Thursday, March 9, 2023

An Ekphrastic Essay About Paul Bunyan and Tree Equity in Tucson


Image Credit: David Bradley (b. 1954), Chippewa, Another Minnesota Folk Legend, 1987, oil on canvas. Collection of the Tucson Museum of Art. Gift of James T. Bialac.

Recently when I was listening to the Ralph Nader Radio Hour, I was surprised to hear a short discourse on the legend of Paul Bunyan during an episode about a book called The Commercial Determinants of Health. Nader was interviewing one of the book’s editors, Dr. Nason Maani, who said that "…our health is largely shaped by forces outside of health care…” These forces include whether or not we breathe clean air, how well off our parents are, if we live in a polluted neighborhood or live in a house near a highway. And of course some of these forces are determined by the actions of corporations, which is why big companies spend a great deal of time and money trying to affect our perceptions of them and influence our willingness to consume their products and tolerate the health consequences they bring us. Nader gave as an example of such corporate puffery the use of the legend of Paul Bunyan to encourage people to associate the destructive process of logging with the heroic and larger-than-life adventures of an American folk legend. He said that pamphlets about Bunyan were distributed at his school when he was a child, and he called Bunyan “a fictional creature of the lumber industry.” Then he added, “And the last line of the [pamphlet]  was, ‘And Paul Bunyan and the Blue Ox will continue until the last tree is down.’” 

Shortly after I heard that Nader program, I went to the Tucson Museum of Art and saw the exhibit called Enduring Legacies: The James T. Bialac Indigenous Art Collection,  which just opened in February of 2023. The exhibit features a large and extremely impressive collection of American Indian art from the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and it was donated to the TMA by Bialac. The museum worked with indigenous scholars to mount this exhibition, and there’s a focus on community and nature. It includes work by a Pueblo artist I first encountered in Albuquerque -- Diego Romero, whose “Saints and Sinners” deals with Spanish colonization of Pueblo people. There's also work by Tohono O'odham artist Michael Chiago, whose “Spirit Dancer” shows off his knowledge of dance as well as his artistry. But when I saw David Bradley's “Another Minnesota Folk Legend," I couldn't help but think about what Nader had to say about the story of Bunyan and his ox, Babe. Though the painting is relatively small (25 by 20 inches), it had a powerful effect on me, and I understood why Bradley portrayed Bunyan as a monstrosity of sorts, a creature that Native people, dependent on the forest, were bound to be horrified by.

Valerie K. Verzuh, who wrote Indian Country: The Art of David Bradley, says that Bradley’s "... meticulous attention to the surface gives each area of the composition equal significance and resists focal points, inviting viewers to wander the canvas from top to bottom, following lines, shapes, colors, and concepts." But when I stood in front of "Another Minnesota Folk Legend,” I  couldn’t force myself to give equal attention to all parts of the painting. The sight of Paul Bunyan and the highly feminized ox, Babe, portrayed in the top half of the canvas lost out to the familiar-looking trees and animals and the understandable reactions of the native people portrayed in the bottom half of the canvas. Verzuh also says that Bradley acknowledges the power of iconic images and “… delights in deconstructing these images to examine how they convey meaning, and then reconstructing them, injecting each with irony for comic effect or critical comment.” The humor and irony in “Another Minnesota Folk Legend,” has helped me understand the legend of Paul Bunyan more clearly, though the painting also works to tell a very sobering story. (It is in fact included with other works in a room that is collectively labelled “Storytelling and Community.")

With the exception of the slim crescent moon in the sky, everything on the canvas that's near Bunyan and his ox is unnatural and uneasy. As folklore would have it, Bunyan and Babe tower over the landscape, but they seem more monstrous than legendary. The lumberjack’s expression is hard to read, but his head is tipped back as though he's shouting something or howling at the moon. He carries an axe in one hand and a can of Hamm’s beer in the other. (Note that Hamm’s is brewed in Minnesota, “the Land of Sky Blue Waters.”) Though Bunyan's plaid shirt and jeans are what we might expect to see a lumberjack wearing, Babe the ox is far from a normal bovine. She has human eyes and lips, and the ring in her nose matches the one in her ear. The sidelong glance she gives Bunyan is uncomfortably flirtatious, and on her blue back end she appears to be wearing lacy stockings attached to garters. Whatever Bunyan is shouting or howling, he looks as though he’s upset in a very self-involved sort of way and so he doesn’t seem to notice the stir that he and Babe are causing.

Whatever you can say about the scene taking place below the two gigantic figures, there's nothing really surprising about it. The trees are at a normal scale, showing just how easy it would be for Bunyan to take them down with one swipe of his massive axe. Animals flee as they would under such circumstances. Some Native people are in canoes, leaving their shelters in which fires are still burning. A few adults are shooting arrows at Bunyan, but the reaction of the animals and most of the people is to get out of his way. Bunyan is so grotesque that it's sensible to find a vantage point from which to observe him rather than to be squashed by his gigantic feet. The trees, which have white bark and are probably birch trees, are at the mercy of the huge lumberjack. (Note that Bradley’s mother was from the Chippewa nation, and Chippewa people covered their dwellings with birch bark and made birch bark canoes.)

The Bialac exhibit contains many memorable works of art, but I went back a couple of times to look at "Another Minnesota Folk Legend" and decided to write a blog post about it. When I asked myself what a painting about a Northwoods legend has to do with Tucson, I decided that, in addition to the fact that David Bradley attended the University of Arizona before he settled into his life as a New Mexico artist, there's the fact that Tucson has its own statue of Paul Bunyan. Tucson's Bunyan is made of fiberglass, stands 20 feet tall, and has a more pleasant expression on his face than Bradley's Bunyan. He watches traffic go by at the corner of Glenn and Stone, and the statue is a quirky thing to see in a place with more cactus than timber. 

Tucson's Paul Bunyan statue at the corner of Glenn and Stone.

But Paul Bunyan isn't entirely out of place in any corner of the United States. Stories about Bunyan originated in Maine and Canada, and he may have been based on a real French-Canadian lumberjack. But as the timber industry moved westward in order to find new forests to exploit, stories about Bunyan shifted to the Northwoods of Minnesota and Wisconsin and then to the West Coast.  And statues of Bunyan seem to have followed the stories across the country; they can be found in almost every state.  But inevitably the lumber industry saw that Paul Bunyan could be good for their public image, and in 1914 the Red River Lumber Company created pamphlets featuring Bunyan as part of an advertising campaign. A revised version of the pamphlet from 1922 was reviewed by the Kansas City Star, and Bunyan became a kind of pop culture figure and the subject of comics, books, and even an operetta. 

As Marshall Fishwick said in 1959 in "Sons of Paul: Folklore or Fakelore?"  American "folk" heroes are remarkably alike because, though their names and jobs are different, they have all been designed to encourage people to look with admiration at what Fishwick calls "the Big Build-Up." By this he means the ways that development has taken precedence over sustainability in the history of our nation. And though our so-called folk heroes are said to exert superhuman efforts to drill oil (Kent Morgan), dig tunnels (John Henry), drive cattle (Pecos Bill), or make steel (Joe Magarac), all of them are part of the project of turning natural places where American Indians once lived and ecosystems thrived into industrialized and developed spaces that makes big profits for corporations. Our sprawling city regularly participates in “the Big Build-Up,” and trees are often sacrificed to the developers’ needs. 

Though the Sonoran Desert isn't known for having large numbers of trees the way the Northwoods once did, trees are an important part of the ecosystem. People frequently plant native trees like mesquite and palo verde, and there are also many non-native trees like citrus trees and Italian cypresses. As an acknowledgement that trees can improve our wellbeing and the quality of our lives, the City of Tucson under Mayor Regina Romero has been working on its Tucson Million Trees Initiative since 2020. The Mayor has said that she can see and feel the effects of climate change here in Tucson, and she worries about how people will cope with rising temperatures and the high cost of water. She added that "...these impacts are not felt equally across our neighborhoods. Frontline communities of color and lower incomes have been battling these changes for years already. If we are to face this future together, we must address the years of injustice that have left parts of our city hotter, with fewer greenspaces and less investment."  

Planting trees in neighborhoods that need them is one way to address these injustices. There's even a metric called Tree Equity which "helps cities assess how well they are delivering equitable tree canopy cover to all residents." The tree equity score of a neighborhood takes into account how many residents are below the poverty level and other demographic and socioeconomic factors. The neighborhood I live in, Tucson Park West 1, though it's not the wealthiest in the city, gets a Tree Equity Score of 100 out of a possible 100. But many other neighborhoods in which there are a large number of poor people and people of color have some of the lowest scores.

The palo verde tree in front of our house blooms in Spring of 2022

The idea of Tree Equity represents a move toward environmental justice, but the fact that the trees in Oak Flat are in danger of being ripped out to make way for a copper mine shows that the spirit of Paul Bunyan is still present on our land.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Stone and Rock and Hard Work: Thoughts on a Recent Visit to the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site in the Catalina Mountains

I decided to begin this post with a photograph by Ansel Adams to acknowledge that the WPA photographers played a part in my ability to remember -- and inability to forget -- that nearly 120,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans were unjustly imprisoned in this country during World War II. Adams was given the job of documenting the Manzanar Relocation Center in California when Dorothea Lange was removed from the project, and he made a number of portraits of people working at the camp. Go to the Library of Congress archive and you can see Adams’ photographs of a mechanic and a nurse   and a woodworker  and a pattern maker and a foreman of power sewing machine workers and a line crew at work  and an electrician  and a tractor driver  and a farmer. Most of those people are identified by name, and they were doing work that needed to be done. All of them were prisoners in the camp at Manzanar.

A couple of months ago when Greg and I went to the Tucson Desert Art Museum, I saw some of the photos of Manzanar and other prison camps taken by Lange and Russell Lee. There, in addition to the exhibit on the Dust Bowl (see previous post), we also saw an exhibit called “Citizen Enemy: Japanese-American Incarceration Camps.” And because the work by WPA photographers affected me and made it hard for me to stop thinking about those incarceration camps, I began to look through other WPA photographs I found online. I was drawn to Adams’ photo of the pool in the pleasure park in Manzanar. It’s an ambiguous sort of landscape -- a welcoming place that's entirely deserted. A graceful bridge and a curvy ramada look as though they were built from found wood, while rocks that came from somewhere else line the pool. Flat stones are incorporated into a walkway, and the mountains form the naturally perfect backdrop. Small trees are reflected in the water. Only a few thin clouds occlude the sky. Yet no one is there to enjoy the pleasure park. Maybe that’s because pleasure is hard to find when you are incarcerated unjustly.  

Pool in pleasure park, Manzanar Relocation Center, Calif. / photograph by Ansel Adams, 1943.

I learned that the rocks in that park came from the nearby mountains when I read Tucson poet Brandon Shimoda’s  “49 Stones for the Poetry of Japanese Incarceration.” In this stunning essay, Shimoda talks about his grandfather, who was incarcerated during World War II, and he interweaves excerpts of the work of other Japanese American poets with descriptions of the activities of Japanese and Japanese American prisoners whose creativity helped them to survive. These creative prisoners included men in Montana who made gifts of the stones they found and then polished, as well as prisoners at Manzanar who “relocated stones from elsewhere” to construct what Adams calls a pleasure park. The poets Shimoda invokes include Brynn Saito, whose “Stone in the Desert Camp, 1942" is told in the voice of a stone found at Manzanar. It begins: “Between the turtle rock and the crane rock/ the children found me. I was shining/ and smooth and silent about my secrets.” Earlier in the essay, Shimoda has told us that “Stones imply a form of communication that enables silence to express itself." He has also already told us that “One of the few things that one can, with any certainty, expect to find in the ruins of Japanese American incarceration—in the physical ruins of the innumerable incarceration sites—are stones.”

And so I thought about the kinds of stone and rock we might see when Greg and I decided to visit the former Federal Honor Camp in the Catalina Mountains on Christmas Day. I thought about stone and rock while we drove from our West-side home to those East-side mountains, a trip we often make on a holiday because traffic is light then. I thought about stone and rock as we drove up the Catalina Highway, which I knew was built by the prisoners at the Catalina Honor Camp. I looked out at the mountain stone and rock as the Sonoran Desert biome, with its arid serenity and impressive array of saguaros, gave way to oak scrubland and chaparral. And as we neared the site of the former prison camp, I wondered how prisoners could have built this road – a series of hairpin turns and S-curves as mountain roads tend to be – when the rock is so massive and the mountainside so dauntingly steep. 

Looking toward Tucson from Soldier Trail in the Catalina Mountains in Coronado National Forest;
photo by Greg Evans 

We parked near the campground at what is now known as the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site and walked over to what’s left of the building that housed prison staff during the war. There are a number of signs that describe what happened there and how the Federal Honor Camp came to include Japanese American prisoners. What’s left of the staff living quarters makes a handsome monument, with a heavy stone staircase leading up the to the foundation of a building that no longer exists. One of the signs answered my question about the hard work of the prisoners who built that road, stating that at first they only had picks, shovels and wheelbarrows, though jackhammers, bulldozers, and tractors were added later, which made the work go faster.  "Before I went to the Honor Camp, I thought prisoners only broke rocks with picks in cartoons," one former prisoner said. 

Stone steps at the site of the former staff residence of the Tucson Federal Prison
Camp, now the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Area

The Tucson Federal Prison Camp held a number of men who resisted the draft during World War II, including Hopi and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The first and most famous of the 45 Japanese-American prisoners who were sent there was Gordon Hirabayashi, who had violated federal curfew and evacuation orders. Though he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, he lost his appeal and eventually spent three months at the camp. Most of the Japanese American prisoners were also members of a civil rights movement which demanded that men of Japanese descent who were being drafted to fight in World War II should have all the rights of American citizenship or else they shouldn’t have to fight. If they were truly citizens, why were they being sent to prison camps for the non-crime of “looking like the enemy”? If they were dangerous allies of a foreign power, why were they being asked to serve in the U.S. armed forces? In the end, Hirabayashi was pardoned for the crimes for which he had been imprisoned, and the former prison camp he inhabited was named in his honor in 1999. Here, in brief, is how he ended up at the Catalina Honor Camp:

According to Cherstin Lyon in Prisons and Patriotsbecause of Hirabayashi's curfew violation and resistance to evacuation in Seattle, Washington, he was arrested and spent months in King County Jail. When he was finally tried and convicted, he said he didn't want to spend any more time in a "walled institution" but wanted to serve his sentence in a road camp. In order to accomplish that goal, he asked for a longer sentence than the one he had been given initially because that sentence was too short to justify the paperwork that would have been needed to send him to a road camp. He then offered to go by himself to the Tucson Federal Prison Camp. In fact he hitchhiked to Tucson -- a one-month journey of over 1,600 miles from Spokane, Washington – in order to serve his two concurrent ninety day sentences. During the time he was in the Tucson Federal Prison Camp, he was one of the prisoners whose cheap labor helped to finish the Catalina Highway, which extends 24 miles from Gibbons' Ranch to Soldier Camp. The road gains more than 5,200 feet in elevation, which makes it the equivalent of driving from the deserts of Mexico to Canada's alpine forests.  "While building the highway, prisoners busted rocks, hauled pipes, shoveled gravel, and cut this road through an impressively rugged mountainous terrain." (Lyon, p. 111) And among other jobs that Gordon Hirabayashi did while in the camp, including working as a cook and an athletic director, he broke rocks and shoveled gravel, too. (Lyon, p. 117) Though the segregation that was a part of life in the United States during that time also played itself out in the camp, Hirabayashi said that he interacted frequently with the Hopi who were there. They told him they wouldn’t fight the white man’s war, called him a brother, treated him to the ceremony of washing his hair with soapweed and made him tea. (Lyon, p. 113)

One of the signs at the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Area; it explains how and why
prisoners at the Tucson Federal Prison Camp built the Catalina Highway.

When I thought about why the men at the Catalina Honor Camp had to work so hard to build a 24-mile mountain road, part of which was constructed without using bulldozers and other heavy equipment, I thought it was possible that those prisoners may have wanted to work outside while they served out their sentences. In fact, at that time Arizona was considered to have more progressive policies regarding the treatment of prisoners than many of the other U.S. states. (Lyon, p. 107) Gordon Hirabayashi himself chose to go to the Catalina Honor Camp for just that reason after all. But what about all those workers Ansel Adams photographed? Why was it that Japanese Americans during World War II were not only imprisoned but had to work their way through this life-shattering experience?

Brandon Shimoda's work gave me a significant part of the answer to these questions, especially in regard to what happened here in Arizona. In the address Shimoda gave at the Holocaust History Center at Tucson’s Jewish History Museum on Inauguration Day in 2017 ("State of Erasure: Arizona’s Place, and the Place of Arizona, in the Mass Incarceration of Japanese Americans"), he said that during the early 1940s, two of the four largest cities in Arizona were concentration camps. Not only that, but the camps in Arizona were the only ones that were on American Indian reservations. This resulted in what Shimoda called a particular relationship between the treatment of Japanese Americans and of Native Americans, and he tied these two things together by introducing Thomas Campbell, an agricultural engineer who was also the Special Investigator of Native American lands for the Department of the Interior. Shimoda went on to say that Campbell “…was obsessed with the enormous number of what he considered worthless parcels of real estate, that were, in the 1930s and 40s, spread throughout the United States, many of the worthless parcels being, in Thomas Campbell’s estimation, on Native American lands. He was also obsessed with the enormous number of projects to reclaim and rehabilitate those worthless parcels of real estate, projects that either were under-funded or had been abandoned." In other words, Campbell thought that millions of acres of natural desert and scrubland and chaparral were without value and needed to be developed and economically exploited. So after Pearl Harbor, he came up with the idea of incarcerating the Japanese and Japanese American people who had been forcibly removed from their homes on those worthless parcels of real estate so they could be put to work building roads and irrigation systems and other projects that needed to be finished. In this way, Shimoda said, Campbell helped add a fourth reason Japanese Americans were rounded up and imprisoned -- beyond the three Congress eventually acknowledged, which were race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership -- and that fourth reason was economic exploitation.

Poston, the largest of the concentration camps, was a beneficiary of Campbell's plan, and many work projects were proposed in order to develop the reservation there. As a result, the Japanese built an irrigation system and schools for the Hopi and Navajo, among other things. I learned more about those projects when I watched the 2009 documentary, Passing Poston: An American Story.  Filmmakers Joe Fox and James Nubile show that Japanese prisoners were brought to Poston on the Colorado River Indian Reservation to build schools, dams, canals, and farms in order that scattered groups of Native Americans could be brought together into one place after the war. In other words, they provided free, forced labor for the American government

Ruth Okimoto, who was imprisoned at Poston when she was a child, later researched the beginnings of the camp and she was startled to find that the Office of Indian Affairs ran Poston along with the War Relocation Authority. According to Michael Tsosie, a historian of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, another government official played a similar role to that of Thomas Campbell; he was John Collier, a commissioner of Indian Affairs in the Roosevelt Administration, who wanted to build an irrigation project to bring Colorado River water to the reservation near Poston so more Native people could be moved to this desert area. "Japanese internment was the justification needed for the expenditure of federal funds," said Tsosie. A council member of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, Dennis Patch, said the house he grew up in was once part of the Japanese barracks. He said that Native people felt bad about the suffering of imprisoned Japanese people and could “identify with mass relocation against our will.” He also noted that American Indian reservations were places where native people were not free to travel at will, and he called Poston “an internment camp within an internment camp.” In commentary included with the DVD I watched, filmmakers Fox and Nubile said that the idea that Japanese Americans were brought to this remote desert location to work and complete projects that would lead to intensification of the control over American Indians was the most startling thing they learned while making Passing Poston.

Of course, Japanese American and Japanese prisoners didn’t just do the work that was imposed on them while they were in the camps; they also engaged in voluntary work as artists and artisans to make their lives a little more satisfying. Many works of art made from found materials were produced in the prison camps. The Ansel Adams photo shows a large-scale example of this  – a garden park made from wood and stone and other materials that were at hand. But there are countless other, smaller examples of arts and crafts ranging from walking sticks and bird pins to watercolor paintings and teapots. I
n the play based on Gordon Hirabayashi's life called Hold These Truths, after his time at the Catalina Honor Camp has ended, he is sent to Idaho where his parents are working the sugar beet harvest. One day his mother gives him a small black stone, which was polished by an artist in another camp when his only son is killed fighting in Italy with American forces. Hirabayashi says the stone shines like a small black moon and has a few tiny characters etched on its surface which say "I carve on this stone from the high plateau, but I have no song." Hirabayashi adds, "So many lost so much. So many lives shattered. So many hopes destroyed." Yet in spite of the sorrows they experienced, artists and artisans in the camps continued their creative work, like the artist who polished the stone Hirabayashi's mother gave him, like the workers who made the pleasure park Ansel Adams photographed, as a way to show that they were not entirely defeated by their experiences.

But being unjustly imprisoned is the kind of experience that can defeat people, make them question their own significance and importance. While at the place that now bears the name Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site, I read the signs and thought how unnerved and disrespected these men must have felt when they were given only unacceptable choices, none of which would lead to full citizenship rights. Would they deny their Japanese citizenship? Would they allow themselves to be drafted and possibly die in wartime for a country that didn’t value them as true Americans? The Tucsonians, as the Japanese American men who were imprisoned at the Federal Honor Camp were later known, spent a great deal of time talking about these issues, trying to understand how they could demand justice.

The welcome sign at the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site.

In February, it will be eighty-one years since President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the Secretary of War to designate exclusion zones and provided the basis for the forced removal and incarceration of the Japanese. After the war, Japanese Americans fought hard to force the government to redress this wrong until finally the Civil Liberties Act was signed into law in 1988. It offered an apology and gave compensation of $20,000 to surviving people of Japanese descent who were incarcerated in prison camps during World War II. But questions of how to accord everyone just treatment under our constitution continue to arise in response to wrongdoing from our government and other citizens. This was the case after September 11, 2001, when Muslims were targeted for “looking like the enemy"; in 2018 when immigrant families, including children, were imprisoned by the Trump administration; when Asian-Americans were targeted after the start of the pandemic because China was considered to be the source of the devastating virus. As I stood at the Hirabayashi Recreation Site I knew what Gordon Hirabayashi would do in response to those injustices and wrongs, and I was glad to be there with the rock he helped to break and with the stones that bore witness to his life.

Lyon, Cherstin M.,
Prisons and patriots: Japanese American wartime citizenship, civil disobedience, and historical memory, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012. 

Thursday, December 1, 2022

A Look at Dust in Arizona and the Dust Bowl in Arizona History

In the heat of June here in the Sonoran Desert, before the monsoon starts and when many plants are hovering between life and death, the dust seems to come alive. Once, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a large indistinct form that turned into, as I turned toward it, a dust devil. It whirled and sidled across the street, then broke apart as quickly as it came into being.

Anyone who has seen a haboob, which is the locally adopted Arabic word for dust storm, knows it is a much bigger and more challenging entity than a dust devil, yet it also seems to make the dust come to life. I walked through a mild haboob in downtown Tucson in May of 2012, but there are much larger dust storms that move ominously forward like a thundering herd of amorphous animals. Intense haboobs are more likely to occur along Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson, but strong dust storms can invade the city as shown in the photo below.

I thought a lot about blowing dust and what the Dust Bowl must have been like for people in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles when we traveled through that area last summer on our trip to Ohio. We stopped to see a little bit of the prairie land that is left in Missouri and Kansas, and we listened to excerpts of The Grapes of Wrath, but we weren't able to find a museum that focused on the experience of the Dust Bowl for the people who lived through it. After we got home, I read about the exhibit at the Chandler Museum called "Picturing Home: Dust Bowl Migrants in Chandler," but then, closer to home, I learned about the exhibit called “The Dirty Thirties: New Deal Photography Frames the Migrants' Stories,” which is permanently on display at the Tucson Desert Art Museum.

The “Dirty Thirties” exhibit is not made up of framed photos but of display panels that contain images and text relating to various aspects of the Dust Bowl. On the very first panel, the Arthur Rothstein photo from March of 1936 (see below) with the caption "Heavy black clouds of dust rising over the Texas Panhandle, Texas” sets the tone for the rest of the exhibit. This ominous and powerful photo shows massive dust clouds bearing down on a single car on a road still lit by the sun, though obviously it wouldn’t be for long. What makes the image especially effective is the brightness of the foreground and the darkness of the background, which give the viewer some idea of the sense of helplessness these rolling dust clouds would have elicited.
Rothstein, Arthur, "Heavy black clouds of dust rising over the Texas Panhandle, Texas," March 1936.
Courtesy of Library of Congress

The exhibit, as the title suggests, is focused on photos by New Deal photographers, but I was especially interested in the section called “The Cotton Fields of Arizona” that features images by Dorothea Lange. In November of 1940 when many of these photos were taken, Arizona was an important part of the western cotton belt, and Lange recorded the experiences of migrant cotton pickers for the Farm Security Administration.

In New Deal Art in Arizona, Arizona State University Art History Professor Betsy Fahlman says that Lange’s Arizona photos are less well known than her other work, but they are “as compelling as any she took elsewhere.” (New Deal Art in Arizona, p. 94) Lange’s image (see below) of three workers, two of whom are weighed down and partly obscured by their bags of cotton, bears the caption "Cortaro Farms, Pinal County, Arizona. Cotton pickers with full sacks make their way through the field to the weighmaster at the cotton wagon." Because you can’t see the workers’ faces, they have a kind of anonymous quality that Fahlman says “…implies a depth of visual reference evoking a long art-historical tradition of picturing European peasants engaged in endless back-breaking labor, as defined by nineteenth-century French painters Jean-Francois Millet, Gustave Courbet, and others." (New Deal Art in Arizona, p. 99) And in fact the figures in the photo are similar in their postures and implied movements to the three women in The Gleaners, an 1857 painting by Jean-Francois Millet. More recently and closer to home, Peasants by Diego Rivera also suggests common work experiences by showing anonymous individuals.
Lange, Dorothea, "Cortaro Farms, Pinal County, Arizona. Cotton pickers with full sacks make their way through the field
to the weighmaster at the cotton wagon." November, 1940. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

These kinds of photos show Lange’s artistry off to good effect, but she is best known for her empathic portraits of individuals and families. Many such photos are included in “The Cotton Fields of Arizona” section of the exhibit, and they depict a surprisingly diverse group of cotton pickers, both male and female, who range in age from elders to young children, and include American Indians, African Americans, Mexicans and Mexican Americans, and whites who might be called Okies, Arkies, or Texies, depending on which Dust-Bowl-ravaged state they came from. In the image below, which is included in the exhibit, a man is shown wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, which half-covers his face and makes him seem wary and weary at the same time. The caption reads: “Near Coolidge, Arizona. Migratory cotton picker with his cotton sack slung over his shoulder rests at the scales before returning to work in the field.” The composition of this image is especially effective because of the prominence given to the palm of the man’s hand, the sharp angle formed by his bent arm and the wooden structure in the foreground, the toga-like folds of the bag over his shoulder, and the sense that he is restless though he is at rest. The photo elicits our sympathy, but it is only one of a huge number of images Lange took in the Arizona cotton fields. These photos show men and women pulling heavy bags of cotton, children struggling to pick from the prickly cotton plants, women caring for young children amid the squalor of the camps, and the range and variety of careworn faces of so many hard-working and worried people.

Lange, Dorothea, "Near Coolidge, Arizona. Migratory cotton picker with his cotton sack slung
over his shoulder rests at the scales before returning to work in the field." November 1940.
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The text that accompanies the photos in the “Dirty Thirties” exhibit makes it clear that the events of the Depression were even harder for some people because of the racism that manifested itself in the way pickers were treated and even in the ways they were depicted. (Margaret Regan did a nice job of explaining this in her review of the exhibit in 2021: "Migrant Caravans: Photos from the New Deal Era Document Desperate Times." ) A documentary called “From Arizona's Dust Bowl: Lessons Lost,” which was produced by Arizona Public Media in 2012, examined these issues in great detail and featured a number of professors from the University of Arizona and other Arizona universities who answered questions about the Dust Bowl as it was experienced in Arizona.

One shocking example of racist treatment of workers was the so-called Repatriation of Mexicans – and even Mexican Americans who were citizens of the United States -- to Mexico. According to Professor of Agronomy, Agriculture and Life Sciences Jeffrey C. Silvertooth, between 1918 and 1920, 35,000 Mexicans were brought to Arizona to work in the cotton fields as Arizona’s cotton production expanded from 7,000 acres in 1916 to 180,000 acres in 1919. The low-paid labor of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans made it possible for the U.S. to make up for a shortfall of cotton imports experienced because of World War I. Then, according to History Professor Juan R. Garcia, Mexican workers were scapegoated and blamed for the economic troubles of the Depression, and many Americans became convinced that removing Mexicans would make things better. Anthropology Professor Thomas E. Sheridan said that during the Dust Bowl and Depression, the Federal government deported as many as 500,000 to 600,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans, which in turn created a great demand for labor in the fields.

The Arizona Farm Bureau then advertised widely in Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, broadcasting the news that 5,000 families were wanted to work on 240,000 acres of cotton in the big cotton districts near Phoenix, Chandler, Casa Grande, and other places, including Eloy. The migrant Texies, Arkies, and Okies came, but they couldn’t earn anywhere near as much money as advertised. In New Deal Art in Arizona, Professor Fahlman says that “cotton growers optimistically reported that a good worker ‘could pick from 300 to 400 pounds of cotton a day, which would mean an income from $14 to $19 a week per picker.’ In practice, it was nearly impossible to earn these wages.” (New Deal Art in Arizona, p. 97) Migrant workers from Dust-Bowl-ravaged states experienced extreme hardship and terrible living conditions, and Professor Garcia said that the growers "replac[ed] one exploited group with another."

But what was it like to live in Arizona during the Dust Bowl? Despite the possibility of dust devils and haboobs, Arizona didn’t really experience the kind of blowing dust that made the Great Plains uninhabitable, and Arizona was less a victim of the Dust Bowl and more of a place migrant workers passed through on the way to California. One notable exception is the way dust in northern Arizona affected the lives of Navajo people. The documentary tells the heartbreaking story of how Navajo people were forced to slaughter their sheep and cattle because overgrazing was said to be creating soil erosion and the federal government feared that blowing dust would compromise the newly built Hoover Dam and silt up the Colorado River. "Stock reduction measures," according to Professor Manley A. Begay, currently in the Department of Applied Indigenous Studies at Northern Arizona University, created a "disastrous time in the history of Navajo people" because for them "livestock is life." "People were heartbroken by the sheer slaughter of thousands and thousands of animals," he said.

The Arizona Public Media documentary spends some time addressing the issue of blowing dust in Arizona, and I learned that our dust devils and haboobs form differently than Dust Bowl dust clouds and don’t last as long. Even so, according to Eric Betterton, Head of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, if we want to mitigate dust, we need to try to control the sources, such as large areas of unvegetated or unpaved land.

Anyone who lives in southern Arizona has seen such areas of unvegetated and/or unpaved land and the resultant clouds of dust. I read about so-called "fugitive dust," and I was surprised to learn that even dust devils can be dangerous. According to the National Weather Service they can generate wind speeds of up to 80 m.p.h. and have caused property damage and injuries, largely because of blowing debris. Because of the small but real potential for harm, you should stay out of a dust devil’s way. 

Dust devil in Arizona by NASA - NASA web page & source file, Public Domain,

A haboob can be much more dangerous and can even cause serious health problems, since they carry particles of manure, pesticides, brake dust and tiny pieces of tires, along with Valley Fever spores. As I noted in an earlier blog post, according to an October 2020 article in Smithsonian Magazine, it is possible that the Great Plains could experience another Dust Bowl. Dust levels have been rising, as much as 5% per year, and the hotter, drier weather caused by climate change coincides with this trend, mimicking conditions that led to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. How that would affect Arizona is less certain, but we already have problems with dust mitigation here and certainly need to remain vigilant.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

The Luis Gutierrez Bridge Spans the Santa Cruz River Gracefully; It Also Links Two Parts of a Divided Community and Makes Connections to the Past

The Luis Gutierrez Bridge,  with art by Brenda Semanick and David Johnson Vandenberg, in collaboration with architect David Dobler of Structural Grace, the Tucson engineering firm that designed the bridge.

It was a little after 8:30 on October 14 when Greg and I hurried toward the Luis Gutierrez Bridge on the West side of Tucson. The morning sunlight was dimmed by a thin, high layer of clouds. Usually that’s a good thing in our sun-drenched city, but on this particular day we wanted to witness a solar art event, so we really had hoped for full sun. I glanced at the sign that greets pedestrians as they walk onto this multimodal bridge (which also serves cars, buses, a streetcar, and bicyclists), and I noticed that it said, "If our glorious sun is shining," we might witness an event "that those perceptive, those interested, those who appreciate symbolism, will experience only once a year in those few moments." We were joined by five other people who had come to the bridge on the discovery date and time indicated, but the sun didn't come through for us and the sunlight-formed image that might have aligned with a second image on the sidewalk below never quite appeared. The seven of us stood there for a while, hopeful, but the sky was just too cloudy and the October sun wasn’t bright enough. The others wandered off, and Greg and I took a few pictures and groused a little about the sun’s poor showing. Even so, we agreed that it was still worth our time to have hurried out to the bridge on a pleasant fall morning because the Luis Gutierrez Bridge is a very impressive structure.

The sign that greets pedestrians on the Luis Gutierrez Bridge.

As the sign on the bridge suggested, I’m a person who appreciates symbolism, and bridges are often symbolic structures. This one is subtly and especially so. Once called the Cushing Street Bridge, the Luis Gutierrez Bridge can be seen as a symbol of connection as it links two parts of a divided community that was split apart when Interstate 10 was built. What makes the bridge a particularly appropriate structure for Tucson is that it is a work of solar art, which is also what enables it to create links to the past. At twelve precise times each year, the sun shines through laser-cut images on one or another of the shade canopies that extend over the bridge, and an image formed by the sun’s light aligns with another image embossed onto the sidewalk. We were there on October 14 because the solar projection of the Tucson Pressed Brick Company’s stamp is supposed to align with an image of the brickworks on the sidewalk. October 14 was one of the twelve dates selected by a community ballot, according to the bridge’s designers, because it is the date of Quintus Monier’s death. He was the architect who founded TPBCo, and his achievements included building the St. Augustine Cathedral. He died in 1923. 

Tucson artist Brenda Semanick, who died nearly a hundred years later in 2019, designed the canopy panels that project images onto the sidewalk; she also designed the leaves that perforate those panels (and are embossed on the sidewalk as well) and the bats and other clay creatures that decorate the pier that holds up the bridge. Her artist husband, David Johnson Vandenberg, drew the sidewalk images. In turn, the couple collaborated with architect David Dobler of Structural Grace, the local engineering firm that designed the bridge; it was Dobler who made sure that the sun lines up with the images on the dates and times listed. (See All of this painstaking work is what makes the Luis Gutierrez Bridge such memorable public art. In fact, it was named by Roads and Bridges magazine as one of America’s Top Ten Bridges in 2012. 

Leaves embossed on the sidewalk of the Luis Gutierrez Bridge.

If you stand on the bridge and look down over the railing, you won’t see much of the Santa Cruz River, which the bridge was built to span; in fact, most of the time there’s no water down there whatsoever, just some vegetation and a great deal of bare ground. These days the Santa Cruz River only flows through Tucson because of human intervention – here in the desert southwest the groundwater has been pumped so extensively that the river can’t flow unless effluent is released into the riverbed.  That effluent has helped make some parts of the riverbed green and has created a home for some native fishes, but the Santa Cruz has nearly disappeared in most of the Tucson area.  Over the past hundred years, you could say that the river has been effaced by the activities of a growing city and the influx of new Anglo residents. It seems this is also what happened to the nearby neighborhood.

When the Luis Gutierrez Bridge was opened to pedestrian traffic in 2012, former City Manager Gutierrez said, “The people who have lived in the West side of our community have for generations felt that when the freeway was constructed that they became separated from the community.” (Note that the freeway can clearly be seen from the bridge.) He added that the bridge provides a way for the community to be reunited.  Expanding on that, Brenda Semanick talked about the bridge as “…a span across time that reaches to our past.”
This was brought home to me in a gentle but insistent way as we stood on the bridge on October 14. I realized that the period of time during which the Tucson Pressed Brick Company was located not far away from the bridge – that is, between 1894 and 1963 in the area south of Congress Street and west of the Santa Cruz River – was also a period of time during which there was a non-stop effort to change Tucson’s identity from that of a city with strong Mexican influences and important Mexican and Mexican-American populations to a city dominated by Anglo culture and people. Or as Lydia Otero says in their book In the Shadows ofthe Freeway: Growing Up Brown and Queer, “Race and place became intertwined early in Tucson’s history.”  (Otero, In the Shadows of the Freeway, p. 24)

I had heard
former UA professor, historian, and Tucson native Otero read from their book at a National Writers Union event in September. I wanted to hear more of Otero’s story, so I looked at their website. Here’s the way In the Shadows of the Freeway is described there: “The author witnessed how the steady expansion of Interstate 10 (I-10) separated and isolated a barrio of brown and poor residents from the rest of the city. Growing up 200 feet from the freeway meant more than enduring traffic noise and sirens for Otero and other barrio families. It introduced environmental hazards that contributed to the death of family members.”  Based on Otero's reading, my experience on the bridge, and this compelling description, I decided to buy the book.

Because Otero's work is filled with serious depictions of human suffering brought about by conditions that prevailed during the time they were growing up, it might seem strange to focus on building materials as I intend to do in the rest of this post. But the book is also about the way a neighborhood was destroyed as the freeway and convention center were built, so building materials are very much a part of 
the story. In the first chapter Otero talks about their neighborhood with great affection, but with an acknowledgement of some of the negatives as in the following description: “When I call up my earliest memories, I think of dirt. We lived in a house surrounded by a yard of dirt, and our house was built of adobe blocks that my mother and her sisters had constructed with their own hands. We lived at the intersection of unpaved roads, and when cars drove by, at whatever speed, they created clouds of dust that eventually found its way into the house and into my hair, skin, eyes, and sometimes teeth.” (Otero, In the Shadows of the Freeway, p. 6) The image of the dust finding its way into hair and eyes and teeth is a strong and troubling one, and it makes you wonder why the city didn’t do something to dampen down those clouds of dust. However, also embedded in that quote is a more complex and benign role for the dirt, which involved hand-made adobe blocks that were used to build the house. Otero cites the relationship between the dirt beneath their feet and the house in which they lived, and in fact many homes in Tucson were built of adobe blocks – or bricks – made from clay and mud, especially in the part of the city where Otero lived.

In another of Otero’s books, La Calle: Spatial Conflicts and Urban Renewal in a Southwest City , they showed the ways that building materials in Tucson changed as Mexicans and Mexican Americans were being displaced. Otero stated, "In 1883, practically every building in Tucson was made of adobe, and it remained the primary construction material for Mexican Americans well into the first half of the twentieth century,” but they quote architects Anne M. Nequette and R. Brooks Jeffrey who say that architecture was used to express Tucson's "American" identity. Otero goes on to say: "Anglo Americans intentionally began to build their structures in styles and with materials that marked them as distinctive. These new forms also served to assert Anglos' spatial and social dominance. Brick replaced adobe (emphasis mine) as Tucson moved 'well on its way toward developing the appearance of an American town.'" Beginning in the early 1880s, according to historian C.L. Sonnichsen, "Brick and lumber were in; adobe was out" for Anglos in Tucson. (Otero, La Calle, p. 47)

But Tucson was a growing city and because adobe was deprecated by the new Anglo arrivals, when the Southern Pacific Railroad arrived in 1880 (another of the events commemorated on the Luis Gutierrez Bridge), Tucson builders began to use lumber and bricks brought in from El Paso and Los Angeles. By the late 1800s brick became the preferred building material, and in 1896 architect Quintus Monier founded Tucson Pressed Brick Co., or TPBCO, located below Sentinel Peak at 800 W. Congress St., a few blocks from the current location of the Luis Gutierrez Bridge. Monier used bricks produced there in the building of the St. Augustine Cathedral in 1897 and in the Santa Rita Hotel. The company produced both pressed bricks and firebricks, and the sand along the edge of the Santa Cruz River was used to temper the bricks and the clay was taken from the Santa Cruz floodplain

Image of brickworks and text on the Luis Gutierrez Bridge.

Though the Congress St. location of TPBCo has been closed since 1963, Michael Diehl of Desert Archeology, Inc., not only excavated the brickyard but also interviewed people who worked there and lived nearby.  In an article called "The Tucson Pressed Brick Company at Work and at Rest," he described the process of making bricks at TPBCo, which was more of an industrial operation than the process of making adobe blocks had been. Though materials were sourced locally, such as clay from alongside the Santa Cruz River and "red shale" from the hills near Kennedy Park, machines were an important part of the process – there was a two-story mixing and grinding machine known as a "pug mill" and scove kilns for firing bricks. The workers interviewed by Diehl were not represented by a union, though the men described their difficult work as better than cleaning molybdenum-bearing mud from equipment at Pima Mine or doing agricultural work. "It was nice work making bricks," said Henry Machado, one of the TPBCo workers. "It was nice because I got out of the cotton fields working like this [indicates hunching]." (Diehl, p. 177) Undoubtedly, the racism inherent in the work life of a Mexican-American laborer of the time contributed to this positive attitude toward the hard work at the brickyard, but Diehl does describe a strike that took place in the 1940s during which the company at first tried to replace the men with scabs, but then, "After one day of chaos, the expertise of Frank Rodriguez Sr. and his other colleagues was recognized and rewarded with an increase of two bits. The next day all the regular brickyard men were back on the job." (Diehl, p. 177)

Diehl also interviewed Adela (Varelas) Mejias, who lived near the TPBCo, and she described helping her mother wash clothes in boiling water because when her father came home from work, his clothes and skin were covered in red brick dust. And even after the dust was washed out of the clothing, it had to be hung to dry and was often covered again by red brick dust given off by the kilns. (Diehl, p. 180) This assault by dust was similar to what was happening to Lydia Otero’s family in the shadows of the freeway not far from where TPBCo operated.

As I read In the Shadows of the Freeway, I found other references to bricks and adobe that deepened my understanding of what happened in that part of Tucson. Most surprisingly, the adobe that was once so deprecated is now worth a lot of money. Otero describes walking through the streets of a neighborhood where their mother once lived and realizing that though their mother, who was a low-paid maid, was able to rent an adobe house there, a university professor like Otero couldn’t afford to live there. Otero says, "Now the area is dominated mostly by white families willing to pay hefty sums of money to live in adobe homes with a history. Since the 1980s the property where my mother once lived has sold five times. In 1986, the house sold for $25,000. Ten years later, a new owner forked over $325,000. In 2012, it soared even higher, netting $516,000. After the house was subdivided, one apartment is currently worth $262,900." (Otero, Shadows of the Freeway, p. 45)  It's clear that Tucson is no longer a city where brick is much preferred over deprecated adobe; it has again become a place where old adobe buildings have great cachet and desirability. Because I've never been in the market to buy a house in Tucson, I wasn't aware of this shift in values, but it's clear to me now that even building materials can have cultural and political significance. 

Not only did Greg and I have a memorable morning out on the Luis Gutierrez Bridge, but I can honestly say that the bridge provided me with a true link to the past, as it inspired me to read Lydia Otero's book and learn about crucial aspects of Tucson's history that I had never known of.

Monday, September 26, 2022

A Fifth and Final Ekphrastic Essay About Our 2022 Road Trip: the Prairie and the Dust Bowl


Erosion No. 2, Mother Earth Laid Bare by Alexandre Hogue

When Greg and I were planning our 2022 road trip, our goal was to visit friends and family in Ohio and to investigate some places of interest there, but we also wanted the trip itself to be as full of memorable experiences as possible. One of the most significant things about our journey, it seemed to both of us, was that we would be passing through a swath of the country that had been most deeply affected by the Dust Bowl back in the 1930s. We already knew about the environmental devastation that had been visited on this part of the country because of the destruction of the prairies and the use of bad farming practices, and we hoped to learn more about the Dust Bowl and see remnants of the few acres of prairie that are left. Greg brought along a jump drive on which he had loaded lectures and audio files from books that were relevant to this and other sights we hoped to see, and we listened to them along the way.

On the eastbound trip, once we left New Mexico, we drove across the Texas panhandle, spent the night in Amarillo, then continued across Oklahoma. In Tulsa, we stopped at the PhilbrookMuseum of Art, which has exceptionally beautiful and artfully landscaped grounds. There we saw “Erosion No. 2, Mother Earth Laid Bare” by Alexandre Hogue. At the museum, I stood for a long time in front of this painting in which the outline of a woman's body is etched into and formed from the dry and desiccated soil. Her face is veiled and her lower legs and feet cannot be seen, but otherwise the form of a mature woman's body is represented in the loess-like soil as she sinks into and is surrounded by the severely eroded land. In the distance a small, dilapidated house can be seen, along with a bare tree and a small strip of grass. The house looks abandoned, the land looks depleted, and a viewer might wonder what it was that happened here – unless they knew that in 1936, the date given for this painting, the Dust Bowl was well under way. In the foreground, Hogue carefully depicts one of the causes of the problem, one of the reasons why Mother Earth's body is deprived of the vegetation that once would have covered it and is exposed in such an undignified way.

In the foreground is a steel plow, the sod buster, with its curved moldboard that lifted the sod and turned it over, making it possible for farmers to break through the dense and complex root systems that prairie grasses send down into the earth. The prairies of North America were systematically "broken," that is, turned into farmland, after European settlers arrived. Beginning in the 19th century, various new and efficient types of farm equipment were used, as well as new high-yield seeds and artificial fertilizers, to grow corn and other crops on the land that was once grassland, but the first and most important step was the breaking of the sod, a task the steel plow was designed to do. As a result of these activities, the grasslands of central North America have been reduced by 79% in the past 200 years, and in some places by 99.9%.  All of the grasses and other plants that once formed the prairie ecosystem and made the land so fertile also held the soil down with their roots, and that's why, when this cover was removed by farmers and when drought struck, there was a surprisingly complex yet altogether predictable eco-disaster waiting to happen. We now refer to it as the Dust Bowl.

Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma, USA by Arthur Rothsetin, April 1936. This image is a work of an employee of the United States Farm Security Administration or Office of War Information domestic photographic units, taken as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain in the United States. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ppmsc.00241

While we were driving through Oklahoma, we listened to the first few chapters of The Grapes of Wrath, and I was impressed by the solemnity with which Steinbeck described the terrifying changes in the land that had been brought about by 1930. The opening chapter is a description of drought-afflicted Oklahoma, and listening to it helped us to imagine what the landscape might have looked like then. Farmers in Oklahoma, and throughout the North American grasslands, had been told that "rain follows the plow," and so many of them were not prepared when an earlier period of plentiful rain gave way to a period of intense drought. The topsoil was exposed as crops died, and it was reduced to a powdery dust. What Hogue depicts in "Mother Earth Laid Bare" is the stage on which the Dust Bowl took place, but The Grapes of Wrath focuses on the human consequences of that event. Steinbeck describes the day after strong winds blew across the fields, darkening the sky with dust:

"The dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness, and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn.

"Men and women huddled in their houses, and they tied handkerchiefs over their noses when they went out, and wore goggles to protect their eyes." (The Grapes of Wrath, page 5)


And this was only the beginning of an ecological catastrophe that drove three and a half million people out of Oklahoma and the other affected states. 

Of course, many of those people survived the Great Depression, and both the U.S. economy and the life of U.S. farmers later improved because of the New Deal (and World War II, sad to say). But what about the prairie? The future of that ecosystem and the plants and animals that depended on it continued to be a story of disappearance and loss. Most of the prairie land is gone now, and many people react casually to this fact: It was just grass and empty land, so why does it matter? But grasslands are among the most biodiverse areas on the planet, and in a world that’s in the middle of the sixth great extinction, this rich ecosystem is important. In addition, many of the Native peoples of this continent had a way of life that was deeply intertwined with the prairies, and when the buffalo were slaughtered and the plains were transformed to farmland, many Native Americans’ way of life was threatened as well.  

So what are the prairies like today? After we visited the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, Greg and I headed to Missouri and stopped at Prairie State Park to get a small experience of the prairie ecosystem. Our time was limited, and we weren’t able to go to the visitors’ center; we just parked the car and walked out into the prairie. The air smelled like the essence of sweet grasses and wildflowers. There were swallows overhead and lots of flying insects. We knew there were wild bison around, but we didn’t see them -- just a rich mix of plants and many birds and butterflies. It was early July, so the grasses had grown waist-high in many places, but because this is tallgrass prairie, some of the grasses eventually will get to be eight to ten feet tall. The sounds of birdsong and buzzing, trilling insects made gentle music, and there was a light wind.

In a video we watched before the trip, naturalist Dana Hoisington says the park is the largest piece of preserved prairie in the State of Missouri. A third of Missouri was once tallgrass prairie; now it’s less than 1/2 of 1%. Hoisington says that prairies and grasslands are among the most endangered ecosystems on earth, and he describes many of the plants and animals that live in the park. He also talks about the Osage people who once regularly passed through this area and who depended on the bison for their food and other needs. By the late 1880s, Hoisington notes, there were fewer than 1,000 bison in North America, whereas before the European settlers came, there were as many as sixty million of them. He also says that prairies are worth preserving for their inherent qualities, and he adds, “There's so much natural beauty, but it takes a little different mindset to appreciate it…” After we had been at Prairie State Park for a while, Greg and I were most definitely of that mindset.

On our westbound trip, after we had spent time in Ohio, we wanted to expand our prairie appreciation, so we decided to go to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Once we began to get closer to Kansas, we listened to an episode of the BBC series "In Our Time" about the American Populists. This 19th century movement in Kansas and other Midwestern and Southern states came about because farmers were really suffering from drought and they were also plagued by low prices for their crops and extreme isolation. As a result, a few decades before the Dust Bowl, farmers formed a Populist Party, and their candidates won many offices, both state and national. The fact that U.S. currency was backed by the gold standard was considered by William Jennings Bryant and other populists to be responsible for the low prices farmers faced, so the populists opposed the gold standard. If not for the ways racism was used to turn poor white farmers against poor black farmers, the Populist Party might have had a much greater influence on American politics. Toward the end of the episode, presenter Melvyn Bragg asked if it's true that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an allegory of the Populist era. His guests agree that this is probably true, and as in any allegory, the characters and settings have hidden meanings beyond the overt ones Baum assigns to them in the story. The scarecrow, from an allegorical perspective, represents the American farmers; the tin woodsman the American workers; Dorothy the average American; and the Cowardly Lion is said to represent the politician William Jennings Bryant. 

After we heard about the Populists, Greg and I listened to a couple of chapters of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Though most people know it as a children’s story made into a movie starring Judy Garland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has a complex and interesting connection with the American prairie. In fact, the first sentence of the story is: "Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer's wife." And not only does she live on prairie land that has been “broken” and turned into farmland, but she lives in a world strangely similar to the one depicted by Hogue in "Mother Earth Laid Bare." Baum says that when Dorothy stands in the doorway of the house she shares with her aunt and uncle and looks around, "...she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere." It is from this harsh world that Dorothy and her dog Toto are swept up by a tornado and carried to the land of Oz. The wind, although not personified in this fantasy, is an actor in the story, just as it was in the Dust Bowl when it carried the loose soil skyward to block the sun and drove people from their homes.

By the time we got to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, we were pretty psyched about what we hoped to see there. Unfortunately, though the Preserve's website describes this as the place where "the tallgrass makes its last stand," we didn't have the kind of transformative prairie experience here as we did at Prairie State Park in Missouri. As before, our time was limited, but the areas that were accessible to us didn't have the kind of lush grass and plentiful bird and insect life that we found in Missouri. As far as the eye could see, the grass was short like a somewhat overgrown lawn, and we couldn’t see any bison. We speculated that this is in part because Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is regularly burned and allowed to regrow so that cattle can graze on it. As we stood near the old schoolhouse and looked around, we felt that this land no longer had the heart and soul of the prairie. But at least our trip to the preserve and later our drive through the Flint Hills gave us a view of Kansas grasslands.

So is it possible that we could have another Dust Bowl? According to an October 2020 article in Smithsonian Magazine, the answer is yes. Author Alex Fox cites a study that shows that dust levels have been rising, as much as 5% per year, and this trend coincides with hotter and drier weather due to climate change and a 5-10% increase of farmland in the Great Plains. These conditions mimic those that led to the Dust Bowl, and researchers say there’s no reason such an event couldn’t happen again. And if there is another Dust Bowl, Hogue’s “Mother Earth Laid Bare” is a grim reminder of what human beings and other living things will have to face.

An Ekphrastic Essay About Paul Bunyan and Tree Equity in Tucson

  Image Credit: David Bradley (b. 1954), Chippewa,  Another Minnesota Folk Legend , 1987, oil on canvas. Collection of the Tucson Museum of ...