The Dust Bowl era was an ecological tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, and one that was entirely man-made. But unlike other environmental disasters, resulting from thousands of years of climatic and natural shifts, it was caused by just 40 to 50 years of bad decisions and bad farming.
The decade-long drought that gripped the Great Plains is the subject of a new PBS documentary, The Dust Bowl, from legendary filmmaker Ken Burns. In interviews with survivors and historians, he very vividly captures the fear and heartbreak of people who lived through the era.
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In the late 1800s, people in search of land started settling the Great Plains, an area that stretches from North Dakota down to the Texas panhandle. Windy and dry, it was considered one of the riskiest areas of the world for agriculture, receiving less than 20 inches of rain per year. The few settlers who lived there knew it was land suited only for grazing cattle, and even that had turned out to be a risky proposition.
But cheap land prices drew Americans from the East and immigrants from Mexico and Europe, determined to own farms and make the land profitable. They tilled the prairies, which were covered in native buffalo grasses that dug their roots five feet deep, anchoring the soil and storing what little moisture fell. They replaced those native grasses with corn, wheat, and other grains.
Around the beginning of World War I, the area received an unusual amount of rain that convinced those living there that the climate was changing permanently and that the land was a farmer's dream. Unscrupulous real estate agents bought up huge swaths of it and sold it, sight unseen, to anyone interested. The military needed wheat, so farmers grew more. They were encouraged to till more soil because "removing the grasses would allow even more rainwater to penetrate the soil," so they expanded their farms and continued to upend the soil.
And then the Great Depression struck. Wheat prices plummeted and farmers were unable to make money off their massive crops of wheat—they wound up in some cases just dumping it into the streets. Then came the winter of 1931 and 1932, an unusually dry, snow-less winter that began a drought that started off bad and only grew worse. It lasted a decade, destroying lives and farms and lengthening the Depression that was hitting the rest of the country.
As Burns' documentary details with vivid photos and old newsreels, farmers in the hardest-hit area—the five-state region of southeast Colorado, southwest Kansas, northwest New Mexico, and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma—suffered "black blizzards," storms that picked up dust and topsoil from the over-plowed lands and re-depositing it in homes, all over towns, and in the lungs of anyone who lived in the area. One such storm was so huge and so devastating that it began in Montana and deposited dirt in New York City and all along the eastern seaboard. Ship captains even recorded dust dropping on them 300 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean.
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The 26 survivors of the Dust Bowl who were interviewed by the filmmakers tell gut-wrenching stories of relatives killed by "dust pneumonia," a condition in which people's lungs would fill up with so much fluid and dust that they would essentially cough up mud. Others committed suicide, unable to cope with the constant dust or the economic devastation it brought.
Meanwhile, the rest of the country, totally ill prepared to cope with a disaster of such epic scale, was grappling with ways to help. Ideas ranged from covering the Great Plains with concrete to shipping old junked cars to the area to keep soil from blowing away.
The Dust Bowl is a harrowing lesson in what happens when, as one historian put it, humans try to control nature, and nature doesn't want to be controlled. And yes, it's depressing—the Depression couldn't have been anything but—yet the lessons learned from the era should resound loudly. It was industrial farming that made it so easy for farmers to expand their acreage in the 1920s, as mechanized farm equipment and the idea of "farm as factory" took hold among big landowners. But ultimately, the Dust Bowl was brought to an end not by mechanized farming but by smarter farming techniques: crop rotation, soil conservation, and other measures to prevent erosion. After 2012's summer of extreme drought, commodity-crop farmers and biotech companies continue to insist that fields of corn and soy can be made profitable with more genetic engineering and chemical pesticides and fertilizers that undermine soil quality. As the saying goes, if we don't learn from history, we're bound to repeat it.
The Dust Bowl airs Sunday November 18 and Monday November 19 at 8:00 p.m. ET on PBS. To find your local station's airdates, visit pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl.
Photo Courtesy of Associated Press