Seeing Like a State in America, with Dust

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Red Earth
Bonnie Lynn-Sherow, 2004

Oklahoma is most frequently portrayed by environmental historians as the site of the 1930s Dust Bowl. Popular memory, if it extends far enough, conjures images like the one I use in my lecturesor Dorothea Lange's portraits of refugees. There's the anger of Steinbeck’s
Grapes of Wrath, but also a kind of human spirit thing mixed in with it.  Donald Worster wrote his classic tale of ecological mismanagement in the same year that Paul Bonnifield wrote a story of the triumph of Oklahoman spirit in the face of natural disaster (1979, The Dust Bowl and Dust Bowl, respectively).  William Cronon used the 180 degree disparity between these histories to comment on the incredibly subjective nature of (even environmental) history, finally threading a way (after four rewrites, he says) through post-modern concerns regarding narrative and cognition, to embrace history as a more-or-less moral fiction, aiming at but never quite reaching truth (“A Place for Stories,” JAH March 1992).

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In contrast to these tales of declension and progress, Bonnie Lynn-Sherow writes about the settlement of Dust Bowl Oklahoma a generation earlier, and wonders what might have been.  “Of all the ways in which history can be written and remembered,” she says, “human based environmental change is often a ‘winner’s’ history told by the people who remain” (145).  Through a variety of influences including chance, culture (including racism), and environment, “in less than one generation, the collective farming practices of the Kiowas [tribe] and the mixed-use practices of African American settlers were swept aside” (147).  In their place, “an elite group of native-born white farmers were eventually triumphant” and a “highly diverse ecology of native plants, animals, and people” became “a more simplified ecology centered on a scientifically approved list of domesticated crops and animals.”

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The white farmers who came to what had been the Indian Territory embraced large-scale agriculture and turned for advice to experts at Ag. Extension offices rather than the farmers who had worked those lands for generations. In a sense, the same preference for central authority over indigenous wisdom James Scott described in Seeing Like a State. This turned out to be a fatal error. And, ironically, an error we may have made again, as much of the are that blew away in the Dust Bowl has been reoccupied by farmers using deep-well irrigation. But the Ogallala Aquifer, the lifeline of this remade farm region, is drying up.  Lynn-Sherow's conclusion, that “white farmers’ acceptance and enthusiasm for mechanized agriculture…initiated and sustained the simplification of the territory” seems like a moral declension, in the sense Cronon said Worster’s book was.  Or is it?  A more simplified ecological system like the one modern agriculture has implemented in Oklahoma is more fragile and subject to disturbances like drought.  So she’s using Cronon’s "second set of narrative constraints" (making "ecological sense") to get past the subjectivity of her judgment that monoracial commercialized monoculture is bad.  Cool.