Ken Burns is a bit of a Renaissance man — his critically acclaimed documentaries have delved into topics as diverse as the Civil War, the evolution of jazz music, and America’s national park system. In Burns’ newest film, The Dust Bowl, the director continues to expand his horizons, exploring the devastation that occurred on the southern plains during the 1930s. Burns spoke to WGBH about making his new film, which premieres on PBS on November 18 and 19, 8- 10pm, ET.
A lot has been written, filmed and sung about the dust bowl days — what makes your new film different?
In order to tell the full story of it we needed to get on the ground and find those survivors, those folks who may be in their late 80s and early 90s — teenagers and young children at the time — to tell their stories of the searing worst man-made ecological disaster in the history of the United States or even the world, and to tell their stories before it’s gone.
... I hope we’ve done a good job of honoring the stories of these individual people as well as being faithful to the larger climactic and devastating aspects of this man-made catastrophe.
I must say that the faces of the people in your documentary tell as much about their experiences as their words. How did you find your subjects?
They are an amazing collection. You know I made appeals on all the local PBS stations in the five state region of Oklahoma and Texas and Kansas and Colorado, as well as the central valley of California, where many of the people who left, the exo-dusters, the ‘okies’ as they were derisively called, went, and appealed for photographs, and films, and most of all memories — meaning them.
We did lots of research on the ground at dust bowl round tables at old age homes and assisted living facilities and county historical societies and filmed about 29 people, and assumed we would just winnow that down to five or six representative folks. But we found that more than two dozen of them deserved to be in it, and it became a kind of Shakespearean-ly complicated dramatis personae of lots of different families.
And [in the film] all we simply had to do is show a map of the area, and dot those maps with the locations of the farms, and so it releases the audiences from feeling like they have to hold their thumb at the opening of the play to tell who the characters are who are going to help you along. But at the same time, these extraordinarily, utterly American people who showed a heroic perseverance in the face of this cataclysm of gargantuan proportions, which is also overlaid by the great depression. So you have ‘hurt squared’ in this story that is beyond belief.
Did the people know at the time what was causing these dust storms?
They knew pretty soon that it had been their mistake, that it been their greed, that it had been their search for profits, that it had been their thoughtlessness. That the southern plains had been, for millennia, covered with grasslands and those buffalo grasses sent their roots down five feet to capture the little moisture that was there in that semi-arid place.
And then all of a sudden, through a whole set of circumstances — the enlargement of the Homestead Act, folks wanting a plot of land to own for themselves, agriculture changing from a family model to an industrial scale, World War I, and the need for wheat — all of that prompted the turning over of these virgin grasslands, in an area larger than the state of Ohio, tens of millions of acres, in which for a few years they had great bumper crops, and when you have a good year you plant more, and when you have a bad year you plant more to try to offset those losses.
… And these storms [were] gigantic — some of them a mile and a half high, 250 miles long — a kind of mountain range, the writer Tim Egan told us, coming towards you, would pick up dirt and take it all the way to Washington, D.C. Franklin Roosevelt could rub his finger on the top of his desk and have Oklahoma on his finger, and the next day ships out at sea would be covered in a patina of dirt. It’s just terrifying the scope of it.
And the fact that it’s man made also helps us relate to today’s issues of climate change, to why certain storms, because of the temperature of the Atlantic, intensify in to super storms like Sandy. Why there’s a drought still persistent in the last couple of years in the central part of our nation that is threatening us again in not exactly the same cataclysmic ways as the dust bowl, but no less terrifying for those caught up in it.
Did you ask the dust bowl survivors what they think about climate change?
One of the things that mitigated the dust bowl is that we were able to send a million straws down into the vast Ogallala aquifer that runs from the sand hills of northern Nebraska to central Texas. We’re draining that glacial melt — it’s not a sustainable water supply, it’s going to run out. We’re mining the water, as my production partner and writer of this Dayton Duncan likes to say. They were acutely aware that they were using up this precious resource that would eventually kill the entire region.
When [the survivors] originally spoke of climate change it was the fraudulence of the real estate speculation that said, “Rain follows the plow,” or [the idea] that the very plowing would bring more rain, that the area had undergone a climate change in the 1920s and teens that meant it was going [to get] wetter forever, and of course that didn’t happen. But they’re very mindful of what’s going on now, and feel a kind of complicity — as those during the time understood, and in fact would print biblical passages from Ezekiel, which is real hellfire and brimstone, about what they had brought upon themselves by turning over the soil. The Native Americans and the ranchers who had been there before knew exactly what was happening and would say, ‘Wrong side up, wrong side up.’”