The Dust Bowl a Real American Horror Story, the Ken Burns Film for PBS Looks at the Disaster That Resonates Today


Filmmaker Ken Burns.

It was a real American horror story. The worst man-made ecological disaster in American history took place in the 1930s, when over plowing and a decade-long drought virtually swept away the breadbasket of the nation. Thus the Dust Bowl was created.

We are seeing a somewhat similar situation today, with crops, especially corn, destroyed with losses that can effectively cost the nation billions of dollars.

Now comes The Dust Bowl special from the master of documentaries Ken Burns, premiering Nov. 18 and 19 on PBS. It is a four-hour two-part film produced and written by Dayton Duncan, directed and produced by Burns.

It is a vivid portrayal of the depression era when blinding dust storms ravaged Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, et al, and families had to give up their farms and try to find somewhere to live where their environment wouldn’t send them to an early grave.

Migrating to the “Golden State” of California, these miserable and broken families, with only the clothes on their backs headed west. Many were turned back at the border, since California officials did not want to take on the responsibility for them.

The documentary is notable in that there are actual photos and interviews with those who lived through the Dust Bowl. Burns explained, “It is an oral history populated less by historians and experts, than those who survived those horrible days. Their searing memories are as raw and direct as if this had all happened yesterday.”

Millions of acres of once fertile soil prior to the “great plow-up” were stripped off the land and sent flying in the wind. “Unbelievable devastation. All the result of speculative agriculture and real estate bubble,” Burns blamed. “And we know what that is about, and we never learned those lessons.”

The documentarian explained that “this disaster came at the same time as the depression years, being one of the worst eras of the United States, as well as the rest of the world.”

The dust storms that completely blacked out the sun and sky were so fierce that farmers could not see their hand in front of them, let alone their crops and cattle in the fields. Children had to wear heavy goggles and cloth across their faces when they went out and at school. It continued for what seemed to be an eternity, according to some survivors. There are a handful of Dust Bowl survivors in the show telling of their experiences, with pictures and graphics, relating how members of their family were lost, many victims of what came to be known as “dust pneumonia.”

With an economic collapse, tenant farmers were kicked off properties. There were no grains to sell, all wiped out, and like our own past few years, homes were abandoned and foreclosed, with no buyers available.

Burns described the subject of the documentary as “a complex, tragic, and interesting story that resonates today. It is a cautionary tale rather than an inspirational story. A story of our complex and often fraught relationship with the land. Black blizzards that killed not only the farmer’s crops and cattle, but their children, too. All this superimposed on the greatest economic catastrophe in the history of the world, the depression. An epic of human pain and suffering, but also the story of heroic perseverance.”

Also part of the film are authors Dayton Duncan and Timothy Egan, both of whom have written much about the Dust Bowl. The irony, Burns noted, was that “the winds rearranged the landscape completely, moving more dirt in one day in one storm than the U.S. excavated in more than ten years working to dig the Panama Canal.”

The Dust Bowl is Burns’ latest documentary for PBS, with more to come, such as telling the story of the Roosevelts, Jackie Robinson, Vietnam, Ernest Hemingway, and even country music. Tune in.

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