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.