are so susceptible to the populist rhetoric that Trump preached and who are an important component of the people inside of the coalition that elected him?  This book portrays them as a wide ranging group of people who have in common grit – well-earned grit.

I also read this book with interest because I grew up with the dust bowl as a symbol, and sometimes it felt like the causal agent (though this book makes clear it was not - though it certainly contributed to it), of the Great Depression.  It spawned John Steinbeck’s Okies, travelling west to California in broken down cars to escape it in the Grapes of Wrath.  It was symbolic of a time when my parents were young and stuff was hard to come by.  My Mom’s parents had to sell their own car to be able to pay the hospital bill in order to take my Mom home after she was born.  But this book is not primarily about those at a distance – the Okies who left or people like my Mom (though it does mention someone who, like my Mom’s family, was in Chicago, who sold their child to pay a hospital bill – I guess it could have been worse).  This book is about those who lived in the Dust Bowl.  The ones who stuck with the land that was literally disappearing from beneath their feet and showering down on their heads from above. 

The author is writing history – and he chooses five or six characters to follow through the dust bowl.  Here he is at a disadvantage to the novelist.  As Irv Yalom pointed out in the introduction to his classic (West Coast Psychology) book on Existential Psychotherapy (p.21), when the historian writes about Queen Elizabeth, she, upon reading the book will say, “I still have my secret.”  His point is that the novelist is able to imagine him or herself into a character with abandon – they are able to infuse the character with their own human essence – in a way that the historian, constrained by facts, cannot.  We are told about characters in this book, but we don’t actually get to know them.  So the vehicle for psychoanalytic understanding is not vicarious – it ends up being much more direct than that.



What we get instead of the phenomenology of the characters in the story, partly by hearing the stories of those characters, but mostly by dint of fact and description, is a more direct experience – I would almost say the lived experience – of being attacked by the land we are living on.  We become the agents of the phenomenology of living in the dust bowl as we live through the dust storms and their impact as described in vivid detail.  And these are not trifling storms.  They infiltrate the best insulated homes.  They occur 14, 16, 18 times a month, sometimes for 15 days in a row.  They fill our mouths, our ears, our eyes with dust.  Because there is so much stuff rubbing against itself in the air, there is static electricity everywhere there is a conductor - it shorts out our cars - it knocks us down when we touch each other - and it sparks across the barbed wire in the fields.  Some of us go blind from the dirt that is ground between eye and eyelid.  Many of us, especially the young and the old, after three years of this, get “dust pneumonia”, something that is akin to coal miner’s black lung disease – but it comes much faster.  We wear masks and we put Vaseline on our noses, and still the dust gets into our lungs.  The clouds rain dirt.  When there is a little water mixed in, they rain mud.  We live in dug outs, carved in the ground, alive with centipedes and spiders.  And our roofs, which shed the dirt, let the dust seep through to build up above our ceilings so that our ceilings sag and we have to drill a hole to let the mounds of dust come into a bucket to be collected and carried outside.  And every year, year after year, it gets worse.  Occasionally there is a big storm – one that dumps twelve million tons of soil on Chicago and blankets New York and Washington in brown and that even rains dirt on ships hundreds of miles out at sea – but for us – this stuff coming from the sky is a daily occurrence.



Why did we subject ourselves to this?  We were drawn here by a variety of factors.  Some of us are ranchers or cowboys who ran the Indians and buffalo off the prairie to herd cattle.  Some of us followed and plowed up the land to plant wheat – something that worked well in the wet years and we became rich, so others followed us.  And they came with something new – gas powered plows that could plow up more land than anyone had ever thought possible.  We could homestead.  We could get land for free, just by agreeing to work it – to plow it up and plant it – something that we had done elsewhere as sharecroppers.  Here we did it as landowners.  We were now part of the American dream – we were no longer supporters of the lifestyles of the rich – we now owned a piece of the action.  And we built towns and we carried around a 100 dollar bill in our hand just to let people know just how rich we were.



But our enthusiasm laid bare land that had been protected by the drought resistant buffalo grass – and drought here is not a rare phenomenon.  Half or so of the years there is not enough rainfall to support crops so those are considered drought years.  And those years tend to come in batches.  This land would be desert without the grass – and it quickly became that when the rains stopped.  The topsoil was blown away now that it was uncovered, and it was replace by dust – sand – that heaped itself into dunes.  There is now nothing living – nothing green – to be seen for miles and miles.  Horses are gnawing at fence posts to try to get some nutrition.  We have wells that support small patches of vegetables, but these can be quickly covered by a sandstorm and our homes – even if we have gotten rich enough to have a frame house – become windbreaks that allow the sand to pile up against the sides – we have climb out a window to shovel a path to our front door to unblock it.  And it is the wind – the ever present wind – and the clouds of dust – that are enough to drive a person mad.

In the midst of reading this book, I began to fear the nice comfortable Midwestern rain clouds that would roll in.  Would they release clean rain or would they rain mud?  Nature suddenly became harsh.  This experience reflects the book, where nature's danger was unrelenting.  When Roosevelt’s man Hugh Bennett finally got the farmers to start contour plowing (not, as in this part of the Midwest, to follow the contours of the land – but there, in the other Midwest – to be at right angles to the prevailing winds), and, when just a little rain did come and just a sprig of green came up – the grasshoppers descended on the green and destroyed it – ate it in a heartbeat.  No longer constrained by the snakes and the birds – the snakes dead, the birds staying away from the now vast desert in the middle of the country – the grasshoppers had a field day.  Just when we thought there was hope, those hopes were dashed.  Recovery from this condition was slow and, at least in Egan’s mind, never complete.

When I was a Junior in college in Santa Fe, a friend and I decided to strap some tents on our bikes and ride home to Ohio for the summer.  We rode out of Santa Fe and south, around the mountains and then went diagonally northwest across the upper corner of New Mexico crossing the tip of the panhandle of Oklahoma into Western Kansas.  Santa Fe is high desert as are the mountains in New Mexico, but as we approached the flatlands of Oklahoma and Kansas the land got greener. 

It was late spring as we started – the last light snow fell the day we started out.  My memories of the trip were some of the most vivid of my life.  The combination of being outside all day – having the feel of the road along with the sights and smells led to a fuller experience than I had before or since. I remembered more detail of those three weeks than I have ever had.  But then, a few months later, we developed the pictures we took, and I could feel those memories collapsing and attaching themselves to the images – limiting themselves to what was in the picture book.  It is hard to reconstruct – and it was early enough in spring that crops would have all looked pretty much alike, but I think that by the time we hit Oklahoma a lot of what was on either side of us was grassland. 

Western Kansas was a series of rides from one grain elevator – in a tiny town with a gas station and 10 or 20 houses – to the next grain elevator that appeared on the horizon – with its gas station and houses.  We stopped in each town for some water or a meal (we would buy food at the local grocery or convenience store) and to put some air in my tires – they had a bunch of slow leaks and there wasn’t a European inner tube to be had in Western Kansas – and we answered the same questions – Where are you going?  Where did you come from?  How many miles do make in a day?  The people were very pleasant.  One carful of kids handed us each a Coors light – which tasted pretty awful warm on a hot day while riding a bike, but the thought was in the right place.

The wind was our constant companion and scourge.  I naively thought that the prevailing winds would push us across the land.  Most of the time they were in our face and it was really hard to make headway.  One day the wind blew from the south and, rather than leaning at 45 degrees into it as we pedaled east, we simply turned north and let it push us.  We rode 125 miles that day and barely pedaled – we just sat high in our seats and became sails that propelled us.

Egan maintains, and I don’t doubt him, that much of the green we were seeing around us was a mirage.  The wheat is now supported by deep wells that go down to the Ogallala aquifer, a huge underground lake left by the last retreating glaciers.  The problem is this water is not being replenished.  It is being used at the rate of more than one million acre feet per year – and it is a nonrenewable resource.  Ultimately Bennett was able to save the plains from becoming a Saharan desert through conservation techniques – and a social system where everybody looked after everybody else’s planting habits.   Egan maintains that the soil conservation districts are the only grassroots portion of the New Deal that is still functioning.   The Ogallala aquifer helps to maintain the illusion of a sustainable crop agriculture system in a climate that is too dry to support it, and Egan believes that this is another ecological disaster waiting to happen.

Years after our bike trip, I was driving across western Kansas on a road trip to the mountains and there was a stretch of the interstate that was closed so we were shunted onto a US highway that paralleled it.  Every pickup truck driver that passed us acknowledged up by unwrapping his (or occasionally her) finger tips from the steering while to hold up their flat palm – the hand never left the steering wheel.  And I quickly began returning the salute.  In this country we are all in it together was the feeling I had, even before reading this book.  Now I have a better sense of what that is about.

There are no deep analyses of character in this book – there are plenty of characters, but we really don’t get a sense of why the men who joined the “Last Man Club” did that – vowing never to leave no matter how bad it got.  And we can’t blame some of those who left despite that pledge.  There was a kind of grim fatalism to just finishing the book.  It was cruel and unusual punishment that the story just kept getting worse, it didn’t get better and the bit about the desert being saved came way late and didn’t feel all that hopeful. 

I think we are encouraged by this book to imagine the lives of these people – the deprivation they survived to hang onto land that was their own.  And when we begin to wrap our minds around this, we can begin to imagine that there is an attachment to that land that is as powerful as the attachment of a child to an abusive parent - and there is also an attachment to the dream of what that land can bring.  Both of these are attachments that are deeply felt by those who have chosen to stay.  I think there is also a deeply felt sense of tribalism – of kinsmanship between these white people – people who generally have no shared roots save those that extend into the land – and a sense of “we-ness” that is very territorial (there is one ethnically homogenous group of farmers – Volga Germans who had migrated to Russia under Catherine the Great's largesse and were no longer welcome there - who brought the seeds of the red winter wheat that can survive on less water – and the tumbleweeds that survived in the desert that the wheat left behind when the water got too scarce even for it - did I mention that people ground up tumbleweeds to feed to their horses and cattle?). 

We may be generations removed from the worst hard time, but some things endure.  These people have banded together to survive a desert and then rebuild a grassland and “America’s breadbasket” – a swath of land that has been called on before and after the dust bowl to feed the world.  The attachment between the people and the land becomes as palpable as any other attachment that is primal.  A populist – someone who can articulate that attachment – who can call forth our patriot vigor - as well as the feeling of threat that something foreign might take it away – as the wind has done before – can awaken in these people a powerful sense that we need to band together to ward off an external evil.   We people of the plains, we who have survived so much, must prevent the next hard time from happening.

Maybe it is no accident that "herd" psychology - Dust Bowl Psychology - has happened in the middle of the country - the various midwestern states that have gone red in our last election.  There may be an illusion of homogeneity that we prize here - the sense that it is us against nature - and the us is a group that looks like us - even if we don't have much in common beyond how we look and that we feel that we are fighting for our survival in a vast space that can both support and vanquish us.  That said, the experience of the dust bowlers parallels, in an eerie fashion, those who chased whales in the Atlantic, until they had hunted them to exhaustion, and then chased them into the Pacific.  In the Heart of the Sea - the story of those hunters - is also a brutal read about people who live close to nature and have to fight to survive when nature turns on them.



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