Saturday, November 17, 2012

Ken Burns: The Dust Bowl on PBS

Ken Burns' new documentary “The Dust Bowl” arrives on Sunday on PBS in the middle of a spate of quickly produced programs about Hurricane Sandy and climate change. The parallels for today, are striking. An artificial phenomenon — in this case the rapid uprooting of millions of acres of prairie grass for the cultivation of wheat — contributes to a series of huge storms that eventually drives out 25 percent of the population of the affected area in the southern Great Plains.

“The Dust Bowl” runs for four hours over two nights (Sunday and Monday) and there’s more than enough material, from land rush to Depression, drought, mass migration and New Deal agricultural policies, to fill the time.

Burns makes use of the copious supply of photographs and film of the dust storms themselves, awesome and apocalyptic images he can put on screen whenever we need a visual jolt.

Then there is his cast of living witnesses, white-haired survivors who in the 1930s were children growing up in the Oklahoma panhandle or southern Kansas and Colorado. Their first-person accounts of how they and their parents handled the double catastrophes, physical and financial, of the dust storms and the Depression give the film a human element.

Arthur Rothstein’s 1936 photo of a farmer and his sons in Oklahoma

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