PBS doc 'Dust Bowl' a warning about climate change

Television • Ken Burns' documentary recounts horrifying details of man-made disaster.
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The words "Dust Bowl" tend to evoke The Grapes of Wrath.

But John Steinbeck's 1939 novel was about the people who fled the disaster and headed for California. Ken Burns' latest PBS documentary is about the people who stayed, "a much more complex, tragic and interesting story that continues to resonate today," as he put it.

It's a cautionary tale about "the greatest man-made ecological disaster in American history," Burns said, "a 10-year apocalypse punctuated by hundreds of terrifying black blizzards that killed not only farmers' crops and cattle, but their children."

Americans encouraged to settle in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico spent years heedlessly plowing up an area the size of Ohio. When the droughts returned, "the ever-present winds blew [and] rearranged the landscape completely, moving more dirt in one day in one storm than the U.S. had excavated in more than the 10 years it took to dig the Panama Canal," Burns said. "Franklin Delano Roosevelt was able to swipe his finger on his desk in the White House and come up with Oklahoma."

It wasn't just the blowing dust that sparked a disaster, it was the resultant plagues of locusts, jackrabbits and more.

"This was the first time in our history where man himself changed the climate," said Timothy Egan, author of the book The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.

As is Burns' wont, he and co-creator Dayton Duncan crafted a two-part, four-hour documentary. Burns describes the film as "an epic of human pain and suffering" and "the story of heroic perseverance." He added: "And more than any other film we have made, it is an oral history populated less by historians and experts than those who survived those horrible days."

Survivors like Calvin Crabill, who recalls getting caught in one of these storms when he was 8 or 9. "This thing came," he said, "and I just said to myself — I was a little boy who had gone to Sunday school, of course — 'It's the end of the world.' "

Yet Cal Crabill was one of the lucky ones. "The film documents kids rounding up the cattle who never came home, found tangled in barbed wire, suffocated to death, choking," Burns said. "This is an apocalypse that is so hard to fathom."

When Egan went "foraging" for stories, he discovered the survivors' tales were so horrific even their own children and grandchilden didn't believe them.

"So they just stopped talking about the story," Egan said. "Once they started talking about it again, it was a gusher. It came out. You almost couldn't get them to shut up."

And the story remains relevant. The problems that caused the Dust Bowl haven't disappeared. Farmers and municipalities have been drawing water from an aquifer that stretches from Canada to Texas, but that water is being depleted. "When that's gone, then you have the possibility — which was the great fear in the mid-'30s — that we'll have an American Sahara Desert in the center of the country," Burns said.

It's a possibility made stronger by global warming, which has its own parallels to the dust bowl. Including some who continue to maintain man didn't cause the dust bowl.

"But for the most part, people have come to understand that they were responsible in a large way for this ecological disaster," Burns said. "We are definitely making a lot of the same mistakes."

spierce@sltrib.com —

'The Dust Bowl'

Part 1 of the two-part, four-hour documentary airs Sunday, Nov. 18, at 7 and 9 p.m. on KUED-Channel 7; Part 2 airs Monday, Nov. 19, at 7 and 9 p.m. KBYU-Channel 11 will air "The Dust Bowl" on Tuesday and Wednesday, Nov. 20 and 21, at 8 p.m.