“The Dust Bowl” was first used to describe a place—the section of the Southern Plains, mostly in Oklahoma and Texas, that was nearly blown away during the decade-long drought of the 1930s. The Dust Bowl also refers to a period of our national history, and most Americans know something about that. We’ve seen some Dorothea Lange photographs, heard a Woody Guthrie song, or read The Grapes of Wrath. But The Dust Bowl, a new Ken Burns documentary, hugely expands our understanding. It shows, in powerful detail, how our naive and exploitative treatment of nature created one of the greatest manmade environmental disasters in history—and what it was like to live with the consequences.
Owning land was an opportunity for the homesteaders who settled the Southern Plains in the late 19th century. Wheat was a cash crop, so land was a commodity for spec- ulators and “suitcase farmers” who grabbed a piece of the action. It was a time when “rain follows the plow” was both a real estate sales slogan and a wishful theory of climatol- ogy. By the 1920s, the deep-rooted buffalo grass that had anchored a perfectly balanced prairie ecosystem was being plowed up on an industrial scale. Then the rain stopped, the wind blew, and millions of tons of topsoil were swept off the plains. After years of enduring the “black blizzards” and waiting for rain, a great exodus of “Okies” left the Dust Bowl. For those who stayed, salvation from bankruptcy and starvation came from above—the government’s New Deal programs that put people back to work planting wind- breaks and cover crops to save the soil.
The grandeur of the trademark Ken Burns style is well suited to this epic tale. He packs a wealth of original mate- rial into two parts and four hours, including descriptive writing from the most eloquent chroniclers of the Dust Bowl. Restored newsreel footage shows the formidable nature of the dust storms, and scenes of towering dust clouds—like moving mountain ranges—are a revelation, even for modern viewers accustomed to digitally enhanced disaster movies.
The greatest treasures archived in this film are the exten- sive interviews with people in their 80s and 90s who experienced the Dust Bowl as children and young adults. They’re the survivors of what the film calls “the crucible of dust, drought and Depression” that took a terrible toll on crops and livestock, land and home—and on loved ones lost to dust pneumonia or despair.
The elders describe the struggles of their parents and relations, people who tried their best to face the Dust Bowl hardships with old-fashioned pioneer virtues of stoicism and resilience. The stories of endurance, escape, and recov- ery are tempered by humility, as more than one interviewee reflects on the manmade causes of the disaster. They make The Dust Bowl a particularly moving version of the Ken Burns documentary—history as living memory. Some- thing we can take to heart, learn from, and—maybe—not repeat.
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