Not ever having lived through one, I nevertheless can say with certainty, that a Dust Bowl may be perhaps the most frightening eye gripping visible natural disaster of all human experiences. And the fact that some people have actually lived through them makes them ever more daunting still.
What fill’s me with such vivid conviction of its haunting reality are the witnesses. It’s the witnesses that describe in great detail the hunting unforgettable encounter that convinces me to never want any part of the experience. I’d simply like to pass.
Some of those that have lived through one appear to speak as though the experience felt something like the end of the world. You can hear the fear trembling in their voices.
Ironically witnesses all seem to tell the same story, likening the experience to a Biblical drought, mass poverty and the death of livestock and humans of all kinds. And all the witnesses seem to what to make one very powerful point; it has no equal experience in life. I’ve even read one witnesses account suggesting it’s equivalent to a visit from the Lock Nest Monster.
The memories of Dust Bowl eyewitnesses are especially seasoned by decades of perspective. But can be as dark and frightful as the “Black Blizzards” or Black Rollers” which can descend on you practically from nowhere.
Such an event is described in Ken Burns’ “The Dust Bowl,” a four-hour documentary airing in two parts Sunday and Monday.
According to one review, it is not one of Burn’s better films by any means, but it makes its basic points and, more importantly, gives us an oral history from members of the aging generation who lived through the “dirty ’30s.”
Mr. Burns, who directed “The Dust Bowl,” and Mr. Duncan, who is the film’s writer, spoke about making the four-hour program at a PBS press conference during the Television Critics Association summer press tour in July. They were joined by Timothy Egan, author of “The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl,” and Dust Bowl survivor Calvin Crabill, who are both featured in the PBS documentary.
“The Dust Bowl” sets the stage for this natural disaster, explaining what inspired the land rush that found people who had never owned any property suddenly racing to claim a piece of dirt in a place they’d never visited.
Burns digs deep into the causes of what historians call the worst man-made disaster in American history, an unholy alliance of overconfidence and horrible timing. Just as important, he invites survivors, many of them knee-high at the time, to bear witness and describe the indescribable.
Timothy Egan, author of the National Book Award-winning “The Worst Hard Time” and the star talking head here, describes the Dust Bowl as “a classic American bubble:” A lucrative wheat market drives a farming bonanza. Grasslands are aggressively plowed over. Overzealous farming practices ensue, a double-whammy of drought and economic collapse takes hold, and instead of pulling back when the wheat market collapses, the farmers double down out of desperation. Then comes the unwelcome winds of change.
Anyone familiar with Burns’ work is aware that he specializes in two different kinds of documentary series. One is the massive, wide-angle take on a national phenomenon or event, laden with historical commentary — “The Civil War,” “Baseball and Jazz.” Then there’s the shorter, more intimate project that benefits from survivors and eyewitnesses, more a tapestry of feature stories with historical overtones than an encyclopedia. “Prohibition in 2011” fits that profile. So does “The Dust Bowl.”
The tragedy that beset the farmers of the 1930s, especially those in the Dust Bowl epicenter of the Oklahoma panhandle, packs its own kind of power. A mixture of almost biblical awe and stubborn survival defines the drama, along with a strong hint of caution: Mother Nature takes precedence over quick profit.
The phrase “global warming” is uttered nowhere in “The Dust Bowl,” and yet, the suggestions are clear; almost too clear. “The Dust Bowl can most emphatically happen again,” says historian Donald Worster near the end of Monday night’s episode. Or perhaps something worse.
While the Dust Bowl affected much of the Midwest from 1931 to the end of the decade, ground zero for the devastation was Boise City, a small city in the Oklahoma Panhandle known as “no man’s land.”
Over the decade, the overall area of greatest devastation shifted like an amoeba on the map, but the hardest-hit areas remained the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, the southwestern corner of Kansas, northeastern corner of New Mexico and the southeastern corner of Colorado.
There’s no small irony in the fact that for several years before the drought hit, farmers in these areas were enjoying boom times. Their wheat crops were abundant, and there was a good market as well. But almost as a feast-before-famine harbinger, the bottom fell out of the wheat market when the Great Depression hit, forcing farmers to dump their grain on the streets.
In 1931, it stopped raining.
While the decade of drought was obviously a natural phenomenon, the Dust Bowl was caused by farming and, in specific, by innovations that enabled farmers to plow up a lot of land in a short period of time. Once the grasses of the Great Plains were replaced by crops, the stage was set for the devastation that would come when it stopped raining. Crops dried up or didn’t grow at all, and winds sweeping down from the north and west were able to carry the topsoil away in huge “black blizzards,” until what was left was earth likened to a floor of concrete by the Dust Bowl survivors interviewed in the film.
Farmers, we’re told, are always “next-year people.” If a crop isn’t bountiful this year, or there’s not enough rain, well, there’s always next year.
This is what makes them survivors. You have to be in order to be a farmer, because there are things you just can’t control. So many people stayed in the Dust Bowl states and didn’t follow the escape route to California, because there was always next year. Their hope diminished year after year, of course, but they stayed because that’s what farmers do.
The Dust Bowl really belongs to those who lived to tell. Robert Forester describes his family’s epic journey from Goodwell, Okla., to the Oakland hills in Northern California. His father had hoped to bequeath 640 acres each to Robert and his four brothers. In the end they were grateful to survive.
Kansas native Floyd Coen says he still can’t drink out of a clean glass from the cupboard without dusting it off first.
Countless lives were claimed by dust pneumonia, which is exactly what it sounds like. A mixture of kerosene and sugar made for cough syrup. Other kinds of losses occurred daily. There’s something heartbreaking about seeing an old-timer weep at the memory of witnessing his family’s livestock liquidated en masse as an economic measure.
Those who were there are emphatic about one thing: Between government assistance and farming expertise, the Roosevelt administration helped immensely. Some express shame at having needed such help, but the alternatives were never more clear. “We would have starved to death” without the Works Progress Administration, says Pauline Hodges of Beaver County, Okla.
During one of the worst dust storms, in May 1934, the dirt blew so far from the plains it drifted into the White House as the president gave a speech on the drought’s impact.
That’s because the story of the Dust Bowl is also a story of the Great Depression. Burns follows some of his subjects down Route 66 to California, the odyssey that gave John Steinbeck “The Grapes of Wrath,” but mostly sticks to the panhandle and the farmers who stuck it out: “next-year people,” hoping for the best and continually disappointed.
The film also has relevance to present-day arguments about our affect on the natural world and our responsibility to it, as well as the place of government in regulating these interactions. The people of the panhandle were not at first especially comfortable with the programs that helped keep them (and their livelihood) alive.
After the infamous Black Sunday dust storm of April 14, 1935. And the interviews with people who were mere children when the drought and dust hit are convincing and eloquent in their simplicity, as opposed to the windy script by Dayton and Coyote’s usual funereal intonation.
We hear an elderly man speak about the death of his precious young sister, the only girl in a family of boys. She died from “dust pneumonia” the same time the disease claimed the family matriarch. The family had to transport the toddler’s body to Enid, Okla., for burial, because no one could even see the tombstones anymore in the Boise City burial ground to find an unused spot for a child’s grave.