Filmmaker Ken Burns said the Dust Bowl was a horrific period in American history, but it is also a story of heroic perseverance in the face of biblical plagues.
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Ken Burns' latest PBS documentary, "The Dust Bowl," comes on the heels of the first presidential-election debates in 28 years not to address climate change. If the candidates won't talk about it, leave it to Burns and frequent collaborator Dayton Duncan to draw historic parallels between present-day environmental concerns and the disaster of the 1930s, which was caused by a combination of drought and environmentally destructive farming methods.
"It's a cautionary tale about who we are as human beings as much as anything else," Duncan said of "The Dust Bowl" (8 p.m. EST Sunday and Monday; check local PBS station listings). "Our film was about nature, and it's also about human nature. We're not unique as Americans, but we might be a little more susceptible to it, that we believe that we can ignore the limits of the environment and of nature if it suits our purposes, and that if things are going on a roll, they will continue to go on a roll.
"And all those things converged on the Southern Plains of the teens and the ‘20s so that by the time the inevitable drought was going to return, they had plowed up essentially a place the size of the state of Ohio and left it exposed to the winds and desiccating drought that was going to occur."
Burns, who directed "The Dust Bowl," and Duncan, who is the film's writer, spoke about making the four-hour program at a PBS press conference during the Television Critics Association summer press tour in July. They were joined by Timothy Egan, author of "The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl," and Calvin Crabill, a Dust Bowl survivor, who are both featured in the PBS documentary.
"The Dust Bowl" sets the stage for this natural disaster, explaining what inspired the land rush that found people who had never owned any property suddenly racing to claim a piece of dirt in a place they'd never visited.
"The Homestead Act was entered. The government was saying, ‘Please move here.' Reputable scientists were saying rain follows the plow, that is, the act of plowing would make more rain, that the climate was undergoing a permanent shift towards that, that this was this new Eden, and because it coincided with some wet years, it was," Burns said.
"Suitcase farmers who didn't live there but bought lots of land and paid others to plant it, and they took this buffalo grass that sent its roots down 5 feet into the ground and turned over this soil that had stayed that way for eons, and when the inevitable drought times came back, when the wind continued to blow, that land blew. I mean, we plowed up millions and millions of acres in a kind of speculative agriculture and real-estate bubble."
Egan said the Dust Bowl represents the first time in human history that man changed the climate in a region.
"These storms were human-caused, because the wind had always been there," Egan said. "The drought had always been there. So we peeled this thing off. This is what I get when I talk to college kids about this. They see the modern parallel to climate change. ... It's an earlier version of the tale of how human beings literally change the earth for worse, and then the earth got its revenge, if you want to look at it as an anthropomorphized thing."
Egan said repairs have been made -- 16 million acres of grasslands were restored in the Dust Bowl area -- but he's not confident lessons were learned.
"The larger human lesson of being able to listen to nature and push it too far and think we can push it, you see that every day in comments by our politicians about what we're going through right now," Egan said.
While parallels to recent times are evident throughout "The Dust Bowl," the film's focus is truly on those who survived it. Before beginning work on the program several years ago, Burns recorded spots that aired on PBS stations in the Dust Bowl territory, seeking survivors and photos. Crabill was among those who responded. He describes a harrowing trip home from school to round up cattle before a dust storm hit and the fallout of being a Dust Bowl survivor after his family moved to Burbank, Calif.
"I never invited anybody into my house. ... I felt that I was the poorest kid in the high school," Crabill said. It was a stigma that's never left him. At his 55th high-school reunion, a woman whose family owned the house Crabill's family rented said, "These were ‘Grapes of Wrath' people. They were terrible. They were old and poor."
"I was shocked," Crabill said. "My other classmates came up and apologized for her. But, yeah, it sticks."
(Egan compared the diaspora created by the Dust Bowl to Hurricane Katrina, which also sent people on the move away from New Orleans.)
Sunday night's first part of "The Dust Bowl" ends with the introduction of Woody Guthrie and his dust-storm-inspired tune, "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You." This installment also includes the sad, moving story of a child who perished in the Dust Bowl due to dust pneumonia.
"Tiny particles of this dirt, this sand would get in the lungs and cause infections, and this took the youngest and the oldest, and sometimes the strapping healthy teenager as well," Burns explained. "It was debilitating. That was the main disease. They called it ‘dust pneumonia' because of its prevalence, and you will see in other parts of the film just extraordinary measures that parents (did) to protect their kids. And the stories they tell, they're really unbelievable. ... Some people said the only place clean when you woke up after a dust storm in the night was the place underneath your head on the pillow."
Perhaps a reminder of the Dust Bowl and its terrible effects will help us avoid repeating the same mistakes, but the "Dust Bowl" filmmakers seem dubious.
"It's an arrogance that we are prone to think that we know better than nature or nature is just gonna change to fit our dreams," Duncan said. "Hopefully, more people will have learned that lesson by November 20th than know it today.
"We think that either we can control nature or that just we can ignore nature. We can do neither," he continued. "And that's what the cautionary tale is about, who we are in our relation to the land."
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