New Dust Bowl documentary by Ken Burns

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Watch clips from the documentary on the PBS website by clicking here.  You can also find your local listings on the website.  I bought both episodes of the documentary from iTunes for $10.  The PBS website also has a ton of information including a cool “interactive” page where you get to choose a location in the southern plains where you pretend to be a farmer and build your homestead.  You get to meet your neighbors, plow up the sod, plant your wheat, and make good money in the 1920’s.  Do you want to save that money or expand your farm?  Then the Great Depression hits and eventually wheat prices drop.  And the simulation continues with you making the decisions for your “farm.”  This could be a great learning tool for school teachers.

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Episode I “The Great Plow Up” explains the factors that caused the Dust Bowl including high wheat prices in the 1920’s, wet weather in the 1920’s, the sale of land in the southern plains, and increased mechanization of agriculture.  As prices dropped, farmers tried to make up for their loss by producing more, which means plowing up more land.  Drought set in in the 1930’s, destroying crops,  sweeping away the topsoil, suffocating livestock, and causing health problems in people, especially young children.  Surviving the onslaught of dust storms, day in and day out, year in and year out made life on the southern plains more than a hardship.  Ken Burns, as usual, does a fantastic job weaving personal stories and narratives into the “big picture.”  The folks featured in the film bring in personal stories that help illustrate the severity of this period in American history.  The documentary also utilizes fantastic photos and even some video clips taken at the time.

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Ken Burns does a fantastic job of staying objective and delicately looking in-depth at human mistakes, but I would have liked to have seen more screen time devoted to the natural history of the southern plains before the “great plow up.”   The evolution of this system is a fantastic story of the evolution of a complex ecosystem involving extreme weather that does not support woody vegetation and the inter-dependedness of a diminutive grass and one of the largest herbivores of modern time–the buffalo.  Since one of the main thrusts of the documentary is the fact that the Dust Bowl is a man-made environmental tragedy of Biblical proportions, I think it would be appropriate to explore more of the ecology of the southern plains before and after the plow as a segue into a national discussion of how we make decisions regarding natural resource use and the value of ecosystem services that are threatened by exploiting or extracting resources.  Before the plow, people rushed to stake their claim and make a buck from the land, thinking the soil was a limitless and inexhaustible resource.

Screen Shot 2012-12-03 at 8.02.18 PMI had never heard of the dramatic build up of static electricity before these dust storms.  Nor was I aware of the hoards of jack rabbits that plagued the farmers.  Since farmers had extirpated the local coyotes, a classic trophic cascade ensued.  Entire towns would band together, drive these herds of hungry rabbits into makeshift corrals and beat them with clubs.

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Even though money can explain a lot, I also imagine that the less obvious ecological complexity and beauty of the southern plains played a role in the “great plow up.”  Flat land covered in short grass as far as the eye can see perhaps elicits less immediate awe or sense of nature’s power than a view of the Rocky Mountains or the Redwood forests.  In other words, the more humble-appearing southern plains may seem to have less powerful consequences when altered for human use than one might guess those would be for the Rocky Mountains or the Redwood forest.  I don’t mean to say that the southern plains are not awe-inspiring or beautiful.  In fact, throughout the film people describe the beauty that surrounded them and the joy of living there.

Review of Episode II coming soon.

All images in this post are screen captures from “The Dust Bowl A Film by Ken Burns.”

If you would like to learn more about the Dust Bowl, Donald Worster’s book  Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930’s is a great place to start.  See the link to it in my “Relevant Books” tool on the right of this page.


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