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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.

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Picture the outline of the Cascade or Olympic Mountain range off in the distance. That is what a coming dust storm looked like to those who still remember it. April 14, 1935, was called Black Sunday for its particularly deadly blow. Woody Guthrie’s "So Long It’s Been Good to Know Yuh’" was reportedly written that day.

If the crack of a bat and the roar of a crowd is the soundtrack of Burns’ Baseball, the howling, constant wind is the soundtrack of this one. If you could smell the smoke and hear the groans of a battlefield in The Civil War, you feel the sting of the dirt and the mid-day darkness in Dust Bowl.

As the Great Depression set in nationwide, farmers in the dust bowl region also faced severe and even fatal illness at the hands of dust-borne pneumonia. Burns tells us that the dirt from the Midwest spread East to Chicago and to New York City, halting ship travel in the Verrazano Narrows. President Roosevelt reportedly wiped a finger on his desk in Washington and found Oklahoma on his fingertip.

The culprit was, according to the film, farmers who were encouraged by their government to plow and plant their way to the good life. The Homestead Act and ever-rising wheat prices fueled the frenzy. "Rain follows the plow," of course, turned out to be nothing but a canard.

Dust Bowl has particular resonance for me, the grandson of two sets of Oklahoma grandparents, who were born in the early 1900s, survived the Great Depression and remembered the gathering dust storms in Cotton County. Whenever I visit Oklahoma, I always ask, "How’s the crop this year?" Faces were sadder and more resigned this year than most.

The Associated Press reported this fall that 48 percent of Oklahoma was in exceptional drought late this summer.

Washington is an agricultural state, and although rain seems plentiful, this past summer’s drought reminds us of just how fragile nature can be. Burns prescribes no policies. There is no call to action.

“Farmers will recognize [the practices in this film], and they will see themselves,” he told me. “They recognize the correct solutions.”

Few understand the lessons of the Dust Bowl here in the Pacific Northwest better than University of Washington history professor James N. Gregory. His books chronicle the southern diaspora, incuding Okie culture in California and elsewhere, and he has curated a website about the Great Depression period here in Washington state.

Washington's Yakima Valley saw noticeable numbers of dust bowl refugees. So much so that Dorothea Lange, whose Migrant Mother became the iconic photograph of the dust bowl era, was sent to Yakima by the Farm Security Administration to document the conditions of migrant farmworkers in Washington.

Gregory notes that the dust bowl of the 1930s was in some ways also a media event. "It was not the first and may not have been the worst, but it happened when news media was in full force and could tell the story in photos and film. They keep re-telling the story because it caught the imagination of a generation."

He feels the film will resonate locally because no disaster is just nature. It always involves people as well. In Seattle there is water where it didn't used to be. Hillsides have been altered. Dams have been built. "There are changes [here] to the land that will result in future problems," Gregory warns.

In the first episode of Dust Bowl, survivors recall the terror of the dust-storms and the resulting hunger and sickness. By the second episode, there is welcome relief. Families seek new lives in California and the government funds conservations efforts to break the drought. The soil is eventually stabilized and farms gradually rebuild.

And so, where does the best-known historical documentary filmmaker of our time turn his attention next? Burns said he is working on a film about "The Central Park 5," the story of five black and Latino teenagers wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park. He plans to examine FDR and Eleanor, Jackie Robinson, the Vietnam War and country music. 


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Comments:

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.

GaryP

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