(hoopla/VOD) When I first heard that Ken Burns was working on a documentary about the Dust Bowl, I was already neck-deep doing research for a very Dust Bowl-centric novel and I thought to myself: “Well, I might as well give up on it now, because soon there’ll be a storm of Dust Bowl novels and the market will be exhausted.’”
For whatever reason, that did not happen. (Also, while I did finish a very rough version of the novel, I ended up abandoning it as it deviated too far from what I wanted it to be.) When Burns’ THE DUST BOWL did come out, it didn’t have the buzz that his recent documentaries have had. Hell, I heard more people talking about Burns’ BASEBALL doc than THE DUST BOWL.
Ken Burns has always been able to turn what could be a dull American history lesson into something immensely watchable; dramatic, even. He even managed to make the story of the creation of the United States National Parks into a riveting six-part documentary series. However, the Dust Bowl itself, just on paper, reads like a horror story. It doesn’t necessary require Burns’ deft touch.
If you aren’t familiar with the Dust Bowl, it’s one of the earliest and one of the worst, man-made environmental tragedies ever. Basically, the US government had a ton of unworked land in the Plains and then handled out lots for folks to head west, to settle and farm. Families rushed out and overworked the land to the point where the soil ended up turning to dust. Then a severe drought arrived and, because nothing could grow, there was nothing to catch the wind in the plains. The winds stripped all of the newfound dust from the ground, causing the ‘dust storms’ that barreled over the lands. Oh, and all of this occurred during The Great Depression.
To be clear: we’re not talking about temporary tornados here; we’re talking about stories-high loads of dust covering the lands for days on end. Houses were literally buried in dust. Everything in your house was covered in dust. You ate and breathed dust. The dust chewed through everything, eroding wood, clothing; farm animals would suffocate on it; children spewed up dirt.
These storms lasted for a decade because, there was no way to stop them without rehabilitating the land and, because of the prolonged drought, that simply couldn’t be done, not the way the current farmers tended their lots. Those lands had literally became deserts. Everyone that had been lead out there by the government, told to farm away with abandon, were left with less than nothing. (Yes, this was definitely Burns’ attempt to bring attention to climate change.)
Burns has always been best at leveraging photos for visual props as opposed to film footage, as photos allow him to unfurl his trademark sense of fireside storytelling at his own pace, but there are more than enough snippets of environmental footage that really hammer home the scale, monstrosity, and devastation of the storms. Anyone could make an effective cautionary tale documentary from that footage because it’s that spectacularly unreal, and it encompasses everything about America at that point in time.
It’s also worth noting that, unlike many Burns’ docs, a number of those who lived through the Dust Bowl are still alive, so there are far more first-person accounts than you’d expect from a documentary of his. It’s an enthralling, often tragic documentary, one which captures the tension of how the US was handling the plains at that time.
I’d imagine the same reason why THE DUST BOWL didn’t gain traction like prior Burns documentaries is the same reason I never learned about the Dust Bowl until later in life. It’s the tale of an American failure on American land that was spearheaded by an American government and resulted in the ruin of many American families and individuals. It’s a man-made disaster that folks just want to sweep under the rug and, yeah, that doesn’t make for the coziest viewing, but it’s history worth knowing.