Kurt Caswell

Kurt Caswell is the author or two books of nonfiction: In the Sun’s House: My Year Teaching on the Navajo Reservation, and An Inside Passage, for which he won the 2008 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize. He teaches creative writing and literature in the Honors College at Texas Tech University, and in the low-residency MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. For more information, please go to: www.kurtcaswell.com.



It was like coming down the mountain, not like dying at all, but like living and coming down the mountain, even as the world wanted to die, as the rooms of the house went dark in daylight, the great dust cloud of the haboob come over the top and pressing in, the sun blotted out, the view of the neighbor’s house blotted out, the sky blotted out, the weird orange light in the darkness at mid-day, like the bomb at Trinity, I imagined, like Semipalatinsk, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, sitting alone, wondering if this might not be the end of something, the end of this thing now, the end of the world, at last. It was like coming down the mountain from the pure, happy clarity of the high country, its sparkling waters and expanses of blue, its trees and wild strawberries, its bears at root in the ground for termites and in the air for cutworm moths, lazing in the sun, its horny toads, the little ones, poinging off into the shades of sage and pine and stones on the trails that ascend to the nine summits where from this vantage, you see cranes in migration on the wing, another 10,000 feet above, still, almost into the heavens. It was like coming down the mountain into the dark valleys and onto the wide plains filled and covered over with the smokes and wastes of industry and the chemicals of agriculture, the writhing masses of the people living one on top of the other, one on top of the other, and the land scorched and burned by summer fires, and spring fires and autumn fires with the rise of the mammals, and then the primates, and the great apes, and Cain and Abel into you and me and we, and into the ten thousand years of agriculture pushing the sixth great extinction on earth.

In Muleshoe, Texas, October 17, 2011, a haboob came to town out of the Llano Estacado, the dry, flat wastes of the Texas tableland. A photograph taken by a resident showed a massive wall of black dust towering eight thousand feet into the atmosphere. The photograph made its way onto the local news in the neighboring city of Lubbock, where I live. Get ready, everybody, the weatherman announced. Seek shelter now. This haboob is headed our way. It’s a wall of dust, a great body of black dust moving at about thirty miles per hour and pushed by winds with gusts of up to sixty miles per hour. It won’t take long to get here. It will be here real soon. Get ready.

Your poet, Li Po, the simple man, the lover of wine, the lover of the moon, the Banished Immortal, writes:

Sunlight is light bringing tangled sorrows
Facing ten-thousand-mile winds, autumn geese leaving,
we can still laugh and drink in this tower tonight,

chant poems of Immortality Land, ancient word-bones.

The word “haboob” is Arabic, as haboobs are most common in desert regions like the Middle East, North Africa, and also in western Australia and on the southwest plains of North America. Why Arabic, I wonder, and not Comanche, or Kiowa, or Nubian, or Walmajarri? I wonder what the Comanche called the dust storms descending upon their horse herds and their teepees, on their camps out on the flat wastes of the Llano Estacado where the U.S. Calvary feared to go? The word comes from the root “habb,” which means “wind,” and “haboob” means “strong wind.” During the Dustbowl years of the 1930s, most of the great dust storms were haboobs, but people in this part of the world called them “black wind storms,” or “black blizzards.”

At my home in Lubbock, Texas, the photograph from Muleshoe came to my attention on the local news. It was astonishing. It was terrible. It was beautiful. I had no idea what it meant. The local TV news turned to the national TV news. Maybe I’d see what was happening in the world while waiting for the haboob. Then I’d know what it meant. I wanted something new, but it was the same news as last night, the night before, every night. Conflict all over the world. Nations at war with each other. Nations at war with themselves. Nations at war with drugs. Drugs at war with drugs. The real estate crisis in America. A world economic slow-down, recession, financial collapse. Nations going bankrupt. Banks going bankrupt. Corporate executives taking people’s money, and then going bankrupt. Another environmental disaster and its cleanup, even while new legislation makes future environmental disaster inevitable. The most disastrous heat, again, in the history of record keeping, but don’t ever, ever use the term “climate change.” One person is murdered in a city park, and a famous person has died. A thousand people are born. The world’s population at seven billion and climbing ever faster. What are we going to do? Never mind that. Pro life! Pro choice! Abstinence. It doesn’t work, but let’s pretend it does. Get married. Get divorced. Pro gay marriage. Anti gay marriage. Humidity. Terrible flesh eating bacteria. AIDS. Avian flu. Swine flu. Whooping cough is back. The common cold, stronger than ever, killed nine people. Fracking is poisoning your drinking water, and nobody cares. YOU ARE GOING TO DIE! Pause for a commercial break. Buy this prescription drug. It will relieve your symptoms from your obscure condition; the short-term side effects range from shitting yourself to death, to death, but if you live, the long-term side effects are unknown. Ask your doctor about it now. Your doctor isn’t smart enough to know what treatment you need. You do, because you watch TV. Take aspirin for your heart condition. If you don’t have a heart condition, might as well take it anyway. Buy this insurance for your insurance. You can never have enough insurance. Back to the news. A plane crashed in Russia, everyone dead. A white collar criminal goes unpunished, again. Nobody cares. A poor minority (fast becoming the majority) gets the electric chair, in Texas. Nobody cares. Everybody in America is obese, and the children are obese, soft, dying. Nobody cares. Does your school have a contract with Coke or Pepsi? More darkness. More degradation of the earth’s air and water and the loss of biological diversity. The ice caps are melting. Greenland is melting. Glaciers are melting. Polar bears are dying. Maybe. Nobody cares. The conservatives publically maintain that climate change is natural, and Jesus will solve all our problems. What would Jesus do? Don’t bother with voting or recycling or walking instead of driving your car. Just pray. Pray, baby pray. And then, the finalé, to counterbalance all this death: an orphaned, three-legged dog finds a friend in a blind chess champion, somewhere in small-town West Virginia. And that’s the news, folks.

The haboob is coming.

Haboobs form when strong winds flow down and out of the leading edge of thunderstorms and cold fronts. These winds pick up dust, condense it, drive it forward, usually at about half the velocity of the winds themselves. The dust cloud can extend for sixty to ninety miles, and reach five thousand to eight thousand feet into the atmosphere. Some might reach as high as fifteen thousand feet. Such storms don’t usually last very long: thirty minutes maybe, three hours at the most. Haboobs in the Middle East and North America are typically associated with thunderstorms, which is why it often rains after a haboob, though in arid climates, this rain might never reach the ground. Haboobs in Australia are most often associated with cold fronts.

Out of the thunderstorm or cold front comes a strong wind. When this wind passes over dry, loose soil, the smallest dust particles (0.002 millimeters and smaller) are immediately suspended in the air. The threshold velocity of a wind that can move small particles like this is only about nine miles per hour, so a strong wind will move much larger particles as well (0.5 millimeters). The largest particles are often too heavy to be suspended in the air, so they roll along the ground, a process known as “creeping.” Between the small and the large particles are the medium sized particles (0.002 to 0.5 millimeters), which climatologists call “silt” or “dust.” Dust particles are too heavy to be suspended, but too light to creep. They bounce against the surface of the earth. When these bouncing particles hit other particles, those other particles bounce too, and then those particles get still more particles bouncing. The effect is exponential, like the world’s birthrate. Dust particles bouncing off the surface are born aloft when caught in the power of the wind, and as more particles are drawn into the storm, particles have yet more particles to bounce against. The result is that these medium sized particles, too heavy to be suspended in the air under normal circumstances, are suspended in the air by bouncing from the surface and from one particle to another. They climb thousands of feet into the atmosphere by bouncing.

These bouncing particles also generate a static electrical field. By bouncing, they acquire a negative charge. The ground has a positive charge. The flow of energy between positive and negative creates an electrical field. As this electrical field builds, the particles require less and less wind energy to keep them aloft, until ultimately, the field itself will lift particles from the ground.

The interplay of bouncing particles, which escalates rapidly with the force of the wind, and the building static electrical field, is known as “saltation,” and is the major action of a haboob; saltation makes a haboob a haboob.

The summer of 2011 was the hottest on record in west Texas. Like a lot of places in the U.S., in the world even, heat records of all sorts were broken daily. Many of those records were set in 1930s, during the Dustbowl. In Lubbock, June, 2011 was the hottest month in recorded history. Until July, which broke the June record. Until August, which broke the July record. It didn’t rain. One hundred miles to the north, Amarillo recorded fifty consecutive days with temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. And no rain. Lubbock recorded forty-nine consecutive days at temperatures above normal, and as many at above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. All records. The night temperatures in the region, the low temperatures, were also the highest on record. At midnight, it might still be 90 degrees Fahrenheit in Lubbock. And no rain. The trees in the city were dying. Juniper and red oak, pecan trees and pines, Siberian elm and rose of Sharon. You could hardly grow a tomato in your backyard. Even the weeds failed. People went on watering their lawns, sometimes at mid-day, and often they overwatered, so water flowed in the streets. The city insists it is not running out of water, though it exhausted its main water source at Lake Meredith in 2011, a reservoir on the Canadian River one hundred forty miles to the north. At the end of 2012, a new pipeline, sixty-five miles long and costing $2,000,000 per mile, began pumping water to Lubbock from Lake Alan Henry, a reservoir to the southeast on the South Fork of the Double Fork of the Brazos River. Stage two water restrictions are in place. Even still, when I go out for morning runs, most any day of the week, any time of the year, water flows in the streets.

The haboob rolled in over my house, snuffed out the sun. I sat in my little room with the TV news, and my vision became a tunnel, darkness closing in until the TV was the only light. I looked down the little tunnel to the TV, like looking through a tube or a pipe, or looking into a drinking glass. It came on fast enough that I didn’t notice it at first, that adrenaline dream-time in slow motion, or some delay in my brain’s synapse. It was light. It was dark. I stood up. I went to the window. I could see it wasn’t night, and it wasn’t an eclipse, and it wasn’t a monstrous thundercloud. The atmosphere was brown, black-brown, and the air had thickened like a gravy, heavy, saturated, laden with material. I could see it, the stuff in the air, swirling around. I could not see it. Even as it went dark like a switch—on/off—it went dark in stages too, like rungs on a ladder, steps in a staircase. Step one. Step two. Step three. I remembered the steps—one, two, three—as I stood at the window after it had already happened. I stood at the window in the center of the haboob, and I experienced the haboob as it came in. I could not now distinguish between what was happening in front of me, and what had just happened. I lost my belief in the flow of time from the past to the present. It all seemed to happen at once, the on/off, the stages, the blotting out of the sun, the tunnel vision to the TV. These separate events seemed to occur separately and simultaneously. I knew then that Einstein was right. I stood at the window. I looked out. It was astonishing. It was terrible. It was beautiful. I stood at the window.

The major hazard of a haboob is low visibility. You can’t see shit. And it comes on suddenly, within seconds. Planes cannot take off or land. Drivers on the road panic and stop without warning, triggering multi-car pile-ups. The particulates in the air combined with the wind can uproot trees and power lines, and cause damage to electronic equipment, houses, barns, buildings, everything. In the Dustbowl of the 1930s, people developed “dust pneumonia.” The storms came so frequently, it troubled and choked their lungs. The morning after a storm, farmers woke to find their livestock dead in the fields. These days, such dust clouds are more toxic, containing pollutantslike heavy metals, carbon monoxide, pesticides, sulfur, salt, byproducts of industrial agriculture, and all of it raised up from the land.

You need a lot of dry, loose soils to form a good haboob. In North Africa and the Middle East, you have a sea of sands. The Sahara Desert, for example. In west Texas, you have a lot of cotton farming. Up until the mid-nineteenth century, the southern plains, the Llano Estacado, was a sea of grass, supporting the greatest bison herds in North America. If a windstorm got up, a downburst from a thunderstorm or a cold front, the grass held the topsoil in place. These days, everywhere you go on the Llano, you see plowed fields with exposed topsoil. Thousands and thousands of acres of it. Top soils drift away on the wind, and then when the time comes to plant cotton, Texas farmers fertilize. Maybe the word “haboob” is Arabic and not Comanche because the Comanche didn’t know haboobs. They knew wind, but the ground, in those days, was luxuriant grass that supported their horse herds, and the wind was a helpful spirit that blew in over the land.

Your poet, the Banished Immortal, writes,

But slice water with a knife, and water still flows,
Empty a winecup to end grief, and grief remains grief.

You never get what you want in this life, so why not
shake your hair loose on a boat at play in dawn light?

At Preston Smith International in Lubbock, the tower was evacuated, and the controllers directed air traffic from the backup room on the ground floor. A small cargo plane on the ground turned over in the wind. Across the city, trees unmoored and came down, shingles flew from roofs, neighborhoods lost power. Instead of a thunderstorm, this haboob came out of a cold front, the winds of which hit sixty miles per hour. After all, winter was coming too.

The haboob passed over. Where I stood in my house at the window, blue sky and bright sun. I went to the back door. I thought about seeing the turkey vultures a week or so before, kettling, floating in that narrow gyre on their southern migration, right there behind the house. Some years they roosted right there behind the house, a couple days, a day more, and then moved on. I went out to check for damage, but the crepe myrtle and the red oak, all intact.The massive pecan on the neighbor’s side, still intact. The Siberian elm, not much to boast about, still intact. A few small branches down, dead branches that would have come down anyway. The Rose of Sharon still dead from the impossible summer heat. For now, the living were still living and the dead were still dead. The haboob was still a haboob, but it was over there now, instead of right here, as it was when it was in Muleshoe, before it was here, that little window between then and now, between now and what came next. The haboob would blow itself out in an hour or so, its winds would spend out their energy, and the dust—the small, the large, the medium sized particles—would return to earth. Somewhere else. This is how things get moved around, how change occurs. A chaos of wind. A calm of light. Blue sky and bright sun. I did not know it in that moment, but soon, from behind my house, I would see sandhill cranes high overhead, a steady pattern to build the day on, and winter would arrive with its cooler temperatures, temperatures that would allow me to believe, once again, that the world would endure another year.

2 thoughts on “Kurt Caswell”

  1. Most excellent essay on a force of nature that is the stuff of legends in the Great Plains and in my family who settled in Lubbock County in 1913 three months before the birth of my dad in 1914. He remembered the unbroken prairies and natural wildlife of his childhood and spoke mournfully of their loss. His family grew cotton, of course, so were part of the death of the prairie grass. He spoke of the black days of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression when he married and started a family as a cotton farmer. I grew up so accustomed to dust storms, I knew when they were coming and when to take my asthma medicine.

    Farming methods have improved greatly since the 1930’s, but if it gets hot enough and dry enough, the wind blows and the blackness descends. Some farmers don’t try to save the soil. I don’t know why. Laziness? Anyway, thank you for this excellent essay from the viewpoint of a non-native. Your description of the sudden blackness descending is so precise and descriptive! Since I moved to Colorado, I have a hard time convincing people of the great winds, the dust storms, the habboobs. They think I exaggerate like a true Texan! Believe it or not, from time to time I miss all that. I guess I’m a true native Lubbockite.

  2. Now I know what a Haboob is!!same as a dust storm. I just got notice from Sun City AZ that they had to shut down all the outdoor swimming pools for cleaning due to Haboob that struck a few days ago.

    Kurt that first sentence was longest I have ever read. !!:). So many thoughts and images packed together it woke me up from my sleepy mood.

    I enjoy your works. And your family.
    Best wishes.


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