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Ken Burns on 'The Dust Bowl'

As PBS reprises this important documentary, the award-winning filmmaker talks about the lessons we can learn from that ecological disaster

By Suzanne Gerber | April 22, 2013
Palm Sunday, April 14, 1935 — when the storm swept toward Boise City, Idaho.
Palm Sunday, April 14, 1935, a day remembered as Black Sunday, when the storm swept toward Boise City, Idaho.
Courtesy of Associated Press

Every time PBS airs a new film from award-winning documentarian Ken Burns (The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, Prohibition), it’s a major cultural event. And this week's encore showing of The Dust Bowl is no exception.

The national audience for the debut airing of Ken Burns’ Dust Bowl last November was 250 percent higher than the PBS prime-time average. And when it first aired, it was the fourth most-viewed program in the country. 

Viewers weren't disappointed. This remarkable four-hour film chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, which coincided with the Great Depression and nearly wiped out the nation’s breadbasket.

If you missed it, or want to watch it again, you can catch it April 23 and 30 (check local listings).

For a full decade, “black blizzards,” like tsunamis of dirt and dust, crashed over the plains of southeast Colorado, southwest Kansas and the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas. The survivors’ memories are devastating, the footage is astonishing, and the story also serves as an environmental morality tale about the consequences of short-sightedness and greed.

I spoke to Ken Burns last November about this project and its revelance to life today.
 
Was it your intention to make an “environment statement”?

Not at all. And it still isn’t. We understand that there are unexpected outcomes once you’ve made a film, but our idea was just to tell a good story.
 
Almost every film we’ve made resonates today, but this one is specially bittersweet: Farm families are once again suffering, but the timing is good because it gets people to focus not just on what happened in a little-known part of our history but to also raise questions about do we continue to behave as we nearly always do — living just in the present — or do we make some hard choices to avert another disaster.

What could we be doing differently?

Remember: This is the worst manmade ecological disaster in American history, if not world history. This wasn’t just one storm or a handful of storms; this was sometimes hundreds of storms a year. And it happened during the Depression, which was the worst economic cataclysm in the history of the world. So already you’re talking about a whole lot of hurt going on.
 
It was mitigated toward the middle and the end by government intervention: commodities programs that kept people from starving and programs that paid them not to plant and that gave them cash for their worthless cattle. They also learned some technological advances that permitted them to tap into the vast Ogallala Aquifer, which runs from Nebraska to Texas.
 
But we’re still mining the aquifer today, which is not sustainable because it doesn’t get filled back up with rain, and there’s a chance that in 20, 30 or 50 years, it’s going to run out. That’s in the lifetime of my children, and we need to do some planning to avoid having this area become, as people worried about in the ’30s, an American Sahara Desert.
 
I think what we’re looking at with the Dust Bowl is a parable of human behavior: the lust for easy money, the forgetfulness that comes with real-estate and market-speculation bubbles and the belief that our house value will never go down and the market will always go up. It’s always a rude awakening that humans experience when they’re overextended. We’re going through that period right now, and not just with the drought.
 
How much did you know about this chapter of history before you started the project?

It’s funny in hindsight to remember precisely the degree of ignorance. We don’t like to make films about stories we know everything about. What we are drawn to are powerful stories, and what we like doing is sharing with our audience our process of discovery. And the stories and the ironies and complexities come cascading over you, and it’s really, really fantastic.
 
As with everything in our past, we have conventional wisdom about it, but there’s a much more complicated political and social dynamic. People think, ah yes, I know this story: It’s the Joad family from The Grapes of Wrath, but that’s actually not quite true. They were farmers from eastern Oklahoma who went to California’s Central Valley.

Our story is mainly the heroic perseverance of the more than 75 percent of the “No Man’s Land” (the center of the Dust Bowl) families who tried against every odd possible to make a go of it. And this is when these dust storms were not only killing their crops but their cattle and their children, too.

(MORE: The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve)
 
Was it harder than usual to find living sources?

We know how to do the detective work. I recorded appeals on the local PBS stations asking people for their memories, photographs and footage. Then we dispatched two producers, who held “Dust Bowl round tables” in old-age homes and tiny little county historical societies.
 
We talked to more than 130 people, and about 26, 27 got in the final film. And they brought their photographs so that we could illustrate their stories with their families’ experiences. Those historical societies have photo albums that have barely been cracked in decades and decades, and we got photographs that had never been seen beyond the confines of that county.

With footage, we kind of struck out though, because these were folks just trying to get by, and a 16-millimeter home movie camera was a luxury most of them didn’t have. But we did get some from the newsreel houses that dispatched crews there once the huge dimensions of the crisis became evident to people in the East.
 
The government was also hugely instrumental in trying to figure out a solution to this terrible thing. The numbers are staggering. Just one storm in one year moved more dirt than in the entire 10 years of excavation of the Panama Canal. Franklin Roosevelt could wipe his finger over his desk in the Oval Office and come up with the dust from the Dust Bowl.

They weren’t just looking for agricultural and social solutions and programs that would help people out of their misery; they were documenting it too with an extraordinary photographic effort, in which some of the greatest photographers of all time — Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange — were dispatched across the country to capture the human cost of the Depression.
 
There’s a recurring character in the film — you just hear her voice because she passed away [Caroline Boa Henderson as read by Carolyn McCormick] — and she’s the only adult in the film. All the rest of the folks that you’re seeing in their late 80s and 90s were children or teenagers at this time, but their memories are as accurate and precise as any adult’s.
 
Two brothers break down on camera, not expecting to, over the death of their little sister, who died before her third birthday in 1935. And you begin to realize that memory isn’t some old dusty thing, but something we access directly, in the moment, now, and that it becomes the DNA of our being able to reconstruct history.
 
What’s next for you?

The Central Park Five just aired on PBS, and we've been taking it to film festivals like Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Chicago, Montreal, Mill Valley. … It’s about the five Hispanic children, teenagers, that were falsely charged with the brutal, infamous Central Park jogger rape, and it’s the factual story of their experiences.
 
These were people who were accused of being wilders and wolfpacks, and they were pretty much good kids from good families, and we’re trying to tell their story and the story of that horrific time, of coerced confessions and false convictions and horrible terms in jail, and finally getting out of jail and finding out that the real rapist had come forward and that their convictions were vacated — not that that did a lot of good. 
 
And we’re in the final throes of editing a massive series — 7 parts, 14 hours — on the history of the Roosevelts for 2014. Believe it or not, Franklin and Eleanor have never been done together. In 2015, we have a two-part biography that we’re shooting right now on Jackie Robinson. And in 2016 we have another 7-part, 14-hour history of Vietnam, which we’re in the middle of shooting. We’ve got over 100 interviews, from every walk of life and every profession, from farmers to draft dodgers to generals. And we’re planning a big series on the history of country music and another one, a biography of Ernest Hemingway. That takes us to the end of the decade.
 
Last question: Do you ever sleep?

No, no! I some days feel like I don’t. I have the best job in the country.