The grass covered Oklahoma prairie was new to most citizens of the recently reunited United States of America in the days following the turn of the 20th Century. Buffalo grass covered the ground, its roots woven through an area a foot below the surface, slaking the grassy thirst and stitching the ground in place during dry spells. But the soil was fertile, and wheat commanded a profitable price.
World War I started, and the federal government wanted the land farmed, and offered generous assistance to farmers willing to till the land. And profits would be even higher if the yield could be increased. Initially, farmers used plows that sliced the soil, leaving most of the grassy cover in place while opening furrows into which they could drop seed. A new kind of plow shredded the soil, turning it over to bury grass and expose the no longer moisture-holding soil.
Soil, everyone thought, was the one resource that could not be exhausted, and there was widespread opinion that the rains would never end. Real estate developers bought land at $5 an acre and hired trains to take potential buyers on tours touting better crops and cattle and continued life-giving precipitation. So-called suitcase farmers arrived. They did not live on the land, but hired men to drive lines of tractors to plow and combines to harvest and send the profits to Texas or back east.
Then came a perfect storm of war, weather and economics. World War I ended, and wheat prices fell from $2 a bushel to 40 cents a bushel. The plains entered a rainless period of the type that periodically plagued the region, and had given rise to the Buffalo grass uniquely able to hold the land together until the rains returned. Farmers who had plowed more land to make more profits, now tilled more land to make any profits, and in the process completed destruction of the Buffalo grass ground cover.
A little after noontime one day in January 1932, a dust cloud worked its way across the once grassy plains, signaling the beginning of what would be called The Dust Bowl. It got worse, 14 storms in 1932 became 38 in 1933. A decade of similar storms, one after the other, would lift dirt from a region the size of Ohio, and drop it across the eastern states. Huge rolling clouds of sand – such as are portrayed in “The Mummy” movies, only real, filled homes and buried cars like the floods we saw as Hurricane Sandy swept up the New Jersey coast. Wind-born dirt from the American Great Plains fell on ships off the East Coast of the US.
April 14, 1935, began as a clear spring day, the kind that invites humans to leave their homes to attend church and do chores, and organize impromptu picnics. Suddenly a huge cloud swept in from the horizon and blocked the sun.
The day became known as Black Sunday, when a mountain of High Plains dirt darkened the world and dropped Oklahoma dirt on the president’s desk in the Oval Office. Soil from the Texas Panhandle fell on ships off the East Coast. In one day, the storm grabbed twice as much dirt from the plains as was excavated in 10 years of digging the Panama Canal.
In a two-night, four-hour movie, renowned documentarian Ken Burns tells the story of the manmade disaster known as The Dust Bowl. More than 20 survivors of the decade-long event describe growing up in dust storms, watching many of their family members die of dust pneumonia from the sand that filtered through rags wrapped around faces. Some people crawled along the ground to find their way between buildings; some of them didn’t make it to their destination.
The movie also describes efforts of Pres. Theodore Roosevelt, and later President Franklin D. Roosevelt to mitigate the effects of what some have called the worst manmade disaster in U.S. history. Also in the story are a few of the multitude of families who did not stay, but loaded their vehicles with all their belongings and headed for California, a migration depicted in John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel “The Grapes of Wrath.”
In usual Ken Burns fashion, the story weaves a mixture of live memories and memorabilia to create a tapestry that entwines the viewer, and evokes images of other, more recent examples of the effects of resource exploitation and what can happen when science takes a back seat to profits.
The film is set to air in two nights, Nov. 18 and 19, 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. EST, on PBS.
On Nov. 15, 2 p.m. EST, Burns and journalist Paula Zahn will lead a panel discussion in a live YouTube event and national dialog to discuss the legacy of the Dust Bowl, its possible reflections in the current drought and weather conditions, and humans’ role in nature’s continuum. To join the conversation, visit YouTube. Questions also may be submitted via Twitter using #Dust BowlPBS.
Photo by NOAA
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