Thursday, February 7, 2013

"The Dust Bowl" by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns (2012)

When we think of the Dust Bowl it is generally thought of in the narrow terms of the classic “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. And, of course, the iconic movie of the same name starring Henry Fonda comes to mind as well. We think in terms of Oklahoma as the only state to have endured the disaster of the Dust Bowl, when in truth the events described by Steinbeck; and shown in the movie; were really happening in a small area of Oklahoma, in the Panhandle region, which straddles the borders of 4 other states; including Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Kansas.

In Ken Burn’s PBS documentary “The Dust Bowl”, this commonly accepted myth is shattered. Drawing upon the photographs and memories of those who endured the Dust Bowl, authors Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns have painted a new, and more accurate portrait of the Dust Bowl and how it came to be in the first place.

In one sense the Dust Bowl was natural disaster, caused by a severe 10 year drought. But, in other respects, the effects of that drought would not have been so severe if the farmers had not been able to cultivate such a large area of land, resulting in no natural barriers being left in place to counter the fierce prairie winds, and the resultant dust storms.

The authors also devote a great amount of time in reviewing some of the Federal Programs which were put in place in order to save the farmers from going broke. Many of these programs were very controversial at the time, particularly the Resettlement Program in which the government bought the land from the farmers, allowing them a chance to resettle elsewhere. Thousands of farmers were spared a life of poverty and malnutrition by this program. The land was taken out of production and re-seeded as grasslands, the thinking being that this would help not only the people affected, but also possibly slow down the dust storms. Programs like these, though not always entirely successful, are what helped to keep 75% of the population from leaving the affected areas. That’s right; only 25% left as shown in “The Grapes of Wrath.” Most people, for a variety of reasons, elected to stay on their land if they could.

Books like this, and documentaries like Ken Burn’s makes, are what should keep us ahead of the curve when it comes to disasters, both natural and man-made. They comprise not only a veritable blueprint of what went wrong, but also a valuable insight into what it takes to make things right again. In times like these, there is much to be learned from the past.

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