During the drought that struck the United States from 1934 to 1937, the soil became so badly eroded that static electricity built up on the farmlands of the Great Plains, pulling dust into the sky like a magnet. Massive clouds of dust rose up to 10,000 feet and, powered by high-altitude winds, was pushed as far east as New York City.
When the “black blizzard” hit Washington, D.C. in May 1934, Hugh Hammond Bennett — the “father of soil conservation” — was testifying before a congressional committee about the effects of soil erosion. Bennett’s testimony lead Congress to unanimously pass legislation declaring soil and water conservation a national policy and priority.
But fixing soil erosion was not something the government could do on its own. As the National Association of Conservation Districts explains, “Because nearly three-fourths of the continental United States is privately owned, Congress realized that only active, voluntary support from landowners would guarantee the success of conservation work on private land. In 1937, President Roosevelt wrote the governors of all the states recommending legislation that would allow local landowners to form soil conservation districts.”
By 1946, over 1,600 soil conservation districts had already formed in 48 states. Those lead to the formation of National Association of Soil Conservation Districts (NASCD). A decade later, the NASCD began a national program to encourage Americans to focus on stewardship.
Since then “Stewardship Week” has been officially celebrated every year from the last Sunday in April to the first Sunday in May. As the NASCD notes, it’s one of the world’s largest conservation-related observances. And as John Murdock at First Things explains, this observance on the the soil has Christian roots:
From the Latin rogare (to ask), Rogation Days were established by Pope Gregory the Great to Christianize a long-standing Roman appeasement rite. In 1955, modern soil conservationists from all backgrounds then piggy-backed on the Christian observance, leading to the bulletin that my great grandmother Annie found worth saving two years later. After Vatican II, though, the practice apparently fell out of favor among Catholics in this Texas farming community, and in most others too. Anglicans, who had a strong Rogation Days tradition that dated back centuries also de-emphasized the observance in their 1979 Book of Common Prayer.
Nevertheless, Soil and Water Conservation Week or Stewardship Week continues, now tethered to the original Roman calendar observance on April 25th—known to liturgical Christians still in the know as the Major Rogation—rather than the more variable Minor Rogations, the three days before Ascension Thursday, highlighted in 1957. To their credit, the National Association of Soil Conservation Districts has not severed the week’s religious roots nor given the occasion a neo-pagan polish. In fact, the NASCD provides some surprisingly Christ-centered materials suitable for Christian congregations of all stripes that still wish to observe the occasion. And it is an occasion worth observing. Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Stewardship Week reminds us that in the mean time we are called to care for the ground from which we came.