FROM PLAINS DUST TO URBAN DUST
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK, USA
The lone Slippery Elm that survived the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, draws attention to the precarious landscape of "America's heartland," the site of another tragedy earlier this century. At that time the tree was a rescuer of settlement in the infamous "Dust Bowl."
Between the alluvial valley of the Mississippi and the immediate rainshadow of the Rockies were the prairies, a vast sea of grasses. Their roots ran unusually deep in a land prone to drought, fire and tornadoes. The west-oriented settler had to wade through the tall grasses on the east, then a belt of mixed grasses, before reaching the short grasses of the Great Plains on sediment washed off the Rockies. These grasses held together a migrant way of life before being uprooted to make way for the "belts" of corn, wheat and pasture. By the turn of the 20th century the prairies had become the "Food Bowl." Until, that is, its living soil turned to rootless dust.
In the 1930s, under drought conditions and aided by absentee farming and over-cultivation, the "sodbusted" land became the 'Dust Bowl'. It was centered west of Oklahoma City. Black Sunday, in particular—April 14, 1935, 60 years almost to the day of the bombing—is an unforgettable day in the southern plains. A bright day was made dark and chilly by the "black blizzard." In the sixty years since, trees planted in shelterbelts from North Dakota to Texas together with fertilizer have helped recover the soil of the plains. Not quite however.
On April 19, 1995, tons of fertilizer ( NH4N03) made to nurture the life of soil were packed into a truck and exploded on Fifth Street outside the Murrah Federal Building. This reduced life to dust indiscriminately in Oklahoma City. Urban dust exploded by fertilizer suggests the lurking presence of the Dust Bowl, the continuing tragedy of disengaged soil.
On the 3-acre site of the tragedy—the footprint of the Murrah Building, Fifth Street, and the lot across the street with the "survivor tree"—we begin a process of cultivating the disengaged grounds of the city. We do so with a grass plain for gathering, a sunken street garden for remembering, and a wheat field for nurturing soil.