Aspen MountainSummit: Dusting for clues to the past in Ken Burns’ "The Dust Bowl"

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Farm with huge dust cloud approaching, dust storm near barn. April 15, 1935. Boise City, Oklahoma.
AP350415017 | Associated Press

ASPEN – After making “The War,” a seven-part, 14-hour documentary mini-series about World War II, Ken Burns began hearing from soldiers who had fought in the war. The common refrain was that, although they had experienced the battle from the inside, the documentary enlightened them on what had happened outside their small corner of the war. “They said they had no idea about the entirety of the story,” Burns said from his office in Walpole, a small town near New Hampshire’s southwest corner.

“This is the essence of why we explore history: What trickles down to us is never enough,” Burns, the 59-year-old filmmaker whose American-oriented documentary series have included “The Civil War,” “Jazz,” “Baseball” and “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” “Each of the films, we try to open up a new angle on the story. It’s always, ‘Wow, I had no idea.'”

With Burns’ latest work, the act of revelation hits a new high. With “Baseball,” viewers might not have known much about, say, the home run champion Roger Maris, and regarding the Second World War, the audience might have been cloudy on the details of the Allied invasion of Normandy. But with those works, as with most of Burns’ films, the general parameters of the subject were understood: We know what baseball is; we know who the players were in World War II and how it ended.

“The Dust Bowl” is likely to cause out-and-out shock. Burns’ new film – which gets an advance screening at the Wheeler Opera House’s MountainSummit this weekend, before it airs on PBS in November – is not about a unusually dry period on America’s Great Plains in the 1930s, or a collapse of the region’s agriculture. The Dust Bowl, it turns out, was not merely a metaphor for a drought that took hold; the term was a fairly literal description for what residents around the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles (and extending into southeastern Colorado) faced through most of a decade.

People think of it as “not catastrophic and apocalyptic. But that’s what it is,” Burns said. “It’s like a chapter out of the bible. Could you really have locusts and dust storms like that, that actually kill children?”

“The Dust Bowl,” which had its premiere this past spring at Mountainfilm in Telluride, shows at MountainSummit in two, two-hour parts: at 8:15 p.m. on Saturday (with Burns in attendance for a discussion), and at 4 p.m. on Sunday. The film features a couple of handfuls of people who lived through the cataclysm, telling stories of homes being covered in dirt, children dying of what was called “dust pneumonia,” the collapse of agriculture and the decimation of the population. The narration, by actor and writer Peter Coyote, reveals that the worst of the storms reached the East Coast. Backing up the memories and facts are the photos and films of dark clouds building up, dwarfing the homes and farms on the prairie.

Compounding the terror was the relentlessness of the storms; it was one of those situations where residents thought it could get no worse, until it got worse. The so-called Black Sunday hit on April 14, 1935, which removed some 300 million tons of topsoil from the land, and inspired Woody Guthrie to write the song “Great Dust Storm”: “It fell across our city like a curtain of black rolled down/ We thought it was our judgment, we thought it was our doom.” As Burns points out, though, in the spring of 1935, the Dust Bowl was only half-way done; there were still scores of storms to come.

One of the greatest American novels, John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” came out of the Dust Bowl. Published in 1939, the tale of the Joad family – Okies who were driven from the Plains by the storms, drought and economic hardship – earned the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. A year later it was turned into a celebrated film, with John Ford earning an Academy Award for best director. But Burns says that “The Grapes of Wrath” isn’t so much the story of the Dust Bowl, but what lie ahead of the Joads as they fled Oklahoma.

“Almost all of that story takes place in California,” he said. “You can’t count on the shorthand narrative of ‘The Grapes of Wrath.'”

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The Dust Bowl has been called the most extreme natural event in more than three centuries. As much as Burns believes the event was devastating beyond compare, it is still a characterization he would argue with. The Dust Bowl, says Burns, was not a natural catastrophe but a man-made one; “The Dust Bowl” opens with a line of text stating that it was “the greatest man-made ecological disaster in American history.”

Burns says this was not meant as a provocation, but as a statement of fact. “For us, it was important to settle the terms,” he said. “We’re not there to argue. We’re there to tell you an important story.”

“The Dust Bowl” begins not with storms, but with agricultural policy and greed. Over millennia, the Great Plains had been mostly grassland, and for good reason. The grass took deep root in the soil, preventing the earth from blowing away in the heavy winds. But early in the 20th century, America was looking for more land to farm and more land to sell. World War I created a growing need for wheat, and this period coincided with unusually heavy rains in what was typically an arid region. Happily casting aside any concern for history, the government sold the land with promises of a new prosperity on the Plains, built on wheat. Armed with a new generation of tractors that could convert the grassland to wheat fields with stunning efficiency, the farmers – many of them “suitcase farmers” who didn’t live on the land – transformed millions of acres of landscape into something it wasn’t meant to be.

The catastrophe that followed was predictable. The Depression hit, and wheat prices began to plummet. Drought – or maybe a return to more normal levels of rainfall – took hold, and crop yields plummeted as well. The dry conditions left the soil a sitting duck, and when the winds came, the dust storms were punishing.

“This was a semi-arid place, that the first white explorers said was unsuitable for agriculture,” Burns said. “When we turned that soil upside down, we exposed an area the size of Ohio. This was man-made with lots of villains – speculators, government, railroads, suitcase farmers. This is a story about Mother Nature and Human Nature, period. And Mother Nature always wins. We have such arrogance, but ask the people of Joplin, Missouri” – where a tornado last year killed 158 people – “ask the people in New York and Connecticut who lost roads and bridges about Hurricane Irene.”

Burns says that his films have tended to have “some bizarre intersection with the zeitgeist.” “Baseball” was released in 1994, during a Major League Baseball strike that led to the cancellation of the World Series. “The Civil War,” the 1990 film that brought Burns to prominence, came on the heels of the popular narrative film “Glory,” about race issues during the War Between the States, and “Battle Cry of Freedom,” James McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize-winner and unexpected bestseller about the war.

Burns believes that “The Dust Bowl” has a similar resonance with the times. He believes the film should be taken as a cautionary tale for more contemporary environmental issues. For instance, the Ogallala aquifer, which sits under the Great Plains, has been used to irrigate the lands that were devastated during the Dust Bowl years. But he notes that the Ogallala is a finite resource: “If you don’t do long-term planning now, you risk turning the Plains into the Sahara Desert.”

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Burns’ next few projects are neatly lined up ahead of him. Next year will see a theatrical release of “The Central Park Five,” a two-hour movie about the 1989 rape of a woman in New York City. Five juveniles were arrested, confessed to the crime under police pressure, and were convicted; the convictions were later vacated when it was proved that another man had committed the attack.

Beyond that are “The Roosevelts,” a seven-parter due in 2014; a four-hour film about Jackie Robinson due out in 2015 (Burns covered the first black player in the major leagues in “Baseball,” but said Robinson “deserves a stand-alone treatment); and seven-episode series “Vietnam” (2016), “Country Music” (2018) and “Ernest Hemingway” (2019). By the close of the decade, Burns will have covered America’s landscape, its wars, its sports and music, its politics.

Burns, who is both a new father and a new grandfather, believes that his work can serve as a tool to build a better America. He recognizes that the country is facing one of its more contentious times, but also thinks a bigger perspective is helpful. For context, he points out that 750,000 were killed in the Civil War, a far more dire time than now. And seeing that history is one thing that all Americans share can serve as a bond.

“I don’t know anyone who loved their country more than I do. I believe in echoing what Lincoln said: ‘We are the last, best hope,'” Burns said. “When you gain access to human nature, calmer heads can say, ‘Hey, we figured it out then. Maybe we can figure it out again.’ That’s what studying history can do at its best – make us realize it’s not about me. It’s the unum and not the pluribus.”