Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Dust Bowl


It must be admitted that there is a certain sameness, a certain formula if you will, in the historical documentaries of Ken Burns. First you select a mournful tune to be played on solo violin as your theme. Then you interview and film some historians and, if the event is recent enough, as this one is, some people who were alive and have memories of it. You hire a few good voice actors—Tom Hanks, Patricia Clarkson, Philip Seymour Hoffman—to impersonate historical figures. You assemble a musical group (Wynton Marsalis is a frequent contributor) to write and perform music of the era and background music when the mournful violin isn’t playing. You hire Peter Coyote to narrate it. And then … research, research, research. My guess would be that Burns is permanently logged onto the Bettmann Archive. (Which I just discovered is now housed in the Iron Mountain Underground Storage Facility, kept at a temperature of –4 F to retard deterioration. It’s in the process of being completely digitized, as requests come in for any of the 19 million photos and images and films!)

From the above you might think that I don’t approve of his work. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I have loved each and every project he has undertaken, from The Civil War to Baseball to Jazz to Prohibition, and now this one, his most recent. But I suspect that it is a case of loving him or being bored by him. I wonder how much patience young people of today have for his leisurely approach to film making. Nothing is exploding, cuts last longer than two seconds, cameras are steady, there is no zoom or thump sound as the scene changes … what is this? It’s quality, old-fashioned film craft, you hyperactive ADD little shits!

As always, I learned a lot from this one. The Dust Bowl was the greatest ecological catastrophe in American history, and we did it to ourselves. The reason was the usual one: Greed. We plowed up vast stretches of prairie sod and planted wheat, which did not hold the soil in place. When there was a severe drought that lasted years, the dirt really hit the fan. The result was dust storms of titanic proportions. Watching the film of these things was awesome. There was dust everywhere, all the time. You ate dust, you breathed dust, and a lot of people—mostly children and elderly—died from “dust pneumonia.” At its peak, the greatest storm of them all darkened the skies over New York City and deposited sand on FDR’s desktop in Washington. There were Biblical plagues of rabbits because the farmers killed all the coyotes, and grasshoppers that ate right into fenceposts and telephone poles. It was a ten-year nightmare, and just too much for many people there. Bankrupt and homeless, they became the infamous Okies, though they were also from Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, and Arkansas, migrating to a California that didn’t welcome them.

There is much, much more here, many things I hadn’t known, and no need to cover them all. See it for yourself. But the most horrible thing is that we seem to have learned nothing from it. We reformed plowing practices, soil conservation and such. The Feds bought up huge tracts of land and let them return to grass, anchoring a lot of land in place. So what do we do now? We irrigate with water from the Oglalla Aquifer, the largest underground reservoir in America. People tend to think of it as limitless, but it’s not even close. This is “fossil water,” seeping down into the ground over millions of years. We are pumping water out much faster than it can be replaced. Once again, we are creating a situation that fucks with Mother Nature, and you know how that always comes out.