Coming Sunday: Ken Burns talks about 'The Dust Bowl'
BY RITA SHERROW World Television Writer
Saturday, November 17, 2012
Forget what you’ve heard in the classroom. Or saw in the film “The Grapes of Wrath.”
Throw away any assumption that “The Dust Bowl” resulted from a few storms rolling over the Great Plains and watch as documentary filmmaker/director Ken Burns, writer Dayton Duncan, author-historian Timothy Egan and their staff at Florentine Films take you inside the worst man-made ecological disaster in history.
That is “The Dust Bowl,” a four-hour documentary vividly telling the stories of that decade in the ’30s through the voices, tears and heartbreak of people in their 80s and 90s who lived through it. It airs at 7 p.m. Sunday and Monday on PBS, channel 11.
The storms weren’t just bad and there weren’t just a handful, said Burns in a recent phone interview from Seattle, Wash.
“There were hundreds of them — gigantic as mountain ranges and 1 to 1½ miles high,” he said. “And, when they were coming at you, people understandably thought it was the end of the world. While the rest of the country was dealing with the Great Depression, it wasn’t until the dust from millions of acres of farmland flowed to Washington onto the desk of Roosevelt and ships at sea were covered with a patina of it, that help was sent.
“Those left were mostly land owners who had never owned a bit of land before and were now struggling to make a go of it in an industry that was already a gamble, in an area that was marginal, who were seduced into tearing up that grass and plowing it up for cultivation, tens of millions of acres. But then the normal climate came back, and you have a recipe for the worst man-made ecological disaster.”
Acres of native grassland were plowed up to make way for wheat fields but, when the Great Depression came and the natural cycle of the rains turned into drought, there were no buyers for wheat, and the soil was at the mercy of the winds sweeping down the plains. The landowners of the Oklahoma Panhandle, the western third of Kansas, southeastern Colorado, the northern two-thirds of the Texas Panhandle and northeastern New Mexico kept telling themselves the rain would come next year. And the next year. But it didn’t.
In 1935, less than 10 inches of rain fell in the area around Boise City, Okla., the geographic center of the Dust Bowl. Crops, cattle and children died. Distraught business owners committed suicide while others finally gave up and moved away. Also, in 1935, an estimated 850 tons of vulnerable soil fell victim to the wind and drought and blew as far away as New York City and Washington, D.C. It was a disaster of biblical proportions.
And it’s a story best told by those who lived it, and what sets most if not all of Burns’ documentary films apart from others is his method of using “emotional archeology” to tell the story.” Be it of “Jazz,” “The War,” “Baseball,” “America’s National Parks,” “The Civil War” or “The Dust Bowl.”
“What I have called it since my first film is emotional archeology,” said Burns, who has films on the Central Park Five, Franklin and Roosevelt, the Vietnam War and country music in the works.
“We’re interested in the true emotion of the story,” he said. “Not sentimentality or nostalgia because those are the enemies of good anything.”
Duncan and Burns found survivors who were children in the Dust Bowl days by visiting nursing homes, talking to the local newspapers and running ads. Because of their ages, four have already died since the film was completed.
“We found more than two dozen who opened their hearts and shared some of the most endearing memories from when it seemed like the world was coming to an end,” Burns said. “It was just great. When you watch (brothers) Floyd and Dale (Coen) speak, it reminds you of something and that is a memory. The memory of the death of their little sister Rena Marie from dust pneumonia — a little girl who had been gone since 1935 and was only two years old then — and it is in the present, like it just happened. I watched audiences break down and cry with Floyd and Dale.
Read more of this story in Sunday's Tulsa World Scene section or at tulsaworld.com/scene.