Frank Herbert’s Ecology and the Science of Soil Conservation

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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.

Oregon’s Coastal Dunes, photo taken by author.

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”.

“Orchard destroyed by drifting sand. Cimarron County, Oklahoma”, Arthur Rothstein, 1936.

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.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Ibid.
[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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Veronika Kratz

Graduate Student at Carleton University
I'm a PhD Candidate in English Lit at Carleton University in Ottawa. My current project examines cultural narratives of desert transformation in the U.S. and sits at the intersection of environmental history, science studies, narrative and the environmental humanities more generally.

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