The opposite of a holiday

Ruination Day

The opposite of a holiday

Thanks as always to those supporting my work here.

“Even before that day when it appeared the world was about to end, people in the Panhandle were meeting regularly to pray for rain,” Robert L. Dorman wrote. The Black Sunday blizzard hit on April 14, 1935. It was the storm that gave the Dust Bowl its name.

“The drought had lasted four years and was not yet half over,” Dorman went on in his 2006 book It Happened in Oklahoma. “In Cimarron County, ground zero of the Dust Bowl, the last good wheat crop had been in 1931. Since then, the wheat made next to nothing, or nothing at all. Now it was 1935, and during the last week of March, a single dust storm rolled across Oklahoma and blew away one-quarter of the wheat that had been planted. And still the wind kept blowing, and no rains came.”

There had been a series of serious dust storms before then the type of storms that made it so you couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of you the type of storms that blocked out the sun and the street lights and sometimes the hand in front of your face but even those didn’t prepare people for the one that came that Palm Sunday.

The day started out bright and sunny and so naturally people went to church due to it was the beginning of the holiest week in the calendar the lead up to the resurrection. Speaking of which yesterday being Easter I was reminded to listen to this absolute classic song from a flawless album.

This lyric is from another song on that album I Wanna Be Adored but it’s been in my head since yesterday and for like thirty years I guess.

“I don’t have to sell my soul. He’s already in me.”

Michelle and I drove to visit our families yesterday for Easter and since there was no traffic what should have taken an hour and a half was more like fifty minutes. We stood outside far away from our families and did not hug them or go near them we waved to them like they were passing by on a slow moving ship.

In any case the folks in Oklahoma and elsewhere nearby planned picnics and so on that morning before the storm came a storm that would stretch a thousand miles wide blowing winds over one hundred miles per hour.

“From a distance, the black dust storm looked like something worse than dust, like something almost biblical,” Dorman wrote. Billowing clouds of dark on the horizon then all around you. No difference between horizon and where you stood.

“That afternoon, the church was full when darkness suddenly descended. The altar could not be seen from the pews, but some made their way to it to pray more fervently. A few lay in the aisles certain that the end time had arrived.”

This isn’t necessarily related but I just read that a bishop in Virginia who had downplayed the threat of the coronavirus has passed away. Gerald Glenn the pastor of New Deliverance Evangelistic Church in Virginia had promised to keep his church open “unless I’m in jail or the hospital.”

“I am essential,” he said in March. “I’m a preacher. I talk to God.”

“I firmly believe that God is larger than this dreaded virus. You can quote me on that,” he said.

This also isn’t related but I just read that on Saturday the Air Force Thunderbirds flew a mission over Las Vegas to honor the healthcare workers and first responders on the front lines. The eight jets which cost around $18 million each and burn roughly $100,000 an hour in fuel collectively were a stirring tribute to the real heroes most of which one presumes were inside working on saving people’s lives instead of staring up at the sky with their mouths open.

I don’t know about you but the image of jets flying over a desolate Las Vegas doesn’t exactly fill me with anything but a sort of dull emptiness in my stomach. I’m not a hero on the frontlines though so perhaps the symbolism of the gesture is lost on me.

“It is an honor to fly for the Americans at the forefront of our nation’s fight against the coronavirus,” Lt. Col. John Caldwell the Thunderbirds commander said. “They are true heroes…”

He also said even though the jets would be flying close to one another haha that doesn’t mean people should gather close together to watch them.

“We want Las Vegas residents to look up from their homes and enjoy the display of American resolve and pride while keeping front line coronavirus responders in their hearts during this unprecedented time in our nation.”

I fucking love displays of American resolve and pride. I fucking love keeping heroes in my heart.

When the dust storm finally subsided birds and rabbits and cattle were found all over strangled by the dust. People contracted a “dust pneumonia” that led to their “coughing up mud.” Estimates say that anywhere from a few hundred to seven thousand people would die from it. Hundreds of thousands would flee the region for more forgiving terrain.

“I was working down at the tire shop,” a man named Arthur Leonard who lived through the dust storms recalled later on in an oral history project, “and I was crossing the street when it happened, and when it hit, I couldn't even find the tire shop. It was so bad. When it came in, it rolled; it didn't just dust. It rolled over and over and over and over and over when it came in, and it was coal black; it was coal black, and it was terrible that afternoon. It was hot and dry.”

Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the storm called Dust Storm Disaster.

On the 14th day of April of 1935,
There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky.
You could see that dust storm comin', the cloud looked deathlike black,
And through our mighty nation, it left a dreadful track.

From Oklahoma City to the Arizona line,
Dakota and Nebraska to the lazy Rio Grande,
It fell across our city like a curtain of black rolled down,
We thought it was our judgement, we thought it was our doom.

The radio reported, we listened with alarm,
The wild and windy actions of this great mysterious storm;
From Albuquerque and Clovis, and all New Mexico,
They said it was the blackest that ever they had saw.

Years later after a significant percentage of the population had moved away the rains finally came back.

That storm was far from the most notable thing to happen on April 14 which is apparently the date on the calendar it currently is today did you know that because I didn’t and I just had to double check. In 1969 for example the first major league baseball game in Montreal was played and in 1828 the first edition of Noah Webster's dictionary was published and also somewhat more slightly well known is that today is the day that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and also the day the Titanic crashed into the famous iceberg you’ve probably heard about. It wouldn’t fully sink until the next day but today is the day it all started to end. I wonder which of our disasters they’ll know about a hundred years from now or if anyone will be around to know about anything.

I wasn’t aware of those last two things happening on the same date were you? Like I said I don’t even know what day of the week it is right now but I was made aware or reminded of it by my friend Ryan Walsh posting about some Gillian Welch songs that tie the dust storm and the assassination and the Titanic altogether into a type of reverse holiday she’s dubbed Ruination Day and I haven’t been able to think about anything else since. Ok I’m also thinking about the smell of banana bread baking in the other room right now I have to admit I am thinking about that extensively at the moment.

Welch wrote two songs on her 2001 album Time (The Revelator) in which she weaved the three historical events together alongside a memory of a largely forgotten show she played herself years ago where she came across a touring punk band living out their own unremarkable tale of typical rock and roll ruin.

April the 14th (Part 1)

When the iceberg hit,
Oh they must have known,
God moves on the water
Like Casey Jones.

So I walked downtown
On my telephone,
And took a lazy turn
Through the redeye zone.

It was a five-band bill,
A two-dollar show.
I saw the van out in front
From Idaho,

And the girl passed out
In the backseat trash.
There were no way they'd make
Even a half a tank of gas.

They looked sick and stoned
And strangely dressed.
No one showed
From the local press.

But I watched them walk
Through the bottom land,
And I wished that I played
In a rock & roll band.

Hey, hey,
It was the fourteenth day of April.

Well they closed it down,
With the sails in rags.
And I swept up the fags
And the local mags.

Welch talked about making the connection about the infamous date in an interview with Longreads a few years back.

How did you become aware that these three events occurred on the same day? Was the confluence immediately meaningful to you?

I can’t remember which I knew first, but it was probably the Woody Guthrie song “Dust Storm Disaster,” that goes “on the 14th day of April… there came the greatest dust storm the world had ever known….er, ever filled the sky.” So that’s probably the first one I knew, and that’s considered the worst storm in American history. I think they call it Black Sunday. I’d known that one since I was a kid.
When Dave [David Rawlings, Welch’s musical partner and co-writer of Time (The Revelator)] and I first started working together I was listening to a lot of Blind Willie Johnson, who does “God Moves on the Water,” and that has a lyric that goes “year of nineteen hundred and twelve, April the fourteenth day.” When I made that connection I was like wow, crazy, the Titanic hit the iceberg on the same day as the dust storm. Bad day.

What about Lincoln’s assassination?

It wasn’t until 1998 or 1999, when I was living in a little shack of a house in Nashville. It was like an old slave quarters, and I was always sick when I lived there. So I was sick, and I had a ten-inch black and white TV, and I had it up next to the bed and I was lying in bed watching a PBS documentary on Lincoln. It got to the part where he was shot and they said “on April the 14th…” and I freaked out. I really thought it was very sinister; I think it’s how some people feel when they see a ghost. I got completely freaked out, got all cold and shivered, and I think I started yelling for Dave. It hadn’t occurred to me to write about it until I got to that third event. It was in the body of working on “April the 14th” and “Ruination Day,”—which were first one song and then kind of split apart into two songs—that I spat out the phrase “ruination day,” and then that was that.

She’s right about that ghostly feeling because I had it earlier thinking about the overlap. Maybe it wasn’t like that for you reading this. Maybe you knew all this stuff already in which case I guess you think you’re fucking better than me.

I asked Ryan Walsh whose great Boston band Hallelujah the Hills put out an album back in November you should check out what Ruination Day means to him.

“I've watched it build over the years, Ruination Day,” he told me. “It's a nineteen year old song and term, so the build has been slow. It's like Welch invented the opposite of a holiday, like a time and date that functions as a black hole sucking in awful events. I search the term on 4/14 every year on Twitter and 2020 already has beaten all the prior years. It sure makes sense why 2020 would be the year it crested into the mainstream, considering where we are right now, doom-wise. Even thinking about it is superstitious, but it's the same logic-scaffolding that makes us celebrate birthdays and read our horoscope. We're searching for order out here, and Welch's collapsing of history into a song that gives the day a name certainly offers that.”

Ruination Day Part 2

And the great barge sank.
And the Okies fled.
And the great emancipator
Took a bullet in the head.

In the head...
Took a bullet in the back of the head.

It was not December.
Was not in May.
Was the 14th of April.
That is ruination day.

That's the day...
The day that is ruination day.

They were one.
They were two.
They were three.
They were four.
They were five hundred miles from their home.

From their home...
They were five hundred miles from their home.

When the iceberg hit
Well they must have known
That God moves on the water Casey Jones.

Casey Jones...
God moves on the water Casey Jones.

Our man David Berman wrote a poem about the Lincoln assassination from the point of view of John Wilkes Booth’s brother-in-law although as Ryan points out here I guess he got the date wrong.

The poem that comes after that one in Berman’s 1999 book Actual Air is Self-Portrait at 28 and it’s very long but it starts like this:

I know it's a bad title
but I'm giving it to myself as a gift
on a day nearly canceled by sunlight
when the entire hill is approaching
the ideal of Virginia
brochured with goldenrod and loblolly
and I think "at least I have not woken up
with a bloody knife in my hand"
by then having absently wandered
one hundred yards from the house
while still seated in this chair
with my eyes closed.

It is a certain hill
the one I imagine when I hear the word "hill"
and if the apocalypse turns out
to be a world-wide nervous breakdown
if our five billion minds collapse at once
well I'd call that a surprise ending
and this hill would still be beautiful
a place I wouldn't mind dying
alone or with you.

I am trying to get at something
and I want to talk very plainly to you
so that we are both comforted by the honesty.
You see there is a window by my desk
I stare out when I am stuck
though the outdoors has rarely inspired me to write
and I don't know why I keep staring at it.

Also today in history baseball player Pete Rose was born in 1941 so that’s a pretty big deal too you have to imagine. For gamblers and scumbags and such. When Las Vegas gets back up and running someday they should have Pete Rose do a flyover to salute the gamblers. A volcano in Iceland fucked up air travel real bad for a while today in 2010 as well I just read. I sort of remember that but I don’t. I sort of remember everything but don’t. A while back in here I wrote about a plaque they put up in Iceland commemorating the first named glacier to lose its status as a glacier due to climate change. Here’s some of that piece since most of you probably didn’t see it.

One famous reason you might go to Iceland is to marvel at all of the geological wonders. You might sit in the sulfurous hot springs and rub all the shit on your face like people do there or marvel at the geysers or the volcanos both living and dead. You might swim down to the Silfra fissure to the exact place where two continents once met and have since drifted apart and think about how very small you are and how very small all of us are or maybe how like continents you have drifted apart from someone you were once close to because it’s impossible for humans to think of anything but ourselves. I just thought about tectonic plates grinding against one another and it made me think about the pain in my back. That sort of thing.

You might gaze upon the aurora borealis and think about how very small you are and how very small all of us are or maybe how like the stars someone you once knew is so far away but you can still if the conditions are just right see their light because it’s impossible for humans to think of anything but ourselves.

You might walk along the verdant fields at the feet of craggy mountains or along the black sand beaches on the coast and think ay I’m in Game of Thrones over here which would be true since some of it was filmed here. I’m gonna fuck my sister! you’ll scream from atop a mountain.

You might go to this one bar they have there that is entirely dedicated to The Big Lebowski and be like this is kind of funny but also what the fuck?

It’s a magical place is what I’m saying but it’s also somewhat normal because they have Subway restaurants and strip malls like any other idiot country so not sure what you were imagining. You can eat shark dick too but not at Subway. The only place I’ve ever been in the world where they had just about zero Americanized chains was Bermuda and I thought that was pretty cool of them. The other thing Iceland and Bermuda have in common is due to they are islands everything is expensive as fuck.

Another important thing about Iceland is they also have a really nice gym there with the biggest outdoor pool I’ve ever seen and it’s so warm and you go in it and it’s lightly snowing out and you swim laps and you’re like this is pretty great and then you look around at all of the universally fit and attractive locals working out and think: these fucking assholes.

Maybe it’s just me but you’ll also feel less funny there than you ever have in your entire life. The time I went there I don’t think a single person laughed at any of my jokes for about a week which is a curiously humbling experience for someone who has no other aspect of their personality to offer besides being a jerk off wiseass.

One time I went inside a place to go interview some people and there was a baby carriage parked out front on the city street with a whole fucking baby inside of it all wrapped up warm and I guess they just do that sometimes? Gonna run inside for a bit and leave my baby here on the street.

Something else you can do if you go to Iceland is see a new memorial they are setting up there for a dead glacier known as Okjökull.

Okjökull or Ok was the subject of a short film by Rice University anthropologists Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer about the first named Icelandic glacier to melt and lose its status as a glacier. It wasn’t the first glacier to melt but the first one that had a name which is meaningful because when things that have names die it fucks us up. Imagine a crawfish dying. Who gives a fuck. But now I am thinking about our pet crawfish Survivor dying and that makes me sad. His little pineapple house being empty.

“Glaciers have been distinctive features of the Icelandic landscape ever since human settlement on the island 1200 years ago,” the filmmakers explain. “But since the early 20th century Iceland’s 400+ glaciers have been melting steadily, now losing roughly 11 billion tons of ice every year; scientists predict that all of Iceland’s glaciers will be gone by 2200. One of Iceland’s smallest known glaciers is named ‘Ok.’ Not Ok is its story. This is not a tale of spectacular, collapsing ice. Instead, it is a little film about a small glacier on a low mountain--a mountain who has been observing humans for a long time and has a few things to say to us.”

The people behind the movie and some others will soon be hosting a hike there to place a historical marker and plaque “to commemorate the site where Ok glacier once was.”

“One of our Icelandic colleagues put it very wisely when he said, ‘Memorials are not for the dead; they are for the living,’” Howe said. “With this memorial, we want to underscore that it is up to us, the living, to collectively respond to the rapid loss of glaciers and the ongoing impacts of climate change. For Ok glacier it is already too late; it is now what scientists call ‘dead ice.’”

Written by Icelandic author Andri Snaer Magnason the words on the plaque read like this:

“Ok is the first glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years, all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

Anyway that was some shit about Iceland. Oh wait there’s a connection though. The lessons of over-farming and land misuse and predatory capitalists and land speculators from the Dust Bowl have something to teach us about climate change as this piece in Popular Science from last year explains.

White settlers poured onto the United States' Great Plains during the mid-19th century, spurred by free property the federal government offered in exchange for cultivation. The semiarid prairie was home to a variety of native grasses, but the notion that it could be converted into productive farmland was misguided. The would-be farmers had no idea that the region went through extended wet periods followed by drier ones. Local plants had adapted to survive, and settlers thought that the existence of moisture meant more would follow. They also believed that "rain follows the plow"—a long-abandoned theory that the presence of farmers and settlers could bring humidity to dry climates—and the maxim set them up for disaster.

"They removed windbreaks and trees to plant fields in a relatively semi-arid area that had been wet," says climatologist Marc Svoboda, who directs the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska. Then, during the 1920s, Great Plains farmers planted huge amounts of wheat in response to international demand. Investing in the drought-intolerant crop meant uprooting resilient prairie grasses, which had previously helped the soil survive dry seasons by storing moisture in their deep roots. "When the drought came, that landscape was much more vulnerable," Svoboda says.

Come it did, and with catastrophic results. Beginning in 1931, the region experienced a series of four major drought episodes considered the worst in the nation's history. Farmers weren't prepared for this, or for the erosion that followed. Failing crops left soil rootless and loose, leaving it vulnerable to high winds.

Soon, epic dust storms swept the region…

Regarding some other farming news here’s some shit I just read in the NYT:

In Wisconsin and Ohio, farmers are dumping thousands of gallons of fresh milk into lagoons and manure pits. An Idaho farmer has dug huge ditches to bury 1 million pounds of onions. And in South Florida, a region that supplies much of the Eastern half of the United States with produce, tractors are crisscrossing bean and cabbage fields, plowing perfectly ripe vegetables back into the soil.

After weeks of concern about shortages in grocery stores and mad scrambles to find the last box of pasta or toilet paper roll, many of the nation’s largest farms are struggling with another ghastly effect of the pandemic. They are being forced to destroy tens of millions of pounds of fresh food that they can no longer sell.

The closing of restaurants, hotels and schools has left some farmers with no buyers for more than half their crops. And even as retailers see spikes in food sales to Americans who are now eating nearly every meal at home, the increases are not enough to absorb all of the perishable food that was planted weeks ago and intended for schools and businesses.

The amount of waste is staggering. The nation’s largest dairy cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America, estimates that farmers are dumping as many as 3.7 million gallons of milk each day. A single chicken processor is smashing 750,000 unhatched eggs every week.

Under capitalism it’s easier to destroy food than to give it away and there’s no better system than this baby.

Arthur Leonard explained more about his experience during the dust storms:

AL: People tried to grow their own food in their gardens, and they had an awful time because it was so dry. They needed a lot of water, and so they grew a lot of their own food. People ate lamb's quarters, and that was "poor man's greens" we called it. And dandelion greens, we ate those, and we had what we called "hasenpfeffer": that was stewed jackrabbit. That was German. My mother was German descent and they had stewed jackrabbit. We had a lot of that.

BC: Do you recall some of the jackrabbit hunts?

AL: Oh, yes, I was on 'em, and they were very pitiful. The jackrabbit hunt was very. . . .matter of fact, one day I just went home. I couldn't take it any more. The poor things was just dying and yelling and they was clubbing them to death. It was pitiful to see it, but they had to do it cause the jackrabbits was eating up all the grain. They just take a field and just wipe it out. There was so many jackrabbits, and they breed terrible fast, and so there was millions and millions of jackrabbits. Oh, yes I was on a lot of jackrabbit drives.

BC: Now, how old were you when the dust bowl first started?

AL: Oh, I was born in 1917, and the dust storms started in 1931 or '32 somewhere in there. This gradually kept getting worse and worse, then the Black Sunday came and after Black Sunday it petered out. We didn't have as much from then on out. In '38 and '39 we got more moisture and things were changing and everything. In the '40's the war started and, of course, that made a big difference.

BC: Do you recall what the talk was like back then when the dust bowl was first starting, what the talk was about town about what was happening?

AL: Well, the people were moving, a lot of the people that lived here that weren't tied down left the country--went to California, especially in Oklahoma. What was it--The Grapes of Wrath--that book? Read that and it'll tell you what happened in the dust storm days. It just went on and on. There wasn't much conversation because you was used to it, you know. That's all, you just got used to it. Most people wore dust masks as much as they could or put a handkerchief over their nose or something to keep from breathing the dust in. But you got it anyhow; it was just impossible to keep from getting it.