This post is part of #AltASEH2020, a special series published by NiCHE based on research and presentations that could not be presented at the 2020 annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To contribute your own work to this series, visit this link. And don’t forget to donate to the ASEH Conference Recovery Fund.
This work is based on a paper to be given as part of the ASEH 2020 panel “Repairing the Land: Environmental Reclamation in North American Agriculture and Industry since 1945”, and uses material from a research trip to the Frank Herbert Papers held at University of California State Fullerton.
Frank Herbert is best known as the science fiction author responsible for Dune, a 1965 epic which was one of the very first ecologically-minded novels of the genre. The story takes place on the desert planet of Arrakis, which is all at once a harsh arid landscape and a complicated, flourishing biosphere.
Herbert was inspired to create the world of Dune during a 1957 trip to coastal Oregon. The author, who was also a journalist, went to Oregon to write a piece on the sand dune stabilization programs that were being run by the Soil Conservation Service (SCS). His planned article was titled, quite dramatically, “They Stopped the Moving Sands,” but was never published and never finished.[i] Because of its ecological components, Dune is often read as an environmentalist text, in part following Herbert’s own development as an activist in the 1960s and 70s. Using his research and early drafts, my project re-contextualizes Dune using the history of sand dune stabilization on the Oregon coast to show that Herbert conceptualized ecology as an applied science, specifically useful for agricultural pursuits and aiding land utilization.
Sand dune stabilization is a process of planting fast-growing grasses along the moving crest of coastal dunes to essentially anchor them into place. The most common method of stabilization is to construct a fence or barrier for the dune to form against and then to plant these grasses along the crest, where their stabilizing root systems keep it from blowing onward in the wind. This is precisely the science behind the terraforming project taken up on Arrakis, the desert planet of Dune.
In the text, the local people of Arrakis, the Fremen, are secretly working towards the generations-long plan of Liet Kynes, the imperial ecologist of the planet (or planetologist), to terraform Arrakis, or make it more suitable for human life. Kynes uses his ecological understanding of the planet as a living system to guide the Fremen in the techniques of water collection, irrigation and sand stabilization to eventually ‘green’ the desert. Described in detail in the text’s appendix on ecology, the process of desert greening begins with the “[d]ownwind sides of old dunes [which] provided the first plantation areas. The Fremen aimed first for a cycle of poverty grass with peatlike hair cilia to intertwine, mat and fix the dunes by depriving the wind of its big weapon: movable grains.”[ii] This is the process of sand dune stabilization in Oregon extrapolated to an entire fictional planet.
In Oregon, most stabilization efforts had been ongoing since the 1930s, and were run by the SCS and the Civilian Conservation Corps.[iii] The SCS was originally the Soil Erosion Service, a temporary agency in the Department of the Interior created in 1933 to better understand the record-breaking years of drought and severe dust storms that were beginning to plague the Great Plains and would eventually be termed the Dust Bowl.[iv] The SCS responded to the crisis and the urgent need it created to establish a greater control over the landscape and its soils.
Although Herbert’s research began decades after the crisis, the efforts of the SCS on the Oregon coastline still carried traces of its historical connection to the Dust Bowl. The Oregon coast seems far from agricultural work, but even these soils were in use. In his notes, Herbert writes that the Siuslaw conservation district included 630, 000 acres of farmland.[v] The ecologists who worked with the SCS split their time between working in the dunes and on local farms for soil conservation planning.[vi] But it wasn’t just an agricultural methodology that the SCS carried with them from the Dust Bowl, it was also a cultural narrative that saw aridity and moving sand as crises to be solved.
Although geographically distant, the swirling dirt of the great plains structured how ecologists considered the active dunes on the Pacific coast, which we can see in the writings of the people who worked there, or as Herbert called them, “the people who won the battle.”[vii] The focus of Herbert’s planned article was Thomas J. Flippin, a work unit conservationist for the SCS in the Siuslaw district. Among Herbert’s research materials is a report on dune activity in the region written by Flippin in 1956. The report details the apocalyptic imagery of the destructive force of the dunes (where the SCS had not been able to conduct its work). These descriptions mimic the famous images of the Dust Bowl produced by the Farm Security Administration, and suggest, as does Herbert’s proposed title, a threatening, almost personified mass of “Moving Sands”.
We can also see this image of deserts as threat within Dune, where the landscape itself is frequently the greatest danger faced by the characters. However a more intricate influence of Dust Bowl thinking can be seen in the text’s treatment of agriculture. Farming is rarely mentioned in the text outside of a key but fleeting moment when Liet Kynes indicates that agriculture is the purpose of the terraforming project on the desert planet.[viii] The agricultural mindset of Dune is further elaborated in an earlier draft, as part of a deleted section of a conversation between the text’s young protagonist, Paul, and his father, Duke Leto Atreides.
While trying to help his son adjust to the family’s move to the dangerous but profitable desert planet, he instructs his son to think of himself as a farmer tending to the needs of his land:
“There’s something you should realize, Paul,” the Duke said. “You’re a farmer. That has always been the Atreides way. You’re a farmer with an entire planet as your farm. Arrakis will be no different. Just different problems of different stock and crop and how to maintain their health. When you look at it that way, many problems become simple.”[ix]
And Leto is right. With this mindset, the desert can be transformed into productive land, the dunes can be stabilized, and ecology emerges as the tool for the job.
This is the conception of ecology that Herbert was working with as he composed his story in the late 1950s. The book took years to write and was serialized in the science fiction magazine Analog from 1963 – 1965, when it was also published as a book. It would eventually rise to popularity within the context of the emerging mid-century environmentalist movement in America. In this time Herbert himself would evolve as an active environmentalist, and it is easy to match his writing to these ideals. However, read within the context of the Oregon coast and the SCS, Dune captures an earlier moment and a different conception of ecological science, one which illustrates the lasting impacts of the Dust Bowl on American conceptions of aridity and crisis, and presents Dune as, fundamentally, a book about deserts as problems that can and should be ‘solved,’ which is to say, made to be productive.
[i] Herbert’s outline for the sand dune stabilization article, along with some letters discussing the project with his editor, were eventually published by his son, Brian Herbert, and science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson, in the 2005 collection The Road to Dune.
[ii] Herbert, Frank. Dune, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, 2005, 538.
[iii] Reckendorf, Frank, et al. “Stabilization of Sand Dunes in Oregon.” Agricultural History, vol. 59, no. 2, 1985, p. 260–68.
[iv] The SCS continues to this day, in 1994, it was renamed the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
[v] Herbert, Frank. “Shifting Sand Dunes”. Frank Herbert Papers, University Archives and Special Collections, Pollack Library, California State University Fullerton, Document box 59B, Folder 1, author notes 1.
[viii] This revelation occurs in the text as the planetary ecologist Liet Kynes lies dying in the desert, reflecting on his generations-long plan to green the planet. In a half-deluded state, Kynes reveals that “[t]he real wealth of a planet is in its landscape, how we take part in that basic source of civilization – agriculture” (291).
[ix] Herbert, Frank. Book I: Working Draft. Frank Herbert Papers, University Archives and Special Collections, Pollack Library, California State University Fullerton, Box 8, Folders 5, 7, p. 102
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Long response follows…
In anticipation of the release of the next version of the Dune films, I have been examining the question of FH’s view on the natural world and the idea of power in the hands of leaders. I essentially see the Dune saga as a struggle for liberation.
In the prehistory of the story we find that humans strove to liberate themselves from labor and even thinking so they created machines to do this for us. When we became enslaved to these machines, we then turned to a struggle to liberate ourselves from the artificial intelligence we had created. Two schools of thinking evolved which in themselves were struggles of power and control and the means to thwart threats to that control.
In my opinion, there is another liberation struggle going on in the story – one that is closer to your premise. This is the struggle for liberation of the natural world from exploitation. As a permaculture designer myself, the first question I asked when reading of your research on FH’s dune restoration studies, is “why are we want to control the dunes in the first place? Isn’t it natural for the dunes to form and deform and reform in another location?
What do we want to control the natural world, reform it or stop it from reshaping itself as part of its natural course rather than live within the regenerative capacity of the ecosystem in which we each find ourselves? A complex question, no doubt. But one that I think FH answered well through the series of his Dune novels.
Our desire to control the natural world through agriculture is clearly crashing down around us as I write these words. Each effort by man to shore up industrial agriculture is like trying to stop the dunes from shifting. When, in fact, the dunes are meant to shift. When national and global economies get so entire entangled with industrial agriculture and its scale, leaders will do everything to perpetuate the status quo for fear of the changes in economic conditions. This sounds much like FH’s Spacing Guild wanting to control government to keep spice flowing because of the ramifications of the halting of the flow of Mélange.
FH had on more than one occasion indicated that his message was that people should not trust leaders, and that even his own nation was one founded on the distrust of leaders. He was documented to say that the U.S.A. had lost this quality to distrust leaders and we have given over nearly absolute power into the hands of a few. In Dune’s case, even the leader that was prophesied for several millennia would be affected by power and make bad decisions that negatively affect millions and millions of people.
The terraforming of Arrakis will be yet another liberation disaster much as the adoption of annual agriculture for food has been for our own planet. Fast forward to the 20th Century and we have the Green Revolution, as championed by Earl Butz and his ilk, as one of the greatest tragedies of human existence on the planet since the human adoption of annuals for food.
I’m not suggesting that FH is offering any great alternative. I think more he was wanting to wake us all up to the fact that we have subjugated ourselves to people who are not worthy to be trusted, let alone be stewards of life on this planet. Observation of the events of the last two years in North America should tell us that we have addicted ourselves to centralized leadership. Then, when we decry that centralized leadership, we simply substitute the leaders who demonstrate their successive inability to mange life for humans and the natural world.
Of course my own nation played out this argument to its own disastrous end when the federalist and the anti-federalists debated in the middle 18th Century on what form of government we should have in the United States of America. The federalists won out and we ended up with a strong centralized government controlled by large economic interests and keeping power away from the local community. Does this sound familiar to the Dune story? I say it is exactly the Dune story because you have large economic interests and lust for power (the Mentats, the Bene Gesserit, the navigator’s Guild) and controlling the universal centralized government (the Imperium and its feudal system).
The desire for control and the lust for power to remain in the hands of a few will be our ever-present struggle until the end of this age. I think FH was telling us that if we choose to live this way, we should expect trial, turmoil, and pain. Yes, he clearly was impacted by his studies of the dune restoration projects. However, based on the text of his Dune saga, I am not sure he saw mitigation and attempts to control of the natural world as the solution.
I loved this article as it reflects my own perception of how instructive and captivating this book is. I love watching the way plants can help eachother…. It’s to long to explain what I mean… But, yes! Change can happen♥️