“A decade-long natural catastrophe of biblical proportions ensued, with swarms of grasshoppers and hordes of rabbits descended on the fields. The land itself that they had counted on for their prosperity turned on them with a lethal vengeance.”
The scenes are stark. The understated narrator is grim. The music provides the mournful undercurrent of the lone violin, tuning up for a dance that never comes. The setting befits a world coming to an end.
This is “The Dust Bowl”, the latest in the string of gripping documentaries by now legendary film maker Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan, his long-time co-producer, historian, and writer. The two-part, four-hour documentary begins airing on Public Broadcasting Stations Sunday night.
It is a subject that nearly everyone in America has heard of. But the details and the personal triumph and tragedy of that epoch are wholly unknown to many. It was premiered before a stunned group of about 500 members of the Society of Environmental Journalists last month, a fitting setting for what the film bills in its opening sequence as “the worst manmade ecological disaster in American history.” The heedless actions of thousands of farmers, encouraged by their government, resulted in a collective tragedy that nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation.
And it is different from Burns’ previous documentaries such as “The Civil War” in one significant way: the tale is largely told by living survivors, instead of actors reading the letters of participants long since dead. In that regard, Burns and Duncan have crafted and brilliantly meshed together two companion features.
The first is the stark tale of the creation of the conditions that resulted in the environmental disaster that is the title of the documentary, and shows how close America came to creating a permanent Sahara Desert in what was its breadbasket.
The second, as the narrator intones, “Is a story of heroic perseverance, of a resilient people who somehow managed to endure of unimaginable hardship after another, to hold onto their lives, their land, and the ones they loved.”
And that perseverance occurred in “a place where children couldn’t go outside, where the air could kill you, where the dirt could blacken out the sky at midday.”
“We saw this cloud coming in. Black, black dirt. And I’ll never forget my grandmother. She said ‘you kids run and get together. The end of the world’s coming.’ It came like a black wall, choking the life out of everything in its path…”
--Pauline Robinson, Union, New Mexico
The Dust Bowl evolved from the utter destruction of the western prairies, flatlands running from Nebraska to Texas that were anchored by endless miles of prairie grasses. Donald Worster, an environmental historian at the University of Kansas who is quoted extensively in the film, said the grasses evolved over the millennial for the particular western environment. Their roots extended down to five feet or more, holding the soil in a region which rarely got 20 inches of rainfall annually and nourishing the vast herds of buffalo in a land with few trees.
In the latter part of the 19th century the buffalo were slaughtered to near extinction as part of a government program to kill off the main food supply of the Plains Indians and, as a result, destroy most of the regions Native Americans.
Then, early in the 20th century, Congress enlarged the Homestead Act, making it possible for Americans who previously had nothing – European immigrants to white southern sharecroppers – to own land and become relatively rich from the newly opened farmland anchored by the nexus of Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas and the Texas Panhandle.
The land was the incentive to aspiring farmers. Then, government experts told the new arrivals that removing the prairie grasses would allow more rain to penetrate the soil, making it more fertile. Further, the government said mechanization was the best way to farm.
As a result, instead of using the single, deep-furrowed plow, the new farmers used tractors with scores of blades which lightly cut through the topsoil in long rows. The film contains vintage footage showing hundreds of tractors in a horizontal conga line turning age old prairie grasslands into endless rows of wheat. The farmers were not oblivious to the environment: they were following pronouncements from government scientists that the soil was “indestructible…and cannot be used up.”