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Ken Burns: The Dust Bowl

by Louise Adams
Tuesday Nov 20, 2012
Ken Burns: The Dust Bowl

Ken Burns turns his practiced documentarian eye on the "Dirty Thirties" in the 2-part cautionary tale "The Dust Bowl," airing Nov. 18 and 19 on PBS.

Written by Dayton Duncan, the 4-hour doc focuses on ground zero of America's worst human-created ecological disaster, a region of the Oklahoma panhandle appropriately called "No Mans' Land." In sepia-toned, slow-pan Burnsian style, the stories of a handful of homesteaders are carefully revealed via archival footage, photos and interviews, in the nick of time before the remaining survivors pass away.

After white settlers decimated the Great Plains buffalo population, they plowed under millions of acres of soil-stabilizing buffalo grass to grow wheat during World War One. Real estate scammers, speculative absentee "suitcase farmers," invasive plowing techniques, lack of yet-to-be-invented soil conservation and prolonged droughts mixed with indigenous winds to sweep the loose earth into black blizzards of Biblical proportions, a mile high and up to 200 miles wide, filled with rich topsoil, static and "evil." These vast "moving mountains" even traveled beyond the Eastern seaboard, and FDR's Oval Office desk was sometimes "coated with Oklahoma."

Burns notes in one of the six DVD extras that this decade-long apocalypse, begun in 1932, extends far beyond the aftermath explored in Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," which upstaged journalist Sanora Babb's revelatory Dust Bowl chronicle of those who stayed on this land. Many children and elderly died of "dust pneumonia," their tragic tales also documented in Woody Guthrie songs and Dorothea Lange photographs.

This epic tale of Mother Nature versus human nature is timely as short-term greed will surely eclipse prudent environmental planning again (see this summer's cataclysmic Midwestern drought). The role of government in land development and conservation is also revisited, as is the inevitability of climate change. "The Dust Bowl" should be in every school library to remind those who might not remember the past to "respect, and listen to, the land."

"The Dust Bowl"
2-disc DVD set

Louise Adams is a Chicago freelance writer at www.treefalls.com (and a nom de guerre).


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