Ken Burns And Dayton Duncan On ‘The Dust Bowl,’ Making Documentaries, And The Role Of Government

On November 18 and 19 at 8 PM, PBS will be airing the next documentary from Ken Burns, The Dust Bowl. The two-part series is shattering account of the real estate boom and beliefs about climate change that lead homesteaders to destroy Midwestern sod, and the drought that turned that soil into dust storms resulting in a devastating, years-long environmental catastrophe. Burns and his producer Dayton Duncan were able to track down children who lived through the Dust Bowl, never-before-seen photographs and home movies of dust storms, and to weave them together with historians’ testimony to explain how the Dust Bowl influenced everything from American environmental science to women’s abilities to live up to their gender roles in a place where it was impossible to keep homes clean and children safe.

In July, I had a long conversation with Burns and Duncan about the research that made The Dust Bowl possible, why they relied on first-hand accounts rather than scientists to help advance our understanding of climate change, why art can be a better vehicle for communicating difficult ideas than journalism, and the role of government in American life. This interview has been edited for clarity.

I actually want to start out by asking you what attracted you to the material in the first place. Watching both parts of the documentary I was really struck by the parallels between our present situation and the regulation that leads to businesses encouraging people to overreach, and then the reluctance to contract with the American dream.

Burns: Well first of all, I should say my interest is born in my best friend’s interest, Dayton Duncan, who has been talking about this for more than 20 years as a subject. It’s something that comes down to me sort of with a kind of shorthand, the conventional wisdom that suggests just the most superficial of associations. So for us it’s always the ability to dive deep into a subject and find a human and intimate dimension to it that belies those conventional wisdoms and supplants them with something that’s more enduring and more, I think, impressive in a way.

Now, the thing we’ve discovered in every film we do is the way in which it always mirrors the contemporary. Whether it’s the Civil War or our most recent film on prohibition, they seem to be what Ecclesiastes said, that there’s nothing new under the sun – that they mirror political tendencies, economic tendencies, human foibles, human strengths –

For everything there is a season except the seasons come over and over again.

Burns: Exactly. They do indeed, and they tend to repeat themselves. I’m not a firm believer so much in that, as I am in the sense that human nature remains the same. And so what we watch in creatures is the same mixture of greed and generosity, the same degree of sort of mean spiritedness and courage. So all of these things are in play if you’re willing to, as public television allows us, dive deeper into a subject than the sort of dramatic, superficial retelling. We keep the drama, but we dive down deep.

And so in this case, we have an oral history of more than two dozen individuals—children—who survived the devastation of their parents’ farms, and their lives and sometimes even the lives of their siblings. This is an amazing story, and I think without pointing neon arrows at it, it can’t help but remind us. It’s not just ripped from today’s headline, about a a severe drought that’s afflicting a good deal of the country, but in all the intricacies of that political and economic … political and economic dimensions you brought up in your excellent question.

Well, one of the things I thought was fascinating – and I didn’t realize it until after I’d seen the movie – is that you put out an appeal for people to send photographs and films.

Burns: We had just finished a film about the Second World War, and we had been dealing with people at the very end of their lives…We were quite anxious that we had maybe missed it. And then I recorded some appeals that were played in the local stations in the area of “no man’s land,” in Colorado, Texas, and Kansas, and Colorado and New Mexico, and also the Central Valley in California that permitted us to at least use the resources of this extraordinary grassroots, bottom-up network to sort of reach out to people. And then our co-producer, Julie Dunfee, and another researcher, Susan Shumaker, went down on the ground and spent the shoe leather necessary to find the people to talk to them, to see if they were viable, to visit nursing homes. And what we realized is that we would be able to recreate the Dust Bowl through the memories of children and teenagers. Their parents are long gone, but their memories are as vivid and as accurate and as, in some ways, compelling, as ever because they were children watching this apocalyptic ten year period happen around them.

Did you get much in the way of photographs or actual video footage from them directly?

Duncan: Well, you know, central to the research was the PBS network and Ken’s appeal on that. And it’s surprising, he’d say “Send your stories or things to this station – not to us.” And then they would willow through it and send us the things. Cal Crabill, [one of the documentary’s subjects], that’s how we found out about him. He saw it on a station in California and decided to write, and tell us about his story…Because it took place in the 30s in a relatively poor and sparsely populated part of the country we have a couple of home movies that are in the film. We have a lot of footage that was taken by newsreel companies once the catastrophe was becoming more self-evident. But we’ve got lots of photographs in the film and in our companion book that have never been published before – that people brought to us, and also from the historical societies that might have them in these folders. A couple of the ones of the storm descending on the town of Elkhart, Kansas, one of it descending over Hooker, Oklahoma, nobody’s ever seen those before.

So we were really pleased at the amount of material to add to the things that are already available, though took some searching from the FSA photographers, Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein and others. So we had a great amount of terrific visual material to choose from. We had about 6,000 photographs that we collected-

Burns: Which is surprising.

Duncan: -and we used about 400.

To what extent were people documenting their own lives? They’re saving up for their farm equipment. How many of them have cameras?

Burns: Not much, but within communities there are people taking photographs. Sometimes it’s the car dealer, sometimes it’s the hardware store owner, sometimes it’s the banker’s wife or whatever it is, and somebody takes a picture, and people generally understood that. And then you have the overlay of the federal intervention and the journalistic intervention that’s curious about what happened.

Suffice to say if you do this conscientiously, which takes a long time, you end up, as we did not expect, with a treasure trove of materials. Well more than we needed, which we didn’t think going in – we thought we’d be stretching it thin. And the stories of the families that we thought we’d be selecting and editing down to a handful, we could joyously put in a very complex and interlocking narrative that allows you to understand where people are living within “No Man’s Land,” how they relate to somebody else, and that, I think, binds the film together. That’s the glue, all of those stories and how they’ve been artfully interwoven by Dayton’s narrative—and later by our attempt to honor that narrative in the editing…And so there’s not a single shred of reenactment.

You have a number of historians in the film. Did you think at any point about bringing in a climate scientist?

Burns: Well, you know, at the time nobody was talking about global warming. And what we want to do is free our film from the prism—and don’t take this too pejoratively—of a contemporary political discussion. There is a timelessness to this story that is of course about climate change. Somebody arguing climate change is what helped get this mess started in the first place. That somehow, the wet years were symbolic of the fact that the climate had finally changed that this would no longer gonna be a desert but an arable land that would sustain us for years and years.

And that just by some idiot predicted by just digging up the soil more rain would happen. I mean, I don’t know which doctor that was, but that was kind of coo-coo. It seemed important that all those messages that resonated with you, and we hope with all our viewers, and certainly did with us in kind of a universal way are all embedded in the comments in the people who experienced it. So we’d much rather have Wayne Lewis talk about putting in a well, one of the first families to tap the Ogallala, and now realizing it wasn’t such a good idea. Because we found an expedient, short-term solution to what will inevitably be a long-term problem that we could possibly not solve, in which case we have a Sahara in the middle of the United States.

Do we have any sense of where that prediction came from? It seems sort of crackpot even for the time.

Duncan: Here’s where it comes from: the inexhaustible human desire to reconstruct reality so that it confirms with whatever their hopes and dreams are.

Burns: Usually to make money.

Duncan: And if there’s money to be made off it, all the better. So the notion that rain follows the plow happened to coincide with a lot of railroad companies thinking they can make a lot of money selling what would normally be considered marginal land to people, and the fact it coincides with the wet cycle in a place that has –

Burns: We are all climate change idiots.

Duncan: Is that what that says? So I don’t know specifically whether that was in a think tank that was underwritten by the railroad companies… [laughs]

Burns: The University of Kansas president said that the climate was undergoing a permanent change. He was part of a boosterism, and he knew if he had more settlers came to this area he would have more students matriculating at the University of Kansas.

Duncan: And also it’s, as we see not just in terms of climate and the land, but everything else—housing and bubbles and everything. Bubbles are bubbles because when things are going in a certain direction we tend to project it to always go that way, particularly if it’s going well.
And so, yeah, as Ken said, I don’t know what witch doctor– these were people who at that time, if the Indians had done a rain dance they’d have said, “Well how stupid is that?” Right? “They certainly can’t control the climate with these things – they’re superstitious.” But they were doing exactly the same thing under their own constructs.

Burns: And there is still a billboard, a little sign, in the center of Voice city, Oklahoma that says “Pray for rain,” which is no different than the hopefulness of a rain dance.

Duncan: Right. So to me, what’s interesting about it is that this catastrophe that occurred and the manmadeness of it, there wasn’t a single – there is no conspiracy single bad person that you can say “It all goes on them.” It’s us. This is what we are capable of doing if we delude ourselves with an arrogance that we don’t have to pay much attention to what the climate, and what the land, and the environment is trying to tell us. We can look at these plants that grow that far from the ground and send roots five feet down and say, “We can turn these over and plant wheat and everything will be fine.” Well, it doesn’t work that way. It just doesn’t. And you’re gonna get caught up and somebody’s gonna pull your undies at some point on it, on the Great Plains particularly.

Burns: The dialectic of journalism requires that there are opposites, but in fact Dayton is right: we have met the enemy and he is us. And I think the advantage of art—as opposed to the dialectic of journalism—is that it permits us to tolerate the undertow within our own selves. You’ve met characters who went in both of these directions, and sometimes a third direction, meaning out of the state. And we wanted to have a humanity that embraced the complexity without having to parse out the sort of villainy, the victimhood, the responsibility. This is a collective human tragedy, and it is also an enduring, hopeful story of human perseverance. I mean, these are heroic people.

I spend a lot of time writing about the ability of art to let us hold two ideas in a way that politics never does.

Burns: Yes. It’s what Keats said of Shakespeare, was negative capability, the ability Shakespeare had better than anybody else, John Keats said, to hold two things for the longest possible time before it was reconciled. And that tension that we can find, and we know within our own selves if we’re honest, if we look, is I think the key in how we’ve tried to approach this film and all the films we’ve made.

And certainly the people in the film seem to judge themselves for what they’ve done as harshly as anyone could. I was curious whether that moral disapproval was reflected more broadly across the country and how that played into recovery efforts, if it did. Was there a sense that people in the Dust Bowl were less deserving?

Burns: What an excellent question.

Duncan: Well, during the middle of the 30’s it wasn’t just one or the other . H.L. Mencken, writing from Baltimore, called them, “These are inferior men.” And thought they ought to all be left to get out and no effort should be made to help them. But at the same time, Ernie Pyle is driving through and describing in great detail, and very movingly, the struggles that they’re doing. And you had a president who wouldn’t give up on it, even though parts of his own Cabinet were saying, “Well, maybe the best policy is to let this all go back,” and he wouldn’t do it. It was a complicated thing.

And even within the Dust Bowl itself, there are those who were—as we have in our film—some thought “Maybe God was punishing us for tearing up the good sod,” and other people were thinking that “This is still a great place and if these outsiders are coming in and making us look bad, we just get them out of here, everything’s gonna be okay.” It was all complicated.

But there was a greater consensus, I think, among them—and it’s reflected in the people that we interviewed—that they had a role in the catastrophe. Droughts happen with a certain sporadic regularity on the Great Plains, it’s always going to be windy, and the difference is, “What are we doing to the land when those things occur?” And for a great harmonic convergence of government policy, economic bubbles, the end of homesteading, last rush of homesteading, created this perfect condition for a very bad drought that just about turned the middle of the country into the Sahara desert, and they knew it wasn’t just happenstance.

Burns: They were referred to in the first episode as “Next Year People,” which portrays a sense of sort of stoic American fronterism. It also portrays a kind of stubborn resistance to change: “We’ll just keep knocking our head against this wall, and if the wall’s not falling, we’ll just knock a little bit harder.” And I think they knocked themselves out doing that. And I think “Next Year People” is a double-edged sword. I like the ambiguity of it. And the fact that we, as narrators, we don’t have to say that: they tell us. They themselves tell us.

Duncan: Going back to what you were saying about having a climate scientist or something commenting, I think it makes a much more powerful film not to have somebody who is outside of both the understanding of the history and the other stuff, not having some of them making judgments and letting the people who are telling the story, tell it. It has a lot more standing, if you will, if they’re doing it.

I think “standing” is the perfect word.

Burns: It’s exactly the perfect word…It’s like a trial where you’ve hired the forensic expert and they’ve got one side, and then all of a sudden you’ve back to that dialectic again. But if you’ve got Wayne Lewis who’s lived through all of this, and is even a problem of the solution, understanding he’s a problem of the solution…That’s [worth] 20 environmental commentators, you know?

As someone who writes about art and artists as the tool to change public opinion, I was really struck in the sections of the film about sending out photographers, commissioning films-

Burns: All that big government stuff. [laughs]

Exactly, as we talked about PBS funding yesterday. I was wondering, has one of the problems with our historical understanding of the Dust Bowl been that we produce—both through government funding and private initiative—things like The Grapes of Wrath. Have those artistic depictions eclipsed the actual experience?

Burns: No, I don’t think they have. I think to the extent that somehow we always permit any historical period to fall through the manhole of sort of real understanding, and you end up with some conventional wisdom about it. And that conventional wisdom often goes to a Dorothea Lange photograph or an Arthur Rothstein photograph, or it goes to The Grapes of Wrath, and then that’s it. You’re conveniently tied into it and I don’t have to think about it.

But it is, in fact, those things, that art, that permits us, those of us interested, to going back and opening up that story and climbing out of the manhole we’ve just fallen into, and investigate what really happened. And what really happened has to be told through the stories of how The Grapes of Wrath really came into being, which is an unusual tale, and how those photographs and why those were taken, and what they then mean to the United States, and to this particular specific situation and the solutions, if any, that came out of it. So it’s a wonderful thing.

We believe firmly not only in that power of art to transform, but also that time and time again in the history of the United States—despite the ongoing debate today—that government has been, in many cases, the deciding positive force in our human lives that helped to build a railroad across the country, that opened up the homesteads, that created the national parks, that started the land grant colleges, that found a solution to the Dust Bowl, that improved child labor and working conditions in factories, that established the minimum wage, that created an interstate highway system, that put a man on the moon, that fought many wars foreign and domestic, that figured out how to take care of the weakest among us. That this has been all part of the preamble of the Constitution general welfare.

And this is an ongoing trope, not only in our headlines, but in all the films we’ve made. Is about a government which many people see suspiciously as a malevolent force, as being one of the most positive forces in human history. I mean, there would be no national parks without our government saying, “Yes, I think we can set aside this place called Yosemite and this place called Yellowstone. Yes, I think we can help fund a railroad that will connect this country and spur its economic growth. Yes, we can build a canal. Yes, we can…all the things that we’ve done. And yes, we can try to help these people in the Dust Bowl.” And they did. They came down and they said, “You can plant differently, you can plow differently, you can rotate your crops. We’re going to pay you not to plant here. We’re going to restore the grassland. We’re going to plant shelter belts.”

Duncan: “We’re going to help you survive until it gets better.”

Burns: “We’re going to give you surplus commodities. We’re going to pay you to cull your cattle. We’re going to do all these things for you. And we’re going to also at the same time, put you to work building your high school that’s still there, that bridge you still cross over.” You know, all of these things. And to see the farmers ask for intervention, the railroads can afford to, the land speculators can afford to pull out. There’s a really important thing that Donald Worster says that when your back is against the wall, ideology goes out. Sometimes it’s a luxury to hate your government. This is a democratic luxury, and that there are times when, and it’s very clear at almost every juncture of American history that governmental intervention has been the difference in many people’s lives. And it certainly was for the people in “No Man’s Land.”

Duncan: And Katrina.

Alright, I have one last question. I was really struck by the way the movie addresses gender. It was really fascinating to me to see the dust storm sort of totally destroy women’s ability to fulfill the roles that they’re supposed to have. You can’t keep the house clean, you can’t keep your children-

Burns: Kids protected-

-And I was wondering what the impact of that has been, because I’ve never thought of the Dust Bowl as a kind of a moment when some of these standards are impossible under certain circumstances…I thought that was a touching part of the movie.

Burns: Thank you. We’re very, very pleased that you see that and feel that. I believe that any investigation of any moment provides the op to deal with all these things – that women have struggled since there have been women, right? That men have struggled, that people of different sexual orientation have struggled, that people of different races have struggled. All of these stories are embedded in every story. That when we ask the question “Who are we?” for every film, if you dig deep enough, you can resonate without being overtly didactic – all of those things.

So we rejoice at your thing…you’ve hit an important nail on the head. And who narrates this film from beginning to end? Caroline Henderson. Who’s an important character or kind of shadow to John Steinbeck? Sanora Babb. Who are most of the people in our film? Women.

My first job in journalism, I was an intern at The Atlantic, so I was so thrilled to see Caroline Henderson in there…It’s incredible to see this story about a woman who wants to do something different. She wants to own property, she wants to farm it. She marries down – she marries the help, you know, the guy who can help her. And to have her be both someone who pursues that big dream, the line about being too big to cry and too sad to laugh. I thought was just…how do you both be a woman and try and be a modern woman in circumstances like this, when all these forces are conspiring to crush you?

Burns: Yeah, it’s a huge thing, and what you find is that a lot of our superficial, judgmental kinds of things, “marrying down,” you know, in quotes – But she got exactly what she needed and wanted. She married up. And I think that too often, just as they said, wrong side up – about the plow.
[laughs] We live in a society that makes judgments. Watch the actresses move around here—they’re replicants, they’re not real. [laughs] The actors—they are other people. They spend so much time attending to looking a certain way that you and I don’t have to do when we wake up. So are you marrying up if you marry that, or are you marrying down if you marry that? [laughs] I think in Will Henderson, she found the salt of the earth. She found someone – a lightning rod – that was just anchored to that land.

Duncan: There’s a lot more about her in the book. There’s a lot more about everything in the book. She was a free thinker in a place that didn’t necessary welcome free thinking. At the end of her life she felt she was a failure. Her goal had been to do this and be prosperous the way that her father had been prosperous as a farmer in Iowa. And she was not able to do that. And yet, she and will, their daughter became a doctor, very successful. And their grandson became successful. And she left this incredible account.