Ken Burns’s latest documentary explores the causes and effects of one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in modern times-the Dust Bowl. The first part in the two-hour series previews Friday, July 13 at Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center.
Like all Burns’s work, it took shape at Florentine Films, which is not your typical big-city production company. It’s a collective of four independent film makers, including Burns, and a beehive for about 20 researchers and editors collaborating in a stately Greek Revival mansion in Walpole, N.H.
"I met people back then who told me incredible tales about cowering in their homes while dust storms engulfed them, holding rags over their faces, their mothers trying to frantically stuff the gaps in windows and doors, that they wouldn’t be breathing dust, and taken out to farm fields where the fields had been re-arranged in terms of, they looked like waves that were really sand dunes that had been re-seeded," Duncan said.
And all that devastation and deprivation on the Great Plains was man-made. It could have been avoided, the film explains, if the post-World War I government had not urged farmers to plant wheat in arid places better suited to drought-resistant grasses.
"Once that drought hit, it carried that barren soil all the way to Washington, D.C., and 300 miles out to sea. It was that bad," Duncan said.
The only living survivors of the Dust Bowl are perilously old now, and many of their stories are in danger of dying with them. But they were children in the 1930s. Duncan’s fellow producer, Julie Dunfey was determined to track down about 25 of them.
"The ones that stuck in my mind," she said, "were these twin brothers, who were born during a dust storm, prematurely. His mother didn’t know she was having twins, Roy and Troy, and died within 12 hours and he was sent to the J.C Penney store to buy a size 12 shoe box to bury his brother in."
But not every story is so depressing. This is also a film about heroism and perseverance. One of the historical characters is a pioneering writer named Caroline Henderson, who graduated from Mount Holyoke College and homesteaded in Oklahoma.
"This was in 1907," said producer Dayton Duncan. "And we follow her through the whole frenzy of the wheat boom and then through the hard times of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression and through the years that followed. She is vivid in her descriptions and wise in her understanding about what was going on and why."
What the filmmakers hope to teach us is that – in the famous words of philosopher George Santayana – "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Duncan says planting thirsty corn in states where water is in short supply doesn’t make much more sense today than over-planting wheat did at the beginning of the last century.
"The question will be, ‘OK, there’s no artificial water here. How do we treat the land again?’ And hopefully our film will remind you you’ve got to treat it with respect if this is what you base your prosperity on and your dreams on. You have to understand the limits of what you can do and not just assume that because you want it it’s going to provide for you," he warned.
After the preview of Part One in Hanover, The Dust Bowl will air on PBS television stations in mid-November.
Florentine Films producers are at work on a number of other projects, planned over the next 10 years. The next will be a series about the Vietnam War.