The forecast in and of itself wasn’t terrible, just “Oh joy. Well, we’re overdue,” inducing. Fifty-mile-an-hour winds out of the southwest, with low dewpoints (a related occurence) and temperatures in the 70s (also related) generally mean a good chance that someone’s real estate will relocate across county and even state lines. Especially since the spring crops have not been planted yet, leaving cotton and other fields bare. The forecast predicted that any excitement would kick in, so to speak, around noon.
At eleven-ish I started hearing the sound of wind on the wall. The school sits way out on a county road with a few young trees on the east side and pasture and a field on the west. By now I can tell by the sound on the wall and roof which way the wind is coming from, and how strong it is. I was grading papers after class and noted that the sound had picked up an additional hissing undertone. Oh dear. I opened the blinds and watched dirt coming my way, picked up from the field and whisked to the east-north-east. The faint tan tinge to the high sheets of cloud warned that indeed, someone’s topsoil was en-route from New Mexico or just Deaf Smith county. Like any sensible person, I closed the blinds and went back to work.
By the time I left at 12:30 or so, I needed both hands to keep the pick-up door from slamming open and possibly damaging the hinges. Yes, I should have parked facing west, but I’d been running late and I had not intended to take so long grading. The southern sky started brownish-red at ground level and remained shades of tan almost to the zenith. It wasn’t the brassy color of dust against a clear sky, but it did persuade me that taking a walk might be against my best interests, especially since I was in the process of developing a respectable upper respiratory cold and . . . I have dust allergies.
Is this a sign of environmental degradation, of terrible land management and an indictment of modern farming practices, that dust blows on the southwest wind in February? No. Dust blows off of the pastures and grasslands if it gets dry enough, whisked up from between bunches of bunch-grass. Dust has always blows if the wind is strong enough and the soil is dry enough to be picked up and shifted. Dust storms are part of the landscape and have been as far back as the end of the Pleistocene, when the area became drier in part because of the global warming at the end of the Ice Age and in part because the Pecos River captured other streams flowing out of the Rocky Mountains and diverted their flow. And before someone points and starts going on about global warming, during the Ice Ages? Seriously dry at times. Massively dry. Marching sand dunes bare of plants dry in some areas. And lush savannahs much like Africa but cooler and with funkier critters at times.
Moving dirt is a fact of life in arid and semi-arid climates. When the wind blows and the humidity drops, it loosens the bonds holding the individual soil and sand bits together. Once one bit starts to shift, more will likely follow, even in places where no one has plowed or over-grazed for decades or even centuries, or at all. It just is. Good soil management techniques such as contour plowing, not plowing with the wind, using trashy fallow to break up the wind and hold down more soil, buffer strips to catch the soil, all help, as does not trying to farm in places that are obviously unsuited for certain techniques or crops. (Which, in my opinion, includes cotton in this part of the Panhandle, but no one asked me.)
“The wind bloweth where so’ere it listeth.”