BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — America may seem like the butt of nature’s joke after the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. But nearly 80 years ago the nation suffered the greatest man-made cataclysm in its history.
The Dust Bowl of the 1930s swept through portions of Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and New Mexico with unimaginable force.
The people who have survived that experience were children at the time. And documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has unearthed them to tell their stories in “The Dust Bowl,” a two-part, four-hour chronicle airing Nov. 18 and 19 on PBS.
Burns, who brought us the precedent-setting “The Civil War,” “Baseball” and “The War,” has joined forces with writer Dayton Duncan and author-historian Timothy Egan to follow the path of the destructive ill-wind that blew nobody any good.
“(It was) a 10-year apocalypse punctuated by hundreds, hundreds of terrifying black blizzards that killed not only farmers’ crops and cattle, but their children too,” says Burns at a press gathering here.
“All of this was superimposed on the greatest economic catastrophe in the history of the world, the Depression. It was an epic of human pain and suffering, but it is also the story of heroic perseverance. And more than any other film we have made, it is an oral history populated less by historians and experts than those who survived those horrible days.”
Old men and women now, Burns’ eyewitnesses remember with aching clarity the terror of the time.
“They were children and teenagers then, their searing memories as raw and direct as if this had all happened yesterday,” he says.
“What they were witnessing is unparalleled in American history. And yet their perspective is resolutely personal and intimate, as through a child’s eyes watching as their parents’ world collapsed, watched as their farms were lost and their own siblings died of the merciless dust pneumonia.”
What caused all this was a massive boom in wheat sales. Farmers plowed under the buffalo grass that had stabilized the soil for centuries in favor of the profitable wheat. There was a feverish land rush. Men bought up land and paid tenants to farm, and immigrants came in droves in search of a better life.
“The government was saying, ‘Please move here,’” recalls Burns. “Reputable scientists were saying rain follows the plow, that is, the act of plowing would make more rain, that the climate was undergoing a permanent shift toward that. This was this new Eden, and because it coincided with some wet years, it was. And everybody flooded in ... and when the inevitable drought times came back, when the wind continued to blow, that land blew. I mean, we plowed up millions and millions of acres in a kind of speculative agriculture and real estate bubble. And we know what that’s about, and we never learned those lessons,” he says.
The film is not only about the terrible force of nature but about human nature, says Duncan, writer on the special. “We have an innate ability — we’re not unique as Americans, but we might be a little more susceptible to it — that we believe that we can ignore the limits of the environment and of nature if it suits our purposes. And that if things are going on a roll, they will continue to go on a roll. And all those things converged on the Southern Plains of the (19)’10s and the ‘20s so that by the time the inevitable drought was going to return, they had plowed up essentially a place the size of the state of Ohio and left it exposed to the winds and desiccating drought that was going to occur.”
It is the eyewitnesses who vivify the film. They found them, Burns says, by visiting nursing homes, talking to local historical societies and running short appeals on local PBS stations asking for anyone who lived through the maelstrom.
Calvin Crabill, 88, was one of them.
“On the plains, often there’s a sound, and it’s the wind in some way,” he says. “You sense the wind because the wind blows so much there. But what was so awesome is that, suddenly, you had silence on the plains, silence, almost deafening silence. And then when — they call them ‘rollers.’ When that roller hit, all hell broke loose. It was deafening. But before it hit — and it came up slowly ... There’s silence, complete silence. And when it hit, it was deafening, and you couldn’t see or hear.”
Timothy Egan, author of the award-winning book “The Worst Hard Time” about the Dust Bowl, says when he was first started researching his book, he had a whole other subject in mind.
He wanted to write about the decline of the small town. But as he progressed he realized he’d chosen the wrong theme. “I remember sitting — this is my genesis — sitting with about six women — they were all women — all afternoon listening to them tell these stories. And I went back to my motel, and I wept. And I said to myself — first of all, it was all new to me, which is what any journalist, any storyteller looks for. ‘Oh, my God, no one’s told this story. It’s Steinbeck.’”
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