Quick Review: Ken Burns’ “The Dust Bowl” (and photos of Oklahoma)

1933 Pony Bridge, Route 66, Bridgeport Oklahoma. Photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved.

38-truss 1933 Pony Bridge on 66 in Bridgeport, Oklahoma. Surely many Oklahomans travelled west to the promise of California over this bridge; in 1939, a scene from “The Grapes Of Wrath” with Henry Fonda was filmed here.

In addition to my documentary photography, I’m also the lady of the house around here (which I’m happy to do—”housewife” wasn’t my plan, but as evidenced by my illness that keeps me from working outside of the home, it was God’s plan, and I’ve learned not to buck that). Like most civilized people, though, housewife or no, there’s a substantial and sometimes intimidating pile of ironing that must be attended to on a weekly basis, even aside from the pressing related to my sewing.

Rusting old Coca-Cola sign on storefront in Commerce, OK. Route 66 photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved.

Commerce, Oklahoma

Happily, we live in the age of the internet and Roku. Even before marrying, I would go online, find a lecture, and listen as I did my work. Two birds with one stone, yes? (Occasionally I do watch a movie, of course, but not often, as ironing seems like morning work to me, and I don’t like having the television on in the morning and afternoon. Quirky? Me?) More recently, we’ve had Roku—which means I can head over to Netflix and find something wonderful and enlightening to watch while I work, thus making a dull task much easier to bear.

These past two weeks, I’ve continued in my tradition of documentary-accompanied ironing by watching Ken Burns’ “The Dust Bowl. Many Oklahomans fled the disaster via Route 66, something made quite famous in Steinbeck’s Grapes Of Wrath. Though the documentary was not perfect (if you ask me, Burns will never, ever top The Civil War), it’s easily good enough that I can recommend it to you. Funnily enough, a garden/farm blogger I read recently watched it as well, and they and their readers agreed with me on a few of the criticisms: For one thing, Burns clearly has an agenda of his own in addition to telling the story, one of them being “climate change” (FWIW: I’m a proponent of stewardship, not environmentalism)—but in reality, the whole debacle was caused by poor management of the land itself; this was encouraged by government policies that drove people seeking opportunity to the region to further mismanage the land.

A heartbreakingly vicious circle was initiated, and The Dust Bowl tells of the toll. True victims of meddling and the whims of nature, if listening to these men and women—elderly now, talking about their parents, grandparents, siblings, and neighbors—does not tear at your heart, leaving you choked up on occasion, you may wish to have your pulse checked.

Families split up to seek improved chances & circumstances elsewhere, children flung far and wide to live with relatives ’til better days came; folks leaving not just their homes, but their dreams behind—one man bought hundreds of acres in Oklahoma, dreaming that one day he’d give each of his five sons 640 acres of his own to farm; another having to sell his beloved horses. In the meantime, so people wouldn’t have to feed their livestock (many couldn’t), the government bought their starving cattle—then dug huge trenches, shooting the cattle, and shoving the corpses into the earth and burying them, even after some farmers asked if they could perhaps buy a calf back to butcher so their children might have food. It’s not difficult to imagine the effect of such horrors on diligent, thrifty farmers and ranchers.

Red Road

Dirt alignment of 66 in Oklahoma

Like The Civil War, this is not a documentary one can easily watch without being deeply affected. The events are still too raw even for those who lived through them in the 30s, so many decades ago to leave the viewer untouched.

As we expect from a Burns production, in addition to interviews, you’ll get to see plenty of contemporary photographs and even film footage from the era—including some astounding images of the dust storms that rumbled across the plains. Walls of black dust tower over towns and small cities in Oklahoma’s panhandle; even in the grainy, sepia-toned photos, they’re menacing and frightening. I can’t even imagine looking out across my yard and seeing that heading in my direction without shuddering, yet Americans in the Dust Bowl lived through those storms time and again. Dust would work its way through walls and windows, filling homes with two to three feet of dust, driving the dedicated housewives of the 1930s to absolute distraction—and terrifying parents who justly feared “dust pneumonia”, a disease that took far too many lives.

Depew, Oklahoma on a rainy day. Photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved.

Depew, Oklahoma.

Again—this is not an easy documentary to watch (as opposed to, say, The Medici or Kevin McCloud’s Grand Tour, both of which I—who cannot fly due to a heart issue—greatly enjoyed), but it’s a good one well worth seeing, if only for the human aspect of the story. Those interviewed were, again, children during the Dust Bowl years—and they did not know they were poor, or at the very least, they did not whine about it and demand others give them what they wanted. It was certainly a different mindset back then, one I’m not sure we can recover. I do wish when interviewing his historians Burns had spoken with someone such as Amity Shlaes for a bit of balance, but that’s probably a lot to ask.

Photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved.

Pre-1933 Oklahoma alignment of 66, still in dirt. One of my famous “from a rapidly moving vehicle” photos. 😉

Regardless, if you enjoy history at all, you’ll be interested in The Dust Bowl. It doesn’t look like you can see it online, though you can purchase it from iTunes; PBS’ site for the documentary offers a link to that as well as a chance to see if it’s airing on your local PBS anytime soon.

How about you? Enjoyed a good documentary or eight lately (there’s a LOT of ironing to do around here!)?


6 thoughts on “Quick Review: Ken Burns’ “The Dust Bowl” (and photos of Oklahoma)

  1. Climate change is something which is added to everything to get funding. If you want to study the mating habits of tree frogs … it’s in relation to climate change. Largely, it’s a combination of factors which causes shifts in the climate. The big one is the earth’s wobble through space. One or two degrees difference in the angle of incidence with the sun and the earth cools, or warms more. The drought and the dust bowl were the most dramatic in the center of the country, but the drought was everywhere during that period. My Grandfather was a foreman on a government owned farm during that period here in Indiana. FSA bought up huge tracts of land to keep the insurance companies from owning the land and then put displaced farmers onto the land to farm as a cooperative. The experiment was called little Russia by the locals and was disbanded after a few years, but during the worst of the depression … it provided plenty of food and some cash money for the farmers. The farms never made money, but neither did they lose money either. The land was later sold to the men working it. My Grandfather paid his farm off selling hogs during WWII.

    If you’re looking for a dust bowl drama on Netflix … you might give a look to “Carnival” It really catches the mood of the period … even if the story line is a little bit dark.

    • You are so right about everything you said, Norm—and that’s clearly one of Burns’ agenda in the film. That said, it’s fairly easy to ignore, particularly if one has a grasp on history and science, as you clearly do!

      Thanks for the movie recommendation—I’ll add it to my list!

  2. Your part of Ohio was covered in ice nearly a half mile thick as recently as about 14,000 years ago … it’s a good thing all those mastodons generated all that greenhouse gas … or you’d still have a permanent ice field in your driveway! 🙂 I’m not sure whether to laugh, or cry at the thought of politicians taxing their way to reverse climate change! One theory requires the ice caps to melt in order for the next ice age to begin. We know it has happened in the past since we have the old shorelines as evidence. The thought is the Gulf stream would shift to the west away from Europe and provide the moisture needed to to build the ice sheets and cool Europe at the same time. I suspect we’ve got 150,000 years, or so before we have to worry about moving south. 🙂 We should run out of gas long before then!

    • I’ve heard more than a few well-respected scientists warn that we may actually be heading toward another mini-Ice Age, such as the one suffered during the 1700s. That people think we can actually have an effect on the environment at large sort of amuses, sort of shocks me. Little things can be important, but we can’t change the actual CLIMATE. It is going to do whatever it’s going to do, no matter what we’re fussing about! Thus I say stewardship, not environmentalism.

  3. Jen … It’s a possibility, but they thought the same thing back in the early 1970s too. The little Ice age is really a collection of ups and downs starting around 1250 AD and ending around 1850. The cold spell in the late 1700s has been called a factor in the French Revolution with the crop failures. Volcanic events like the series of eruptions coming from Krakatoa have also played a factor in climate change. I can remember a lot of cold winters after Mt. St. Helens blew it’s top. Krakatoa has been building for another eruption. I suspect we may hear of that one in our lifetime yet. I suspect the rest of it will occur long after we’re gone.

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