Ken Burns’s previous documentary, “Prohibition,” was about America going dry — figuratively. “The Dust Bowl,” which airs Sunday and Monday nights on Channel 2, is about the Great Plains going dry — literally — and blowing away. Parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, and the Dakotas became known as the Dust Bowl during the 1930s, the result of decades of overfarming and protracted drought.
“It was a decade-long natural catastrophe of biblical proportions,” narrator Peter Coyote says, “the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history.” Dayton Duncan wrote the narration. Looking at the still photos and newsreel footage that Burns has assembled, you can believe it. The images are staggering, unreal, days-of-doom terrifying. On numerous occasions, clouds of topsoil would rise a mile in height and extend for hundreds of miles to the north and south.
“It’s a classic tale of human beings pushing too hard against nature, and nature pushing back,” says Timothy Egan, the National Book Award-winning author of “The Worst Hard Time,” about the Dust Bowl.
People spoke of “black blizzards,” and children died of “dust pneumonia.” The region lost a quarter of its population. Many headed to California for relief — and rain. A woman recalls how, after moving to Oakland, she and her siblings would walk to school in the mist coatless. They loved the feeling of moisture on their skins. “We were parched, too.”
The standard Burns elements are here: the slow panning of archival images; talking-head interviews with both experts like Egan and participants; actors reading from period texts; gorgeously shot modern-day footage; a chaste, borderline-fussy score. This may be a formula, but it never feels formulaic. “Ken Burns” long ago became a brand name, and the brand means unstinting craftsmanship. As a filmmaker, Burns brings to bear a special vividness of scrutiny. No matter how familiar the material, he makes it seem as though he’s discovering it afresh — so the viewer feels that way, too.
Various notables pop up: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Woody Guthrie, John Steinbeck, the photographers Arthur Rothstein and Dorothea Lange. But “The Dust Bowl” puts a particular emphasis on the recollections of participants: people like Imogene Glover, Calvin Crabill, the Forester siblings, Dorothy Kleffman, the Coen brothers. No, not those Coens — and if their account of the death of their baby sister doesn’t tear you up, then you live at an emotional altitude where the air is very thin indeed.
These people were children then or adolescents, which adds a sense of wonder to their recollections. How could we have survived? How could our parents have survived? Burns is clearly very fond of them, and rightly so. They’re earnest, articulate, unblinking. They’re the kind of individuals who make the Greatest Generation seem like more than just a book title. That said, if Burns had been less fond of them, would “The Dust Bowl” be shorter? A three-hour film might have been spectacular. At four, it can feel a mite leisurely.
The rains finally returned at decade’s end. War raised the price of wheat. Contour plowing, terracing, planting trees as windbreaks, restoring grasslands all helped protect the soil. And the farmers discovered irrigation, reaching underground to the Ogallala Aquifer — which is estimated now to have 50 percent of the water it formerly had. A new Dust Bowl seems more a question of when rather than if. Burns doesn’t overdo the possibility of a dire future, but it’s there.
His interest in the past has never been purely antiquarian. America’s ongoing struggle with race deeply informed “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” and “Jazz.” But race for Americans is condition rather than issue. Things got more specific with “Prohibition,” which implicitly addressed the legalization of drugs. Again and again in “The Dust Bowl” a viewer can’t help but wonder about global warming. “The climate changed,” a man who grew up on the Great Plains during the ’30s says at the beginning of part two. “We were just too selfish and were trying to make money getting rich off of the wheat, and it didn’t work out.” Change “wheat” to any number of other nouns and you have a situation that sounds uncomfortably familiar.