Here's a quote for you: "We Americans have been the greatest destroyers of land of any race of people, barbaric or civilized." Sounds like something you might have heard after Hurricane Sandy or the brutal summer our country just endured, doesn't it? In fact, the speaker was Hugh Hammond Bennett, who created the Soil Conservation Service in the 1930s to counter the effects of the Dust Bowl.
Bennett's comment is one of many stark moments in Ken Burns' new film, The Dust Bowl, which reminds us - as Burns always does - that the decades may change, but we stay remarkably the same. Just as a portion of our population today laughs off the need to address climate change, and acts as though short-term profits trump long-term environmental health, so did the landowners who precipitated the environmental nightmare that was the Dust Bowl.
Using expert commentary from historians and wonderful, if heartbreaking, stories from Dust Bowl survivors, Burns tells us that wheat farmers in the 1920s in the Great Plains tore up the ground using a cheap plowing method. They reaped great rewards initially. Then disaster struck.
"A decade-long catastrophe of biblical proportions" and "the worst manmade ecological disaster in American history" are two descriptions of what occurred. To put it another way, the Depression hit, drought struck and farmers were left with an overabundance of wheat, collapsing commodity prices, no customers and soil that turned to dust. Wheat farmers dismissed the federal government's request to reduce their acreage, though, and instead doubled down to plant more.
Then in 1932, the first dust storm rolled over the plains. Fourteen storms hit in 1932. Thirty-eight hit in 1933. In the film, survivors say they thought these storms signaled the end of the world, and to see the film footage and still pictures Burns unearthed, you can understand why they felt that way. The walls of blowing dirt blocked out the sun, making noon look like midnight, and some of the storms stretched 200 miles wide at 65 mph.
What happened next was relentlessly bleak. Widespread poverty that left people living in chicken coops, eating lard sandwiches and wearing clothing made from flour sacks. Dust pneumonia, which killed people. Suicides, both by adults who couldn't care for their families and children affected by their parents' despair. People smothered in dirt and killed in dust drifts. Suffocating farm animals. Invasions of jackrabbits.
By 1934, the dust made its way east to New York and Washington, D.C. Soon, the plight of the Plains had a name - "the Dust Bowl," a phrase coined by an Associated Press reporter - and the nation's attention.
The Roosevelt administration brought help in the form of the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration, which gave jobs to farmers, and devised new plowing methods. Eventually, enough farmers agree to work the land more gently and the federal government purchased vast areas of land to let the grass grow back. We also get music and literature for the ages from Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck.
You come away from The Dust Bowl amazed by what the people were able to endure, saddened that we value the economy more than we do the environment and, of course, a whole lot more knowledgeable about American history. In other words, it's typical Ken Burns.