When it comes to ecological disaster, thoughts turn to events like the Exxon Valdex or BP oil spills, but filmmaker Ken Burns says they pale in comparison to the Dust Bowl. That period in the mid 1930’s when the nation’s heartland turned into barren deserts ravaged by deadly dust storms.
“I think when we hear the words ‘dust bowl,’ whatever historical associations they are, are so superficial compared to the reality of it and that’s what struck us,” Burns said in an interview with KIRO Radio’s Ross and Burbank Show.
The filmmaker, famous for his acclaimed documentaries including “The Civil War” and “Prohibition,” has now shifted his wide lens to what he calls the greatest man made ecological disaster in history.
Burns said he was overwhelmed by the devastation to both land and people. It all could have been prevented, as the nation turned over an area of grassland larger than the size of Ohio to agriculture and development in the country’s ever expanding hunger for expansion.
“Everybody knew that if you turned over that much land…you had a recipe for ecological disaster that makes Exxon Valdez and BP look like blips.”
The fears were realized. Drought and fierce winds spawned hundreds of storms that raged over nearly a decade, covering large chunks of the country.
“Franklin Roosevelt in the Oval Office could wipe his finger and come up with Oklahoma on his finger tips. The next day ships out at sea would be covered in a patina of dust,” Burns said.
The documentary uses a combination of photographs, rare film footage, songs of Woody Guthrie, contemporary accounts and interviews with survivors to tell the story.
Burns said it was a challenge finding those still alive who could recount the devastation of watching families fall apart, farms being repossessed and people dying.
“So you’re seeing a lot of elderly people, but if you can see them as children or teenagers, it changes your understanding. It’s a fearful thing for any of us. It’s incredibly fearful. These memories, like PTSD are seared in them of families: breaking up, suicides of kids, suicides of parents that couldn’t cope, the dust pneumonia that would take the lives of their schoolmates and sometimes their siblings,” he said.
Most moving for Burns was the emotional reaction of two brothers in their 80’s breaking down in tears over the death of their two-year-old sister in 1935.
“It’s a very poignant reminder the DNA of history is memory and sometimes this is not something distant. It’s actually something incredibly personal,” he said.
Burns said while the film chronicles such pain and heartbreak, it’s also a story of heroic perseverance and the strength to endure. He hopes audiences realize it’s not just something from a distant past, but a cautionary tale about what could happen again if we don’t consider the environmental impact of our natural resource decisions.
“What it’s going to take is everybody trying to plan for the long term. It’s that old fable of the grasshopper and the ant as one prepares for the winter and one doesn’t,” he said.
“I always go back to the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Do you want to live in Bedford Falls or do you want to live in Pottersville? Bedford Falls requires a little community cooperation.”
The four-hour documentary “The Dust Bowl” airs in two parts on PBS Nov. 18 and 19 before debuting on Blu-ray and DVD Nov. 20.
Burns’ next project is called “Central Park Five”, about the black and Hispanic men whose conviction for the rape of a Central Park jogger was later overturned.
His future subjects include Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson and the Vietnam War.