‘Dust Bowl’ is far from dry history

Courtesy of PBS/Library of Congress

Farm Security Administration photographer Arthur Rothstein captured this photograph of Art Coble and his sons, south of Boise City, Okla., in April 1936. Ken Burns uses the iconic image and many other historic photos from the Library of Congress archives in his new film “The Dust Bowl,” which will air Sunday and Monday nights on PBS.

by Carol Memmott

In 1935, in Morton County, Kan., 2-year-old Rena Marie Coen succumbed to dust pneumonia, one of a countless number of tragedies caused by one of the worst human-made environmental disasters in history, the Dust Bowl.

In April 2012, three men stand at Rena Marie’s grave and weep. Two are her brothers, Dale, 90, and Floyd, 87, who still mourn their baby sister. The third: Filmmaker Ken Burns, whose two-part documentary, “The Dust Bowl,” will air Sunday and Monday on PBS.

The Coens are two of the aged survivors of the Dust Bowl who share memories of loss and hardship in Burns’ film.

“I haven’t really ever gotten over it,” Dale says of Rena Marie in the film, his eyes filled with tears. “It was bad, bad, bad.”

“Early 1935 is an awfully long time ago,” says Burns, relating that private cemetery visit. “But both of them breaking down and crying as if the death had happened yesterday, that’s the spectacular thing about time and memory and that DNA that eventually forms what we call story or history.”

For Burns, whose own mother died from cancer when he was 11, the visit stirred up emotions.

“How much of it was grief for my mother, how much of it was empathy for Floyd and Dale, and how much was thinking about a little girl and having little girls (Burns has four, ages 2 to 30) and all of that is mixed in.”

The decimation of the soil on the Southern plains in the 1930s, brought on by drought, greed and destructive farming practices, was exacerbated by winds that lifted hundreds of tons of roiling topsoil and sand into the air. It blackened the sky, killed crops and suffocated livestock. Add in Depression economics, and countless farm families were brought to their knees.

Cal Crabill, 88, who lived on a cattle ranch near Holly, recalls the day school was let out early as a dust storm and clouds began bearing down.

“Black, black clouds,” he says in an interview. “It was as loud as anything I ever heard, including thunderstorms and a hurricane at sea, and it was great fear.”

“You can talk about the Dust Bowl and you can tell a good story, but unless you have people remembering what it was like, we didn’t think that the real drama of it would be there,” says Burns. And each day of the filmmaking process, he says, “was a revelation of discovery of the extensiveness of the storms, the 10-year apocalypse that it was, the fact that it was a man-made ecological disaster.”

The bedrock of any of his films, “The Civil War” to “Baseball,” says Burns, is “emotional archaeology. ... We weren’t just interested in excavating dry dates and facts and events, but looking for some higher emotional glue that would make all those date and times and events stick together and coalesce.”

After completing 2007’s “The War,” telling the story of World War II through the men and women who lived through it, Burns and his partners realized there was no time to waste locating those who lived through the Dust Bowl. Many of the witnesses would be older than the witnesses to WWII.

Burns doesn’t draw comparisons to contemporary concerns about drought and global warming, but hopes the film leads people to think about environmental issues.

“We just want to tell a good story,” he says. “We’re not unmindful of the fact that these have resonances in the present, and to say we would hope that the film could itself be a catalyst for conversation of an environmental nature today.”

© USA TODAY. All rights reserved.

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