Contrary to what we were taught in elementary school, history is subjective. Every chronicle, biography, textbook, and documentary about the past has a point of view. It's an interpretation, whether it's Robert A. Caro's four-volume The Years of Lyndon Johnson, The Band's four-minute The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, or the latest fundamentalist social studies book adopted by the Texas State Board of Education.
This extends beyond the glib insight that history is written by the winners (an inconvenient truth that conservative revisionists never tire of waging guerilla warfare against), and recognizes that hindsight has many potential benefits. Alas, our track record with respect to learning from history is admittedly spotty.
My little prologue leads us to Ken Burns' stark assertion underlying his latest immersive dive into a specific and volatile period in our nation's checkered past, The Dust Bowl (airing Sunday, November 18 and Monday, November 19 at 8 and 10pm on KQED-Channel 9): The environmental disaster that devastated the southern Plains states in the 1930s was man-made. The three contemporary historians convened for the occasion by the filmmaker describe the opportunistic and greedy stampede to turn grasslands into wheat fields via the mechanized plowing of hundreds of thousands of acres, in a region where the wind blew hard and steady and rainfall couldn't be counted on. The impetus? The Federal government, needing to feed the troops during World War I and seeking an incentive to boost grain production, arbitrarily increased the price of wheat.
Dorthea Lange, Woman standing outside wooden shack with two small children and baby, Tulare County, California, 1936. Courtesy of The Library of Congress.
The good times for farmers lasted all the way through the 1920s, and even after the Crash of 1929. But a drought combined with the Great Depression produced the aberration of small yields and low prices. Poverty was compounded by the nightmare of incredible (and unprecedented) dust and sand storms seemingly without end. A lot of defiant and hard-working farmers in Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas blamed the plague of storms on the continual lack of rain. Nature and/or God was responsible, they said, and took no responsibility for the large-scale adoption of misguided practices that had led to mass erosion.
Make no mistake, The Dust Bowl is unwavering throughout its four hours in its admiration for the resilience and persistence of farmers, and its empathy for the suffering of fathers, wives, and children. (Burns devotes a substantial chunk of time to “dust pneumonia,” a potentially fatal respiratory condition to which children were particularly susceptible.) In fact, the saga is primarily recounted by folks who grew up on farms in the southern Plains states in those dark, dry years.
Arthur Rothstein, A car is chased by a "black blizzard" in the Texas Panhandle, March 1936. Courtesy of The Library of Congress.
Burns employed the same ground-level approach to history in The War and other films, pushing the so-called “major” historical figures to the sidelines. FDR and Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace are given a few necessary cameos here, but this is not their story.
That said, The Dust Bowl details the many ways Federal action alleviated the crisis, from the nationwide Works Progress Administration to specific programs designed to help Dust Bowlers. The film unambiguously argues that only Big Government could marshal the resources and assistance to combat such Big Problems. You can't miss the contemporary relevance, and wonder how The Dust Bowl will play in the now-red states of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas. One of the wonderful things about history is that exposure to facts tends to shatter myths and misconceptions.
From a filmmaking standpoint, Burns springs precious few surprises in The Dust Bowl. He uses several Woody Guthrie tunes to excellent effect in a refreshing relief from the wash of familiar, generic banjo picking and tinkling piano. Peter Coyote, whose wall-to-wall narration turned Burns' Prohibition (2011) into an illustrated monologue (through no fault of his own), once again carries a good deal of the load. The first-hand recollections of the septuagenarian and octogenarian Dust Bowl survivors are unquestionably the heart and soul of the film. Unfortunately, their anecdotes and memories can't sustain their power and hold on us for four hours.
The Dust Bowl concludes with a present-day warning about our short-sighted and misguided use of resources. The Ogallala Aquifer, a vast underground reserve of fresh water in the middle of the country, is being drained to irrigate corn for hogs and cattle. That is, the drinking water of future generations is being used up to satisfy our appetite for meat.
Historians like Ken Burns tend to see history repeating itself in various ways before our eyes. The Dust Bowl is a deeply personal, quietly restrained appeal to remove our blinders.
The Dust Bowl airs Sunday, November 18 and Monday, November 19, 2012, 8-10pm on KQED-Channel 9. For more information visit pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl.