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A Timely History of Environmental Disaster
November 17, 2012  | By David Sicilia  | 2 comments

PBS's The Dust Bowl arrives at a propitious moment.  Just a few weeks ago, Superstorm Sandy flooded, pounded, or otherwise disrupted every state East of the Mississippi.  Last week’s presidential election centered on a tension between rugged individualism and collective (especially government) action.  This week brought BP’s historic settlement for despoiling the Gulf of Mexico.

Ken Burns' new two-part documentary, premiering Sunday and Monday, Nov. 18-19, at 8 p.m. ET, connects with all these headlines.

Throughout the 1930s – the decade of the harrowing Great Depression – massive dust storms stripped millions of acres of Great Plains topsoil, swirled it into mountain-range-size storms, and deposited it as far away as President Roosevelt’s Oval Office desk.  It was by far our nation’s greatest environmental disaster.  And, according to the film, it was a disaster that would have been immeasurably worse for Plains settlers if not for New Deal government relief.

While it is true that the already semi-arid Plains suffered below average rainfall or drought conditions throughout the 1930s, the miniseries gets right a centrally important fact:  the disaster was man-made.  In the Dust Bowl, Mother Nature did not exact her wrath, she wailed from her human-inflicted wounds.  The blood she spilled was millions of tons of scouring, suffocating sand, dirt, and dust.

The Dust Bowl, written by Dayton Duncan and directed by Ken Burns, gets that central reality right thanks to Donald Worster, a distinguished historian at the University of Kansas, who – along with narrator Peter Coyote – carries forward most of the narrative.  (Coyote’s tone works about as perfectly for the series as does his name.)

Worster has a very personal connection to the saga.  His parents were driven out of the Plains by the dust bowl, and settled in Needles, a gateway-to-California city featured in the film.  Worster went on to become a founder and leading light in the field of environmental history, thanks in part to his award-winning 1979 book, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s.  On camera decades later, he is mellower – as much sage as historian – than the biting anti-capitalist message of his dust bowl book.  Timothy Egan, author of a 2006 book about the dust bowl (The Worst Hard Time) that won a National Book Award, also enlivens the film.

As in previous projects, Burns aptly begins this cinematographic history before the beginning.  He starts in 1907, when one of several frontier families the film is built around settled in the Oklahoma panhandle.

That rectangular outpost, remote even by Great Plains standards, would become the epicenter of the ecological disaster.  The Burns team tracked down several men and women with vivid childhood recollections of the debacle.  The family homesteads are plotted on the panhandle map as their family histories are spun out and interwoven across the decade.  One of these hardscrabble families produced Sonora Babb, whose book about the dust bowl, Whose Names are Unknown (only recently published) would have brought the realities of the calamity to urban America if not overshadowed by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

Worster’s thesis, put to film here, is that large-scale farming caused the disaster.  Pressured by falling crop prices and inspired by powerful new gasoline tractors and easier (but more environmentally damaging) plowing methods, Plains farmers pursued a mad rush to increase production throughout the early 20th century.  Rows of machines shallow-tilled millions of acres relentlessly, day and night.  A growing number were “suitcase farmers” who invested in the bonanza from a distance with no familial or community roots in the Southern Plains.  As Worster explains, more plowing was the answer to everything:  rising prices and falling prices alike.  Unlike the deep-root grasses that had evolved for a million years, the commercial crops planted, and the way they were planted and harvested, were ill-suited for the Plains environment.

City dwellers got their first literal taste of the disaster in the mid-1930s, when dust from some of the bigger storms descended on the streets of cities like Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, and even Washington, D.C.  Some experts talked of forcibly depopulating (or “reverse homesteading”) the Great Plains, or even paving over the whole region.  But Franklin Roosevelt was as eager to help the hardscrabble Plains dwellers as his New Deal programs were assisting other down-and-outers throughout the nation.

Because these frontier folk were so fiercely independent, their recollections of accepting New Deal aid are especially poignant.  One recalled her deep embarrassment when the brown New Deal truck arrived.  Yet she and her neighbors understood that for most of the sufferers, only government help stood between them and total disaster.

Nature provides much of the, well, natural drama in The Dust Bowl.  The storms came with harrowing regularity – one every couple of days during some of the worst months.  They could last as long as twenty-four hours.  Some were taller and wider than mountain ranges.  Animals suffocated, humans died of “dust pneumonia” or took their own lives.  Part II explores not only the gritty commitment of the majority who stuck it out but also the massive migration of the “Okies” – a generic term for all who fled west, from whichever Plains state.  Their travails along the way, and the prejudice they encountered in California, were supremely well documented by New Deal photographers and filmmakers, and put to excellent use by the Burns team.

I’ll admit to thinking the whole enterprise might have worked as well, perhaps even better, if honed by a half hour or so.  After spending twenty minutes in the black gales of 1934, then another in 1935, and so on, my gaze turned toward the sunny skies of California.  But that’s because I’m a city-slicker who is probably capable of enduring about 1 percent of what these hearty folks withstood.  And some of them, we learn, never complained.  Once.

A cautionary final segment about how the present-day Plains are kept green with water from the massive underground Ogallala Aquifer is chilling.  It made me wonder whose job is environmentally scarier:  that of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie or Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin -- another rather fitting last name.
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Bob Mantell
Interesting and informative blog. Piqued my interest in the subject. Then again, I've been a long time D. Sicilia fan.
Mar 19, 2013   |  Reply
Louise Beattie
I remember seeing the photos in Life Magazine when I was a child (b. 1932). This film was well worth seeing, if somewhat hard to watch. So many people faced tragedy with this environmental disaster, but we have short memories.
Nov 21, 2012   |  Reply
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