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    Ken Burns interview: The Dust Bowl, climate change and the power of drought

    Ken Burns talks with Crosscut's publisher about his latest film and looking backward into the future.
    Ken Burns signing copies of his book at KCTS 9’s “An Evening with Ken Burns” event.

    Ken Burns signing copies of his book at KCTS 9’s “An Evening with Ken Burns” event. Hilda Cullen photo, courtesy of KCTS 9

    The Farm Security Administration commissioned Dorothea Lange to chronicle central Washington's Yakima Valley migrant and agricultural laborers in 1939.

    The Farm Security Administration commissioned Dorothea Lange to chronicle central Washington's Yakima Valley migrant and agricultural laborers in 1939.

    Ken Burns was in town again last week to promote his latest film, The Dust Bowl, which chronicles the historic devastation of farmlands in the southern plains states.

    Seattle has become a regular and familiar stop for Burns. It turns out the city is among the top markets for his work, which he attributes to a high concentration of curiosity here. He’s also quick to point to success in places like Milwaukee and (sorry Sonics fans) Oklahoma City.

    “Big Bird has a left wing and a right wing,” he tells me.

    One of the most recognizable documentary filmmakers, Burns is a slight figure with a trademark hint of a goatee. He is soft-spoken and always quick with a smart quote, which he keeps tucked away in the film canister of his head.

    “Your future lies behind you,” he told a reporter, when asked why he does not like to connect his films about historical topics to current political issues. He would rather teach us our past than comment on the present.

    After a Friday lunchtime talk with donors inside a studio at KCTS, Burns settled into a sofa in the green room, afternoon cartoons playing on a nearby large screen TV.

    It’s only a few days after the election and I ask him if 50 years from now the Ken Burns of that era might look at the history that led to popular support for gay marriage.

    “Gay marriage would be a great story,” Burns says, instantly brainstorming themes and interviews.

    He recalls talking with the first openly gay bishop within the Episcopal Church, Gene Robinson. He told Bishop Robinson then that the controversy surrounding the Episcopal leader’s sexuality ignored the fact that there is simply not enough love in the world.

    Burns said his documentary on prohibition already covered all of the relevant themes on pot legalization.

    His new series, The Dust Bowl, will air in two parts, Nov. 18th and 19th, on KCTS (PBS). If you’ve watched much Burns, this film feels familiar. And not just because the dust bowl already has been so wonderfully chronicled in Tim Egan’s 2006 National Book Award-winning The Worst Hard Time.

    Burns says that his team was already working on Dust Bowl when Egan’s book appeared. Rather than feel threatened by the competition, the team was excited — this was proof that the Dust Bowl is still a relevant story. They wondered if they could add anything and, in the end, felt they'd found stories even Egan might wish he had found — especially the Forester family members who appear in the documentary.

    Dust Bowl showcases the dramatic black and white photographs and the knowing narration of Peter Coyote, and Dayton Duncan wrote the script, as he did for the National Parks film. Still, the survivors from Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado are the film's real stars. 

    Now in their 80s, 90s and 100s, the men and women who survived the Dirty Thirties, as the Dust Bowl is known, offer gripping testimony of what this film calls one of the worst man-made environmental disasters ever.

    Burns has an affection for the Dust Bowl survivors. You can see it and hear it in his voice. “They were children. When they tell this story it is an adult delivery, but it came from a child’s memory.”

    He describes each of the people he met as “hard-working” and recalls one of the men telling him that “unless you’ve been poor, you can’t possibly be educated.”

    The film's stars tell us that if you try to imagine the worst possible experience of daily living, this was even worse. Struggling for the right word to describe it, Dorothy Williamson from Colorado (who turns 100 in December) pauses, squints hard and blurts out – “Evil.”

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    Posted Mon, Nov 19, 9:33 a.m. Inappropriate

    One detail that the Burns documentary brought forward: the reason for planting in the Great Plains in the first place. It was the First World War, which deprived Americans of access to Russia's abundant crop of wheat. Plowing under great expanses of buffalo grass in favor of wheat turned out to be a colossal error.

    We feel pretty smug these days, with diversified crops, flood control, long-range weather forecasting, and an awareness of climate change, but if you look out the window at this morning's rainstorm (Monday, November 19th), you realize pretty quickly that it's not our candy store.

    Posted Tue, Nov 20, 8:56 a.m. Inappropriate

    Maybe climate change is the modern day dust bowl.

    Plowing the arid great plains seems foolhardy in retrospect. How will history regard shipping 1000 train cars of coal to China every day?

    Posted Mon, Nov 19, 10 a.m. Inappropriate

    "The Worst Hard Times" is an excellent read.

    The second biggest contributor to people's misery was that with the bank failures, people's savings were also wiped out as there was no FDIC. Had folks had at least some savings they might have been able to move, or wait it out. As it was, some folks didn't even have the gas money to pack the truck and leave.


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