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March 2006

A weird carnival, epic dust storms and the arrival of a mysterious browser bar - only Huw knows what the connection is...

 

Farming, you might have thought, is not a subject which is likely to grip the imagination of those who don’t farm. The myriad little idiosyncrasies of sheep, cows and sows are, you might suppose, of strictly limited interest to anyone who is not obliged to clear up the mess after them…


Why have I got a picture of two cooch dancers in the column this month? And what is a cooch dancer anyway? One of the answers to these questions will be revealed if you keep reading; the other may, perhaps, be lurking somewhere on the Carnivale web site (or, if not, try HERE). In any case, from the site you can email the picture above to a friend or colleague - so it has to be worth a visit, hasn't it...?

On the other hand, catastrophic storms that sweep across the landscape blowing away houses, toppling trucks and raising huge dust storms which turn daytime into night – well, these, I’m sure you will agree, sounds a lot more interesting. It’s the stuff of Hollywood films and Stephen King novels. Towns swept away, entire populations on the move across vast, desert landscapes, beneath a relentless, baking sun – and at their back, a huge and devastating wall of red dust relentlessly pursuing them.

But it isn’t fiction. If you’ve read John Steinbeck’s Grapes Of Wrath or seen the film of the book, you may recognise the scenario. Back in the 1930s, huge areas of the United States were transformed into a dustbowl where no water flowed and few plants grew. Terrifying dust storms swept across Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, blotting out the sun so completely that chickens roosted at noon.

And what has all this got to do with farming? Well, as it happens, quite a lot...

All The Fun Of The Fair…

I must admit that I had, until recently, never given any thought one way or the other to the great ‘Dust Bowl’ of the 1930s. I had been vaguely aware that something had happened to spoil the crops and cause a mass migration of poor farmers to California. But as to its causes, well, it hadn’t even occurred to me to ask.

Recently, however, I bought a set of DVDs of a television show called Carnivale. This was purely an impulse purchase. I was looking for something more interesting to watch than the mindless pap that passes for entertainment on British TV these days and I was intrigued by the review on Amazon UK: “Like a cross between Twin Peaks and The Grapes Of Wrath, HBO's acclaimed television drama Carnivale fashions an allegorical fable about the mythic battle of good and evil set against the surreal backdrop of a Depression-era travelling circus.”

Well, with a description like that, how could I not buy it!

What a great series it is too! I won’t trouble you with a blow-by-blow description. Suffice to say, this is better than anything I’ve seen on UK TV in a very long time. It also got me wondering about the Dust Bowl. And that set me searching using Google. And that’s how I ended up on a site all about farming.

So, you see, there really is more to farming than the wit and wisdom of sheep.

The causes of the calamitous dust storms appear to be somewhat complex, involving a combination of poor agricultural practices, exceptional weather conditions and just plain bad luck. There are a few internet sites that will give you some of the background such as Modern American Poetry’s guide to The Great Depression, Wikipedia; and NASA which has a good account of the peculiar meteorological conditions at the time. But my favourite site of all is the one hosted by The Wessels Living History Farm of Nebraska.


Now, that's what you call a dust storm! But what, you may wonder, has it got to do with farming...?

Heck, this is a good site! Yes, I realise it take good degree of ‘suspension of disbelief’ even to consider the possibility that a farming site might be worth a visit, but, bear with me for just a minute. This site has a terrific section devoted to the Dust Bowl, with lots of fascinating video interviews with people who lived through it.

“It was like a black wall… just like shutting a barn door. It was that dark,” is how one man describes a dust storm; “The whole sky in the west, as far as you – just a black cloud,” says another.

There are photographs too off surreal scenes: the tops of tractors sticking out of dunes of dust; a dark cliff face of dust looming over a tiny town. This really makes you realise to what extent the history of farming is the history of a nation. What can I say – The Archers was never like this…

And Finally

To return to the triviality which so frequently characterises these ramblings… I have to say that I have been getting pretty ticked off recently with the number of bits of software that have taken to inhabiting my PC with the tenacity of genital lice. Some of these I foolishly invited in; others turned up unannounced.

In the former category is the Blogger toolbar which has attached itself to Word. I admit that I did willingly install this. It’s supposed to make it easy to write blog entries in Word and email them direct to your blog. In fact, I’ve never used it. However, my attempts to remove, hide or disable it by setting Word options were fruitless. In the end I had to take the brute-force approach, using Settings/Control Panel/Add or Remove Programs and uninstalling the damn’ thing for good and all (I sincerely hope).

The Yahoo Toolbar turned up unexpectedly. I don’t recall asking it to install itself. It just arrived one day, docked into Internet Explorer just beneath the Google Toolbar (one add-in that I actually find sufficiently useful to keep). The only explanation I can find for the Yahoo Toolbar’s arrivals is that I joined a Yahoo group recently. Maybe there was a checkbox on a page somewhere when I signed up which, unless specifically unchecked, gave Yahoo the go-ahead to install the thing on my PC? In future I shall read the small print much more carefully. Once again, it took a Control Panel uninstall to get rid of this.

Another software download which I chose to install and which I find occasionally useful is the Google Desktop Search. This indexes the files on your PC and lets you search for files containing specific words just as you can use the online Google to search the internet.

However, it now appears that Google is ‘enhancing’ its Desktop Search tool by making it upload copies of your personal data to the folks at Google. Well, I don’t know if this is really as bad as it sounds. But when a Google vice president cheerily says that "We think this will be a very useful tool, but you will have to give up some of your privacy," my reaction is: “Have to”? Oh no, I rather think not.

When any software company tells you that you ‘have to’ do something, it’s time to do something different. Heck, if I just organise my files better I won’t need to search for stuff anyhow…


Copyright © 2009 Dark Neon Ltd. Not to be reproduced without permission.


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