I thought I knew something about the Dust Bowl. I was taught about it in school when I was a child, read about it in “The Grapes of Wrath” when I was a teenager, and read about it once again, years later, in “Out of the Dust.”
I knew that in the 1930s vast areas in the middle of the country were overplanted and that the soil dried up and nothing grew, and locusts came and farmers in droves packed up their families, gave up their land, and headed to California.
And I knew that this happened in the middle of the Great Depression.
What I didn’t know was the real timeline measured not on graphs with colors and numbers, but by births and deaths and hope and despair and people’s indelible memories.
I didn’t know that the dust did more than make things dirty for settlers, that it was a plague, not simply a nuisance. That black clouds rolled across the once beautiful plains like creatures in a Japanese horror movie and picked up dirt from one state and dumped it on another and blotted out the sun. And that a monster wind blew these clouds around and that the dirt buried everything, tractors and houses and fences and fields and plants and livestock and people, too.
People died, and not just in the midst of these storms when they were caught outside and couldn’t breathe, but later, too, their lungs ravaged by the air they were forced to breathe.
The storms were anomalies at first. They’ll pass, people said. Next year will be better. But next year was worse. The storms darkened the Great Plains for nearly all of the 1930s. “We lived in a brown world,” Dorothy Kleffman, who died in January 2011, remembered.
Ken Burns, whose documentary “The Civil War” was watched by 40 million people, filmed Dorothy Kleffman and 25 other survivors of these devastating times for his newest documentary, “The Dust Bowl,” which aired last week on PBS.
The film not only shows, through pictures and old film and testimony of people who were witness to this cataclysm, the human toll of environmental change. It also forces us to think about our relationship with the land today. About our responsibility to future generations. About government leadership. And about greed.
“This was the greatest man-made ecological disaster in history,” Ken Burns says, “and if we don’t pay attention to the lesson it should have taught us, we could make the same mistake again, with even more disastrous results.”
Buffalo grass had protected the Great Plains for centuries, until droves of new-to-the-profession farmers rushed to the Great Plains enticed by free land and easy-to-grow, lucrative wheat.
They overgrew it. They plowed up the grass with its deep roots that held moisture and kept the soil from blowing away. And they planted wheat everywhere. And wheat prices plummeted and then nothing grew and then the land dried up and blew away and grassland became a desert.
I look out my window now, on a late November day, and my lawn is still green and there’s a tree still full of leaves that haven’t begun to fall. And even I, who don’t know silt from sand, know that in Novembers past, all the trees were bare. And that when you cut down trees and make parking lots of fields everywhere and pave over meadows and continually take from the land, there are consequences.
“The Dust Bowl” is a visual and visceral reminder of these consequences. Watching it is a Christmas present we should all give ourselves, a four-hour look back that will help us decide what we want and where we’re going as we move forward.
Go to www.pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl/ for viewing times and for more information about “The Dust Bowl.”