"The sad thing is that the film we made, detailing events in the 1930s, which is an awfully long time ago, is incredibly relevant."
The world is changing. You’ve heard that before if you have ears, but the actual world, Planet Earth, the thing we stand on and live off of, is becoming something it has never been before. Earthquakes, record-level droughts, hurricanes in Manhattan, blizzards followed by 70-degree days. It’s all happening, and most of it is happening because of us. Humans, technology, and capitalism haven’t mixed well with the world-as-it-used-to-be-known. And it’s becoming harder and harder to ignore, as the weather gets more extreme and the consequences more deadly.
While it may seem like a thoroughly modern concept, we've been through this before. About 80 years ago, America’s worst man-made ecological catastrophe ravaged the Great Plains. Ken Burns retells the story of the disaster—a disaster we caused—in his latest documentary The Dust Bowl. While the Dust Bowl seems to evoke nostalgia for some post-frontier, pre-industrial, faded-photo America, Burns' film argues that calling it anything other than an unmitigated disaster is just wrong.
We caught up with Burns to discuss The Dust Bowl and all the stories that extend from and beyond the disaster itself. The film debuts this Sunday, November 18, at 8 p.m. ET.
Why the Dust Bowl for your latest film?
I think we choose any film that we’ve ever done because it’s a good story. That’s first and last. The thing that we’re drawn to in the case of the Dust Bowl: there’s been so much superficial, sort of conventional wisdom. It’s the picture of a storm. It’s a Dorothea Lange photograph of a migrant Okie farm mother. It’s The Grapes of Wrath. The story that we understood was much more complex. And it required us to go to that area and find living survivors to chronicle what was a 10-year apocalypse of hundreds and hundreds of storms that blotted out the sun at noonday. The worst ecological disaster in all of American history. And it’s that “man-made” that caught our attention. I don’t think people understand the full import of what it meant to create the worst ecological disaster in our history and perhaps the whole of world history. That is what we wanted to tell: a complex personal story but also a very large, complex, continental story about agriculture and environment.
Not many understand what kind of devastation this was. You called it an “apocalypse.”
It’s definitely that—with biblical plagues of locusts and jackrabbits, stuff that we knew killed the farmers' crops but also their cattle and, more importantly, their children. It becomes a story, once you personalize it, of heroic perseverance in the midst of this complete collapse of this spectacular ecosystem that had once been the home of the buffalo and buffalo grass that evolved over thousands of years to hold the moisture in and hold the topsoil in from the ever-present winds.
And people got greedy. We expanded the Homestead Act. Unscrupulous real estate speculators sold land to folks who really desperately wanted to own a piece of land. It coincided with a couple of wet years. Everybody turned over the soil, an area greater than the size of Ohio, which is mammoth. They had some good years, and whenever you had a good year you planted more. Whenever you had a bad year, you planted more. And all of a sudden the bad years never stopped. The wind kept blowing, and the crops failed, and suddenly you were moving more dirt in one day than the entire 10 years it took us to make the Panama Canal. It was on a scale that I think we’ve forgotten.
We worked very hard, not only to reach out and discover those survivors who are all in their late 80s and 90s but were children at the time of the Dust Bowl to get the first-hand story, but also to find their photos and home movies and to go to hundreds of other archives to find the rest of the still photographs that it takes to tell a story as complex and meaningful in American history as this is. And let’s remember also that this is an ecological catastrophe superimposed over the greatest economic cataclysm in the history of the United States, the Great Depression. So it’s sort of hurt-squared.
Not many people would say it’s the greatest disaster in American history.
No, it’s true. Obviously, we’ve had greater catastrophes: the Civil War, which killed nearly three-quarters-of-a-million human beings fighting over the issue of slavery, and we’ve been involved in other wars. If you talk about ecological or environtmenal catastrophes, this is the big one. The Exxon Valdez and the BP spill don’t come close to its long-lasting effect. And the fact that it went on for 10 years, killed so many people, transformed the southern plains, and took every effort of the government to mitigate it.