Friday, November 16, 2012

'The Dust Bowl' by Ken Burns remembers scouring of a rural landscape and its lessons

Boise City, Okla., April 14, 1935 (Associated Press)
The Dust Bowl of the 1930s left an indelible mark on rural America. It is the drought against which all others are measured, writes Grant Gerlock of Harvest Public Media. And it was, of course, a man-made disaster, "an environmental catastrophe of Biblical proportions," he writes, replete with swarms of insects devouring the landscape. This weekend, renowned filmmaker Ken Burns will present "The Dust Bowl," his four-hour look back on the devastating years that changed lives, land and the history of the nation. Told largely through the stories told by surviving farmers, the documentary unfolds from the first words, "Let me tell how it was..." The film and the farmers' stories hold lessons for today, notes Gerlock.
The dust came from exposed wheat fields "plowed up in the 1910s and 1920s in a land rush spurred by high wheat prices and government homesteading programs," Gerlock explains. When the drought began and the winds picked up in the 1930s, enormous dust storms rolled through the southern Great Plains, causing severe economic and environmental damage. Farm communities in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles and Kansas were hit. Crops and cattle died and innumerable other livestock perished. On April 14, 1935, Black Sunday, experts estimate a single dust storm displaced 300 million tons of dirt. Children choked. The end came in 1939, but not until many Midwesterners had packed up their family and gone West to find better lives. To prevent another such devastating event, the Roosevelt administration conservation programs were installed that continue today.

And yet, nature has its own mind. In light of this year's lingering drought and ongoing farm practices that stress land preservation, documentary producer Dayton Duncan told Gerlock that the Dust Bowl stands as a cautionary tale. “The Dust Bowl isn’t just about Mother Nature. It’s about human nature,” Duncan said. “I think one of the lessons of the Dust Bowl is that anytime you forget to be humble in the face of the environment and nature, and anytime you push the land too much, you’re taking a great risk that in certain instances like the Dust Bowl can be catastrophic.” (Read more)

"The Dust Bowl" premieres Sunday, Nov. 18, from 8 to 10 p.m. on PBS stations nationwide. It continues Monday, Nov. 19, from 8 to 10. For more information, go here.

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