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Home · Articles · Movies · Features · Dust to dust

Dust to dust

The latest film by acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns chronicles a dark, dusty chapter in Oklahoma history.

Phil Bacharach November 14th, 2012

Even after 80-plus years, Oklahoma remains firmly identified with, and haunted by, the Dust Bowl.

The vestiges of that ecological and economic catastrophe — photographs of blackened skies, newsreel images of blinding sandstorms, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath — have endured despite the efforts of a state that has long tried to dispel the caricature of bumpkins trapped in a landscape of sorrow.

But renowned documentarian Ken Burns contends it is a history Oklahomans should be proud of, and it’s one he lends his artistry to in The Dust Bowl, a two-part, four-hour PBS documentary airing at 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday on OETA Channel 13.

“A lot of it is negative because those who did leave Oklahoma — not just the Dust Bowl, but other places — became the hated ‘Okies’ of the Central Valley of California, abused and mistreated and discriminated against,” Burns said.

“But it’s also a positive thing. It’s a story in the end about human resilience. It’s a story about standing up and taking a certain amount of pride in the title ‘Okie.’ All of this is about, in some ways, a self-definition of an entire people.”

Shaped by tragedy

Ken Burns
That definition was shaped by tragedy. Throughout much of the Great Depression of the 1930s, an unforgiving combination of drought and wind battered a region encompassing parts of Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas. Raging dust storms devastated what had once been thriving farmland, ultimately forcing an exodus of more than 2 million people from the Great Plains states.

Burns, whose credits include critically acclaimed documentaries on the Civil War, baseball and Prohibition, said the Dust Bowl was too powerful a story not to tell.

“This is the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history and it just happens to be superimposed over the worst economic cataclysm in world history,” he said. “It was just an amazing human tale.”

And it was one largely unknown to many Americans. Burns said he was partly determined to make the documentary because his own knowledge of the Dust Bowl was fairly limited.

“I never go into a subject that I know about, then tell you what you should learn about it. That’s called homework the last time I checked,” he said. “We’re interested in a process of discovery.”

A cautionary tale

Burns said he was particularly surprised to learn that the Dust Bowl, contrary to what he had thought, was a thoroughly man-made disaster. Poor farming techniques were the primary culprit, coupled with a desperate attempt by farmers to bounce back from plummeting Depression-era prices. 

“When you had a good year, you planted more, and when you had a bad year, you planted more, hoping to recoup,” he said. “ All that did was expose more and more grasslands to a plow, and they were using a simple plow that just cut a hole in and not the more complicated one-way that dug a deeper furrow. They hadn't yet learned soil conservation techniques.”

As for whether the Dust Bowl offers a cautionary tale for Americans today, Burns is unequivocal.

“It’s a huge cautionary tale,” he said. “Human nature remains the same, so almost every story in history you tell is a cautionary tale.”

In The Dust Bowl, which hits DVD and Blu-ray from PBS on Tuesday, the Emmy-winning director weaves present-day interviews with archival and rare photographs and footage, a lyrical style that has characterized much of his work. The results are often riveting.

“The people who narrate the film as first-person, on-camera commentators were children back then,” Burns said. “We think that memory is distant. Memory is never distant. It's always in the present. You see [in the documentary] two old men suffering for the death of a little sister who died before her second birthday. This is not something that took place in the 1930s way back; it's happening in their hearts right now. And that's the kind of story we wanted to tell.”

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