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Just prior to the dust-bowl era, individuals would exit trains from the east; they’d step into the grassland of the southern plains, and they would plot their dreams. But these dreams were of tangible wealth, and these so called “suitcase farmers” pulled up thousands of years of perfected turf- an intangible and gracious balance ripped apart. The masters of the plains were already dead, but even lacking the bison, further insult was possible. First in the comedy of human markets, the price of wheat plummeted from a production glut; then the capricious weather of the region withheld the rains. The result left the land naked and vulnerable; the suitcase farmers were long gone, only the hardy (or foolhardy) were left to witness the nightmarish creation of a land that even didn’t allow the dirt to stay in place. The locals had taken part in the rush for crops, but to be fair, they did reap what they sowed, and they were trying to live in these regions-not just mine it and leave like the suitcasers.
Plans were enacted to never allow this to happen again. Regions were put back to grass, but often simply annual grasses that never approached the nuance that the prairie had prior. The Ogallala Aquifer was also tapped in an aggressive manner, and massive digging projects were flaunted to the dry skies above.
Men like my grandfather tried to convince farmers to terrace and conserve; his job was that of a county extension agent in the less viciously dusted Eastern Kansas area. His region was still hit with the heat as well as dust storms, just of somewhat lesser magnitude. His area was spared the worst of the storms in part due to a bunch of rocks. The Flint Hills spanned the western boundaries of his region and the insult of the plow never was not able to pierce that land to any great extent. A shelf of hard rock was just below the surface. The plows couldn’t penetrate this protective skin, saving many farmers from themselves. That soil wasn’t going anywhere.
“I am not gonna listen to a city farmer in a white cowboy hat!” Those were the kinds of words that my grandfather was met with when he went from farm to farm teaching new methods of soil conservation. (Evidently the “uniform” for an extension agent at the time included a sporty 10 gallon hat- I’m not sure I disagree with the fashion misgivings voiced by the recalcitrant farmers.) But he was able to convince and coerce until things got a little bit better. Eventually the farming requests became requirements. My grandfather went on to use those skills of farmer persuasion by landing a job in DC during World War II- he was to come up with ideas for posters and campaigns that would get farmers to buy war bonds. That was actually his job. I’m not sure if it came with an enormous hat or not. I have one of his poster creations in my kitchen (he only came up with the ideas; they hired artists by the day to do the actual images). It says “The Crop that Never Fails” and cash is emerging from the ground where bonds were sown. I love the image because my grandfather came up with it, but if I’m truthful, the symbolism is a little creepy in regard to what I’m writing about here.
There is new adventure afoot in the plunder and grab realm. Once again, it’s a pursuit of tangible, rapid wealth- this time it’s natural gas. The suitcase farmers are at the ready. And like their predecessors, they will be long gone when the pain arrives. This time it will not be blowing dirt, but the disappearance of the precious and necessary, that of clean water. Make no mistake, there will be those who tell us that we must only consider the short-term- we are in such dire financial times. Those men and women are loud, and they are aggressive in the run-up to disaster. They mock those who voice misgivings- only the immediate and cold hard cash matter to them. Truly they are damaged souls, who can only operate in the bitter stench of burning cash. They convince the trusting that they are the actual “conservatives”, when they are in fact the radicals who will destroy the means to stay alive for our kind if they have their way with the earth.
The vile chemicals that keep those pipelines flowing- their dangerous qualities are in fact how they keep that sludgy, viscous mess moving. And that’s why so many holes show up in the pipes to allow the infringement into groundwater. But that’s just a consideration in regard to the pipelines; read for yourself about the process that blasts apart the shale thousands of feet under the ground. The suitcase farmers will tell you that you’re the one who is foolish, not agreeing with their short-term goals for production. Their fortune matters more than your cancer. Don’t be gauche and ruin the party by mentioning all of this.
I’m often filled with the fullness and sorrow of inevitability. I see suitcase farmers damn near everywhere, and I know they have the consent of more than not because of the way they have been able to frame our worlds and our very existence. Their mentality has permeated the halls of power as well as the depths below. It is somehow sissy to view the world with awe and humility. We have suitcase farmers, large and small, only united in their quest to strip an area without regard for the consequences. But know this, it’s all been done before- just different items to mine and plunder depending on the commodity du jour. Don’t be fooled by their claims of novelty; hubris has not been developed to be non-stick as of this writing. The only thing that changes is the size of their suitcase. With each commodity quest, the consequences of the greed becomes more horrific. At some point, barring miracles (by that I mean a massive shift of respect towards what I refer to as the intangibles) the damage will be too great, and we will be no more. I suppose it isn’t illegal, so it will simply be “death by misadventure” for us all.
But the monuments to this mentality will remain, and they will be found in the bauble piles located in the suitcase farmers’ homes.
Kathleen Peine is a writer who resides in the US Midwest. She can be reached for comment at email@example.com