Inside the Dust Bowl

On November 18 and 19 PBS will air the next Ken Burns film, The Dust Bowl, a two-part documentary that tells the story of a pivotal time in American history. Chronicle Books has published the companion book, The Dust Bowl: An Illustrated History written by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns.

I found the book and film fascinating, so I asked co-author Dayton Duncan some questions about the project. After the interview, check out the Scribd excerpt from the book, and be sure to tune into the film later this month.

Q: The Dust Bowl is called “the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history” but it seems to be a distant memory for us today. Why did your team decide to approach this subject?

A: In 1990, researching my book Miles From Nowhere, about the most sparsely settled counties in the United States, I spent some time in the southern Plains, where I met a number of survivors of the Dust Bowl. The stories they told me were incredible—of cowering in their homes, with rags stuffed into the cracks of doors and windows in a vain attempt to keep the dirt from enveloping them; of dust storms that turned day to night; of the very landscape being rearranged; and of not just cattle and crops being killed, but young children, too, from the dirt in the air. I decided then that I’d like to return to the topic in greater detail, and so it went on “the list” that Ken and I keep about films we’d like to do. As our work on our National Parks series wound down, we decided to turn to the Dust Bowl.

Q: I was blown away by how much the people in the Midwest endured during that time: decimated crops, plagues of grasshoppers, days where they couldn’t see the sun, children suffocating in their sleep. It’s no wonder that a quarter of the population packed-up and left. What motivated those to stay and how did they sustain themselves?

A: It’s amazing that anyone stuck it out, but in fact 75 percent of the people of the Dust Bowl remained on the land through the decade-long crisis. I think the main reason was that this had become their home. In most cases, their farm was the first time they had owned any land (they were landowners not tenant farmers), and they were determined to keep it. These were tough people. As one of our interviewees said, many people left, but those that stayed “were the hardy ones.” It’s worth noting that without an incredible array of federal programs from the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, who refused to abandon the people of the Plains, the exodus would have been much more extensive. Most of our survivors told us that without the help they got from the government—commodities to keep from starving, a modest paycheck from the WPA or CCC or NYA, assistance with their farm—their families simply could not have made it. But more than anything, it was their grittiness that kept them on the land.

Q: What are some of most important, long-lasting ramifications of the Dust Bowl?

A: The Dust Bowl drove a quarter of the people living on the southern Plains somewhere else, and that region of the country still remains one of the most sparsely settled areas of the nation. The Dust Bowl also gave rise to a better understanding of some farm practices—contour plowing, crop rotation, etc.—that most farmers use today, as well as the creation of the Soil Conservation Service, which works to encourage farmers to use better practices. At the same time, it brought the federal government into the agriculture business in ways it never had before; and it’s never left.

I would hope another ramification would be that it taught us all a lesson in humility in terms of adapting to Nature rather than thinking we can ignore Nature; but I’m not sure that lesson has been completely learned.

Q: After reading the book and seeing the film I thought, “Why wasn’t this covered more in my history classes?” I felt the same way after I saw “The War.” There is something about how your team approaches these subjects that makes it very personal and relevant in a way that I think our educational system doesn’t. Do you often hear this sentiment from fans? Do teachers now use these films in their classes?

A: We try to tell history from the bottom up, not the top down, and we are always intent on the personal stories of history-in-the-making, not out of a false sentimentality or desire for hyped drama, but because history is comprised of the stories of everyday people as well as of major figures and leaders. We pursue what Ken calls “emotional archeology” as well as the basics of what happened, and it’s that combination that I think bring our stories to life while at the same time adhering to high standards of accuracy and a willingness to embrace the complexities of history. Too often, history is taught as a dry list of dates and names; we try to make it human because that’s actually closer to the truth. And we’re continually gratified about the extent to which teachers across the nation use our books and films as part of their curricula.

Q: Although this happened over 70 years ago, the recollections of your interviewees seem so vivid. I was touched by many of their quotes. Can you tell us about the experience of interviewing them?

A: Because of sheer actuarial tables, working on a story set in the 1930s, a “young” interviewee for this project was 85 years old; most were older, sometimes much older, in their late 90s. So we had elderly people telling us stories from their childhood. And we were dealing with a generation that is known for not always wanting to talk about their lives. What continually amazed me, once we settled down into an interview however, was how willing the survivors were to tell their stories—and how incredibly vivid those memories were. When the Coen brothers told their story of the death of their little sister, Rena Marie, in 1935, they told it as if it had happened yesterday. I think part of it was that the memories were still fresh because what had occurred in the Dust Bowl was so overwhelming and unforgettable. And I think many of the survivors decided to tell their stories because we told them the truth: they are the last ones capable of telling these otherwise unbelievable stories through their personal experience; the chance for such personal testimony is fading quickly.

Q: The book has over 300 images, many of which seem surreal. What role did the camera play in the effort to combat the disaster?

A: In telling the story, we had access to a treasure trove of photographs taken by some of the nation’s best photographers of the 1930s—such as Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein and others, who were hired by Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) partly as a way to provide much-needed jobs to talented people but principally to accumulate a photographic record of the times. In the 1930s, those photographs were used to show the rest of the nation the extent of the crisis on the southern Plains; now they are an incredible collection that brings the past to life. We also were thrilled to gather a great number of photographs from family albums and small historical societies—photographs that have never been published before—that augment the FSA photos. Some of those are as stunning as the ones by the professionals, including several series of photographs taken in Elkhart, Kansas, and Hooker, Oklahoma, that vividly depict a dust storm descending on a town and ultimately inundating it. I’m still awestruck when I look at those photos.

Q: What can today’s Americans learn from this disaster and this project?

A: There are a number of lessons from the Dust Bowl. Bubbles always burst, and booms always go bust, whether it’s with real estate, crop prices—or dot-com companies and financial markets. Places that have historically been struck by severe droughts can expect wet years to be followed by dry years. It’s part of human nature to ignore those facts, but it’s also part of history to remind us—to warn us—not to give in to those very human impulses that tempt us to ignore them. We need to be humble when dealing with the land and the environment. The Dust Bowl reminds us that if we treat the land carelessly, if we ignore what the environment is trying to tell us, if we become too arrogant in the face of Nature, we set ourselves up for catastrophe.

I think the Dust Bowl also has some lessons to tell about the positive role that the federal government can play in the lives of our citizens, especially when they’re confronted by disasters that would otherwise overwhelm them, their communities, and their states.

And I think it’s also a story about human perseverance, an inspiring example of how ordinary people will hold on in the face of incredible suffering to save their families and their homes.

Purchase: The Dust Bowl: An Illustrated History.

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