Meridel Le Sueur
Originally published in American Mercury (September, 1934).
Drive through Elbow Lake, Otter Tail County, Elk River and Kandiyohi County, Big Stone County, Yellow Medicine County and Mille Lacs, and you'll see the same thing. These are only the counties that are officially designated as in the droughty area by the Federal government. This is only in Minnesota. In the Dakotas they say cattle are leaning up against the fences. There is a shortage of water as well as of pasturage.
If you are officially in the droughty areas you will come in on the government purchasing of starving cattle. On May 31, the day after the last hot wind and the temperature at 112° in some areas, the papers announced the working plan of the machinery set up by the Federal government to aid farmers in the drought stricken areas of the Northwest. The animals will be bought and those that are not too far gone will be fattened and given to the F. E. R. A. for the relief departments. If you're on the breadlines you'll be getting some starved meat for your own starved bones. They could feed you some choice farmer's ribs, too. But you can't buy up farmers and their wives and shoot them. Not directly.
The government has been pushing straw into these communities all winter to keep the cattle from starving for lack of grain until the pasturage came in. Well, now there is no pasture. The grass is brown and burnt as if it might be mid-August instead of May and June. The farmer is milked at one end and given relief at another. Well, the farmer says, they wanted a scarcity, and by God, now they have it. They shot off the pigs and cows, they tried to keep what was left alive because they couldn't feed them, now they're trying to keep them from dying off and rotting on the ground and making too big a stench.
The farmer can't sell his cattle to the stockyards. They're too far gone, too thin. The cattle thus turned over to the government will be left temporarily on the farms, fed by the administration and then moved to the packing houses or redistributed to other farmers or turned directly over to relief channels.
The administration of this plan seems similar to the other plans, with a regional director for seven Northwest States, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Montana, Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska; with State directors from the farm-schools working through county agents. The county director will have an advisory committee made up of the members of the corn-hog allotment committee that functioned in the county. This organization will appoint township committees that will visit the farms, check the stock, classify, appraise the value and fix the purchase price, secure necessary farmer and creditor signatures to sales contracts, and arrange for final check to see that the animals have been disposed of as agreed. They will also approve vouchers for payment. The same old rubbish. Committees and committees and committees. But the farmer will keep on starving. He has been rooked by nature and now he will be rooked by the Federal government.
Since April there has been hope of rain and even up until the day after Decoration day, until that bitter afternoon when the hot winds came and made any hope after that impossible. During April the farmers said that the winter wheat would be all right if it would rain even next week. The peas went in. They raise a lot of peas for the canneries both in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The peas came up a little ways and then fell down as if they had been mowed down. We waited to put in the corn day after day.
Then came a terrifying wind from the Dakotas, blew tens of thousands of dollars worth of onion seed away and half of North Dakota blew into Ohio with the spring sowing. That wind was a terror and blew dust and seed so high you couldn't drive through it in mid-day.
A kind of terror grew in the folk. It was too much, added up with the low prices they got, the drought, heat and high wind. A peculiar thing happened. Very much like what happened in the flu terror after the war. No one went outdoors. They all shut themselves up as if some terrific crisis, some horrible massacre, were about to occur. The last day of the wind, the radio announced every half hour that there was no menace in the dust, it would hurt no one actually. The wind died down, but it didn't rain. Well, they said, it will rain. It has to rain sometime. The winter wheat and rye began to whiten. A thin stand. You could sit in your house and look about and see the fields whiten and the wheat seemed to go back into the ground. You could see it stand still and then creep back into the ground.
But the farmers kept on ploughing in case it would rain. First you had to plough with two horses and then with four. You couldn't rip the earth open and when you did, a fume of dust went up like smoke, and a wind from hell whipped the seed out. Some planted their corn, though, in corn-planting time, some waited for rain. They waited until the day after Decoration day.
Every day the pastures became worse. The grass became as dry as straw in May and the cattle lost their flesh quickly. They weren't too well padded because of scarce food all winter. You had to look for a green spot every morning. Children were kept out of school to herd the cattle around near streams and creeks. Some farmers cut down trees so the cattle could eat the leaves even if they were poor picking. The leaves on the trees are poor, falling off already in some places due to the searing, driving wind and the lack of moisture at their roots. The man up the road has turned his cows into his winter wheat which is thin as a young man's first beard anyway.
On Decoration day the wind started again, blowing hot as a blast from hell and the young corn withered as if under machine gun fire, the trees in two hours looked as if they had been beaten. The day after Decoration day it was so hot you couldn't sit around looking at the panting cattle and counting their ribs and listening to that low cry that is an awful asking. We got in the car and drove slowly through the sizzling countryside.
Not a soul was in sight. It was like a funeral. The houses were closed up tight, the blinds drawn, the windows and doors closed. There seemed to be a menace in the air made visible. It was frightening. You could hear the fields crack and dry, and the only movement in the down-driving heat was the dead writhing of the dry blighted leaves on the twigs. The young corn about four spears up was falling down like a fountain being slowly turned off.
There was something terrifying about this visible sign of disaster. It went into your nostrils so you couldn't breathe: the smell of hunger. It made you count your own ribs with terror. You don't starve in America. Everything looks good. There is something around the corner. Everyone has a chance. That's all over now. The whole country cracks and rumbles and cries out in its terrible leanness, stripped with exploitation and terrorand as sign and symbol, bonesbones showing naked and spiritless, showing decay and crisis and a terrific warning, bare and lean in Mid-America.
We kept driving very slowly, about as slowly as you go to a funeral, with no one behind us, meeting no one on the road. The corpse was the very earth. We kept looking at the body of the earth, at the bare and mortgaged and unpainted houses like hollow pupas when the life has gone. They looked stripped as if after a raid. As if a terrible army had just gone through. It used to be hard to look at the fat rich-seeming farms and realize that they were mortgaged to the hilt and losing ground every year, but not now. Now it stands a visible sign. You can see the marks of the ravagers. The mark of that fearful exploitation stands on the landscape visible, known, to be reckoned with.
The cows were the only thin flesh visible. They stood in the poor shade of the stripped and dying trees, breathing heavily, their great ribs showing like the ribs of decaying boats beached and deserted. But you knew that from behind all those drawn blinds hundreds of eyes were watching that afternoon, that no man, woman or child could sit down and read a book or lie down to any dreams. Through all these windows eyes were watchingwatching the wheat go, the rye go, the corn, peas, potatoes go. Everywhere in those barricaded houses were eyes drawn back to the burning windows looking out at next winter's food slowly burning in the fields. You look out and see the very food of your next winter's sustenance visibly, physically dying beneath your eyes, projecting into you your future hungers.
The whole countryside that afternoon became terrifying, not only with its present famine but with the foreshadowing of its coming hunger. No vegetables now, and worst of all, no milk. The countryside became monstrous with this double doom. Every house is alike in suffering as in a flood, every cow, every field mounting into hundreds, into thousands, from State to State. You try not to look at the ribs, but pretty soon you are looking only at ribs.
Then an awful thing happened. The sun went down behind the ridge, dropped low, and men and women began to pour out of the houses, the children lean and fleet as rats, the tired lean farm women looking to see what had happened. The men ran into their fields, ran back for water and they began to water their lands with buckets and cups, running, pouring the puny drops of water on the baked earth as if every minute might count now. The children ran behind the cows urging them to eat the harsh dry grass. It looked like an evacuated countryside, with the people running out after the enemy had passed. Not a word was spoken. In intense silence they hurried down the rows with buckets and cups, watering the wilted corn plants, a gargantuan and terrible and hopeless labor. Some came out with horses and ploughs and began stirring up the deadly dust. If the field was a slope, barrels were filled, and a primitive irrigation started. Even the children ran with cups of water, all dogged silent, mad, without a word. A certain madness in it all, like things that are done after unimaginable violence.
We stop and talk to a farmer. His eyes are bloodshot. I can hardly see from the heat and the terrible emotion.... How do you think my cows look? he asks. I think they are a little fatter today. I try not to look at his cows at all. Pretty thin, though, he says, pretty thin. I can see the fine jersey pelt beginning to sag and the bones rise out like sticks out of the sea at low tide.
We both know that a farmer across the river shot twenty-two of his cattle yesterday, and then shot himself. I look at him and I can see his clavicle and I know that his ribs are rising out of his skin, too. It is visible now, starvation and famine. So they are going to buy the starving cattle and shoot them and feed the rest to the bread lines. A man isn't worth anythingbut a cow . . .
The banks protest the Federal government's price for starving cattle. From six to twenty dollars, with your pedigreed bull thrown in. No difference. Hunger levels all flesh. When the skeleton shows through, all meat is worthless. The banks don't like this. Most of the cattle are mortgaged and they won't get much. The banks are protesting. All this sounds different in the language of the banks . . .
They say in their bulletin . . . We report further deterioration of crops since the May 1 report. In addition, weather conditions in a large part of the Ninth District, which embraces the States of Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Montana and part of Wisconsin, are bad. . . . And abandonment of 16% in Montana and 60% in South Dakota of winter wheat acreage.... Reports from grain, trade and railroads serving the grain-raising areas show condition poor of both winter wheat and rye.
In human terms, of life and not credit and interest, this meanswinter wheat and rye gone, pasturage gone, cattle gone; wholesale prices low, retail prices soaring; the government piles in feed, straw, and now buys up the lean cattle, but they milk the farmer faster than they resuscitate him.