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FILM REVIEW: The Dust Bowl

dust bowl ken burns

The Dust Bowl airs this Sunday, November 18, on PBS.

In the wake of last summer’s drought and this fall’s Superstorm Sandy, Ken Burns’s harrowingly absorbing new two-part, four-hour documentary, The Dust Bowl, feels particularly urgent.

In the “Dirty Thirties,” greed, foolishness, and arrogance toward nature led, in the words of Peter Coyote’s narration, to “a decade-long natural catastrophe of biblical proportions.” Those same traits seem to be causing havoc today, on a global scale, with climate change. Thanks to New Deal agricultural reform, conservation pacts, tree planting, economic incentives, and job programs, FDR, soil-conservation expert Hugh Bennett, and their tireless team turned things around in the Great Plains. And maybe, just maybe, similarly clear-eyed activism and planning can help curtail global warming now.

Thanks to writers like John Steinbeck and Sanora Babb, FSA photographers like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Arthur Rothstein, and the ballads of Woody Guthrie, we have a good sense of the so-called Okies’ migration to California. But in “Reaping the Whirlwind,” the second part of Burns’s production, we learn that the “Okies” actually came from Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, and elsewhere, and that those fleeing the geographical center of the Dust Bowl around Boise City in the Oklahoma panhandle made up but a fraction of that westward exodus of hundreds of thousands of Depression-hammered farmers, tenant farmers, and white-collar professionals.

While the FSA portraits, in words and pictures, powerfully convey the Dust Bowlers’ pennilessness and ill health, the more visceral revelations here, thanks to Burns’s characteristically frantic scouring of film and photo archives, is the horrific actuality of a mountain range of dirt a mile high and some two hundred miles wide, rushing the plains as fast as sixty miles per hour. It was, as the journalist Timothy Egan puts it in Part 1, “The Great Plow-Up”: “a classic tale of human beings pushing too hard against nature, and nature pushing back.”

Cattle ranchers in the 1880s and homesteaders in the 1890s had both learned the hard way that the inviting buffalo-grass plains could be as punishing as they looked welcoming. But those experiences with harsh cyclical droughts were forgotten or ignored by the early twentieth century when real-estate and railroad syndicates lured a new group of farmers.

“The rain follows the plow,” the new settlers were poetically but nonsensically assured. A long, wet plentiful period of rising wheat prices, boosted by a WWI European shortage from German blockades of Russian harvests, lulled the settlers into complacency and overexpansion. In one five-year period, eleven million acres were plowed up, not with the shallow horse-drawn plows of old but with modern deep-digging tractors running all day and all night. “All the brown prairie turned to gold,” wrote Caroline Henderson, an Oklahoma homesteader who wrote articles for The Atlantic Monthly about plains life in good times, then bad.

But then the market crashed and the drought started. The Depression hit the plains later than it did the cities, but a bushel of wheat fetched seventy cents instead of a dollar by 1930, and fell to twenty-five cents by 1931. That just made farmers tear up even more ground, and soon the dust storms raged. A 1932 storm in Amarillo, Texas, was ten thousand feet high, and, recalls Boots McCoy, in “the middle of the day, it was like midnight.”

McCoy and a couple dozen other interview subjects who were children in the Depression describe for the filmmakers having their skin blistered, their mouths and noses caked, by “black blizzards” raging as long as twenty-four hours, sometimes battering increasingly desolate counties for twenty-one days straight. The year 1933 saw thirty-eight dust storms, and subsequent years were even worse. Acres that had yielded thirty bushels of wheat now yielded four or fewer. One hundred million acres of grass-stripped, upturned soil blew across the country with the Great Plains’ “No Man’s Land” a blacked-out cauldron of temperatures reaching 118 degrees. It was a growing Sahara in the middle of America, with starving cattle climbing over the dunes piling on fence-caught tumbleweed. Some 850 million tons of topsoil swept off the plains in 1935. “We lived in a brown world,” explains Dorothy Kleffman of Texas County, Oklahoma, “…It was all I knew.”

The storms were preceded by so much static electricity that drivers dragged chains from their cars to ground them. After a day trip, a family might be able to step onto the roof of their barn or have to dig their way through to their front door. People died, lost and stuck in dust drifts. Housekeeping was a Sisyphean nightmare with dust snaking through every crack, onto every dish, cup, table top, curtain, and pillow. Masks or moistened towels over faces weren’t strong enough sentries to stop an epidemic of dust pneumonia that took a particularly lethal toll on the young and the old.

An especially loathsome storm that turned a gorgeous sunny day into a dark nightmare on April 14, 1935, earned the moniker “Black Sunday” and inspired AP reporter Robert Geiger to coin the term “dust bowl.” The religiously inclined considered the Palm Sunday onslaught the end of the world. The storm was so horrendous that dust blew clear across the country to the East Coast and beyond. Ships three hundred miles from shore were coated with Midwestern dirt. Congressmen couldn’t hide their heads in the sand coating their D.C. desks. With a drought felt by almost all the then-forty-eight states, Black Sunday helped energize federal relief efforts, agricultural reform, and morale-boosting whistle-stop visits by Roosevelt himself. “He gave us hope when there was no hope,” says Virginia Frantz of Beaver County, Oklahoma.

For all that, once-prosperous farmers were reduced to penury. Frantz recalls her kindhearted dad having to shoot a newborn calf because the family’s one milk cow couldn’t produce enough sustenance for both the calf and his children. Imogene Glover of Texas County remembers wearing underwear and dresses her mom made out of sugar and flour sacks. Clarence Beck of Cimarron County, Oklahoma, describes a diet of lard and bread. “We ate so poorly,” he says, “that the hobos wouldn’t come to our house.”

The Civilian Conservation Corps, paying workers thirty dollars a month for the planting of 217 million trees, 18,600 miles of shelter belt, kept some families from starving, as did WPA jobs building highways and dams. Still, in one county, eighty percent of the population was on federal relief. Despair was the new harvest, and suicides were rampant. Hordes of starved, rampaging jackrabbits and, later, swarms of flying grasshoppers, did nothing to discourage understandably apocalyptic sentiments.

The year 1937 proved the worst yet, with 110 storms, some tearing the roofs off buildings in Dodge City, Kansas, and dropping up to three feet of dust. But a welcome increase in rain, along with dramatic improvements from contour farming, crop rotation, the new tree belts, and farmers paid to grow grass in place of crops, started to turn things around in 1938. Farm values began to recover from five dollars to fifty dollars, sixty dollars, eventually even one hundred dollars an acre.

In subsequent decades, plains farmers started irrigating, sucking up the shallow water table of the Ogallala Aquifer. Problem solved? Not for long. That 174,000-square-mile source provides not just about a third of the nation’s irrigation water but also drinking water for eighty-two percent of the population within its eight-state boundaries. Specialists expect the aquifer, which took millions of years to accumulate, to be gone within twenty years. Last summer saw the worst Midwestern drought in half a century, and experts fear it could be a harbinger of times to come—a Dust Bowl redux.

We should all be as farsighted and conservation-minded as Caroline Henderson and her husband after the hard-won lessons of just ten bumper crops during sixty years on their majestic but unforgiving land. They left their acreage to a trust—under the condition that it never be farmed again.

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