It was either April of 1934 or 1935, when Dorothea Lange was on her way home to Berkeley from California’s Imperial Valley. She had just wrapped up an assignment for the Farm Security Administration documenting migrant labor; she had been photographing workers harvesting peas in the area, which sits between the Salton Sea and the Mexican border at the state’s southern end. She stopped for gas, where she noticed a family—“very woebegone” is how she described them—and asked them about their travels.
“We’ve been blown out,” she recalled them saying. She “questioned what they meant, and then they told me about the dust storm.”
This was the first Lange had heard of people being forced from their homes and farms on the High Plains due to what would come to be known as the Dust Bowl, one of the most extreme environmental catastrophes the United States has ever endured: severe dust storms killed crops and livestock across the region, starting in 1930 and lasting nearly a decade. “All of that day, driving for the next maybe 200 miles—no, 3 or 400 miles—I saw these people,” Lange would later recall. “And I couldn’t wait. I photographed it.”
The High Plains encompass parts of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wyoming, and are part of the larger Great Plains stretching from West Central Texas to the border of Canada. It’s a vast expanse of prairie, with flat grasslands unfolding far into the horizon. Prior to colonization by white settlers, Native American tribes populated the land, living primarily off buffalo that thrived on the plentiful prairie grass. But beginning in the late 1800s, homesteaders flocked to the region, claiming the land as their own and slaughtering the native buffalo. “Empty of bison and Indians, the prairie was a lonely place; it had taken less than ten years to eliminate them,” writes journalist Timothy Egan in his 2006 history of the Dust Bowl, The Worst Hard Time.
The area was less than ideal for farming, receiving little rainfall. But settlers—encouraged in part by a series of Homestead Acts that granted free land allotments to those who pledged to plow a section of it—began farming nonetheless. They tore up millions of acres of grasslands, often with mechanized plows that ground surface soil to a fine dust. In the 1930s, a series of severe droughts lasting nearly a decade struck the region, and temperatures hit historic highs, climbing to 110 degrees in some places.
The stage was now set for massive dust storms. Winds swept across the prairie, picking up unprotected, eroded soil. Darkness descended midday as towering storms rolled through the High Plains, coating everything in their path and blowing through cracks in windows, doors, and walls. (The storms generated enough static electricity to short out car ignitions.) Some residents grew sick from breathing in the dust and died; the infant mortality rate shot up. Cattle went blind, and calves suffocated shortly after being born. At its peak, in 1934, the Dust Bowl covered 100 million acres.
Lange and her husband, agricultural economist Paul Taylor, both devoted themselves to documenting the Dust Bowl, often traveling together for her assignments with the FSA. “It was the Dust Bowl that made Lange an environmentalist,” writes Linda Gordon in the 2010 book Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits. “Taylor would expound during their long hours on the road, but it was what [Lange] saw that crystallized his teaching into emotional understanding. Dorothea understood all things best by seeing.”
Unsurprisingly, many of Lange’s photographs of Dust Bowl migrants were portraits, unflinching but empathetic images of those mired in hardship and uncertainty. These photographs would quickly define her as a founder of modern American documentary photographic tradition. In 1964, reflecting on her fateful gas-station meeting, Lange connected the 1930s exodus of rural people from the Dust Bowl to the trend of urbanization. “These people on that rainy afternoon in April were the symbol,” she said. “They were the symbol of this tremendous upheaval like an earthquake.” In the years that followed, Lange said, the country went from “rural to urban,” making permanent for many the exodus from agricultural life.
In her documentation of the Dust Bowl and the people displaced by environmental and agricultural disaster, photographer Dorothea Lange forced viewers to look at the effects that an abused landscape can have on the spirit of its people, as well as what happens when we don’t prioritize the long-term effects of our farming practices. In Maui, where I live, Native Hawaiians have been taking part in a great project to reprioritize traditional farming techniques and restore the spirit of aloha ’āina—a promise to love the land and take care of it as it takes care of you.
Aloha ‘āina spoke from a disembodied voice to those who had landed on Kaho’olawe. Of the nine PKO protesters who made it to the island, two managed to escape capture by the Coast Guard and stayed on the island for two days, where they encountered deep craters from bombing tests and abandoned military equipment. “We could see the island was dying,” one activist told a Maui newspaper in 2016, adding, “We were trying to save an island and on that island was our culture.” Dozens of occupiers would follow in the years afterward, some staying on the island for more than a month at a time, living off the land. Activists eventually filed a suit against the Navy to stop using the island for military purposes. The land deed was finally returned to the state of Hawaii in 1994.
The occupation of Kaho’olawe was the start of a new consciousness in Hawaii. It marked the return of the maka’ainana—the commoner who takes care of the land—as a figure of political action. Today, the aloha ‘āina movement has grown throughout the Islands: activists work to protect Hawaii’s dormant volcano Mauna Kea from development; to return lands to Native hands on Kauai; to prevent Monsanto from reclassifying agricultural land on Molokai; and to restore streamflow on Maui, where 400 million gallons of water per day have been diverted for private development and monocrop agriculture for export.
I recently followed the maka’ainana as they protested the plans of developer Peter Martin of the West Maui Land Company to buy up land in Kahoma, a rural countryside mauka—land near the mountain, where the water comes from. The families who held land titles in Kahoma banded together not only to resist development, but to pledge to return the land to traditional agriculture. It had been 130 years since there were lo’i kalo, or taro patches, in Kahoma, and the land had since been overrun by kukui (candlenut trees), ulu (breadfruit trees), mango, cane grass, and cattle.
Over the course of 18 months, a growing group from the Maui community worked together to reestablish the taro patches, cutting down the cane grass and overgrown trees, and gathering pōhaku (stones) from the stream—moving them one at a time from one kanaka (person) to another, gradually rebuilding a dam to divert some of the river into the lo’i. In the faces of the maka’ainana, covered in red dirt and sweat, there was a feeling that the future of Kahoma contained immense promise—that the ancestors were looking down on us and sending their blessings.
Brendan George Ko is based in Maui, where he has been shaping poetic and elliptical visual stories about Hawaii for over ten years. Born in Toronto, Ko has a BFA from Ontario College of Art and Design and an MFA from the University of Toronto.
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