Ken Burns, who has a pretty darn great job if you ask me, returns with his latest epic chronicle of America. This time he sets his sights on The Dust Bowl, the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history. As recent times have equated the modern Recession with the Great Depression, it is humbling to be reminded of a time when not only the economy rebelled against hard-working Americans, but nature itself turned against those who depended on her for their livelihoods.
Unlike some of the more bloated Ken Burns productions, with hours and hours of often amazing yet numbing footage, and compelling narrative by his go-to writer Dayton Duncan, The Dust Bowl is a rather efficient four hours, covering the before, during, and after effects of the catastrophe. In the early 20th Century, the middle of the continent, a swath of vast prairieland, was one of the last frontiers where one could pick up a chunk of land for cheap and take a stab at achieving the American Dream. For awhile, this fertile soil was extremely prosperous for farmers (helped by a wet spell of years), and grain prices skyrocketed. Land was snapped up by “suitcase farmers” and the grass (that literally held the prairies together) was ripped and plowed for get-rich-quick schemes. Well, as soon as the wet cycle ended, and the land dried up, it turned into a huge dust bowl. If you think you’ve seen a dust storm, the footage, photos, and stories of the dust clouds that raged across the land during these years is truly terrifying.
Ken Burns is so good at humanizing the most famous, iconic events with stories from regular folks. It is lucky that he pounced on this topic when he did, considering the age of those people who still clearly remember the 1930s. The interviewees were children or teens at the time, but are now looking back on their memories from their 80s and 90s. Try not to be moved to see two elderly brothers tear up, remembering their 3-year-old sister who died of “dust pneumonia” over 75 years earlier. Or the man who, after seeing his father’s soul broken by farming failure, vowed to never become a farmer himself (even if it meant becoming a pimp!… which he clarifies he didn’t have to do). Or the savage and devastating beauty of the faces in Dorthea Lange’s iconic photos of the Okies in California.
When the Dust Bowl era ended, and the land settled down, farming practices were changed and the area somewhat stabilized. There were lessons learned, but you can’t help but think that another disaster like this is looming, whether it be global warming, or the depletion of the water tables from farming and huge cities in the middle of the desert, like Phoenix. Can we learn from the past? I sure hope so. In the meantime, we can count on Ken Burns to at least preserve the memories.