Noted filmmaker and storyteller, Ken Burns, chronicles one of the worst man-made environmental disasters of the 20th century — the great American Dust Bowl — in a 4-hour, 2-part series premiering Sunday and Monday evenings on PBS.
Beyond the program’s historical significance, its pertinence to recent droughts in the American west and similar, widespread conditions predicted by global warming models makes it all the more timely and powerful.
The story of the Dust Bowl began in the late 19th century, as settlers moved west into the semiarid, southern Great Plains during an unusually wet period, and the native, deep-rooted short grasses were plowed under in order to cultivate wheat.
In a tragically unscientific misinterpretation of events, farmers came to believe that their deep-plowing techniques had caused an increase in rainfall, and that the climate of the region once known as the Great American Desert had been permanently altered.
The fallacy that “rain follows the plow” became evident when severe drought returned in the early 1930s. Crops failed, and without the native grasses that once retained moisture during dry spells and held topsoil in place, powerful winds carried the land aloft in massive clouds of choking dust that at times turned day into night.
Fields that farmers once plowed in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado were blown as far away as Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC. Much of the soil ended up in the Atlantic Ocean.
Between 1931 and 1939, nearly three million people abandoned their farms in the southern Great Plains. Homeless, hungry and in desperate need of work, their plight was famously documented in John Steinbeck’s 1939, novel, The Grapes of Wrath.
Could the Dust Bowl have been predicted? Absolutely. Hugh Hammond Bennett, credited with convincing the Federal government and American farmers of the need to adopt soil conservation methods, warned of the looming menace posed by poor practices in the 1920s.
The Great Plow Up: Sunday, November 18 @ 8:00 PM
Part 1 of a two-part documentary detailing the environmental catastrophe that destroyed the farmlands of the Great Plains and caused massive dust storms during the 1930s. Firsthand stories of survivors, photos and film footage chronicle the era.
Reaping the Whirlwind: Monday, November 19 @ 8:00 PM
Conclusion. How many families sought refuge from the Great Plains in California; and how government-led conservation efforts worked in conjunction with a break in the drought in 1939 to stabilize the soil and inject new life into farms.
Visit pbs.org for channels, times and rebroadcasts in your area.