Hopes of prosperity on the land were shattered by never-ending drought and ferocious winds that ravaged the US in the 1930s.Show of the week: The Dust Bowl, Friday, SBS One, 8.35pm
FROM the opening frames, we know where we are. There are the sepia photographs of arresting and haunting beauty, the wistful sounds of a fiddle, the unadorned voices and the weathered faces to which they belong recounting poignant stories of endurance and tribulation.
Ken Burns (The Civil War, Baseball) is a master of long-form documentaries that have chronicled largely untold and alternative social histories of the US. He forages through archives to find photos and footage, fragments of letters and discarded mementoes to illustrate his topics. His accounts of the US’s past are grounded in meticulous research and the perspectives of common people, but what we’re most likely to take away from them are romantic visions of hope, resilience, loss and transcendence.
The Dust Bowl, the latest Burns opus to arrive on local screens, is no exception, though its underlying theme of human agency in an environmental catastrophe also makes it prophetically timely for Australian viewers today.
The four-part series, to quote the voice-over narration read by actor Peter Coyote, is ”about the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, when the irresistible promise of easy money and the heedless actions of thousands of farmers, encouraged by their government, resulted in a collective tragedy that nearly swept away the bread basket of the nation”.
The disaster is the decade-long drought and furious dust storms of the 1930s that destroyed the Great Plains – pull out an atlas and find the region where Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma meet – the seeds of which were planted decades earlier when migrants settled in what was considered uninhabitable land.
The native Indians understood this patch of land. Despite the paucity of rain – less than 50 centimetres a year – the natural prairie grasses held moisture and could support herds of buffalo. After the Indians had been resettled into reserves, homesteaders moved in and began ploughing the land. Congress expanded the land earmarked for farming, triggering real estate syndicates, railroads and even ”fake science” reports arguing that the removal of prairie grass would allow more rain to penetrate the soil.
The great plough-up of the 1920s, as it was called, led to homesteads being turned into vast tracts of wheat fields, and the emergence of ”suitcase farmers”, ”which no longer represents the idea of homes at all, but just parts of a potential factory for the low-cost production of wheat”.
But whatever damage the various boom-and-bust cycles of wheat prices did to the farmers was mild compared with the furious dust storms – evidenced here via photos and newsreels, the very sight of which leaves one gagging for oxygen – that swept through the region in the 1930s.
The wind picked up the loose soil and moved it; the locals could tell where the dust came from by its colour.
The Dust Bowl is a cautionary tale of economic bubbles and the consequences of mankind pushing against nature, descriptions that unfairly paint it as an exercise in revisionist dogma, which it clearly isn’t.
The old-timers (not all survived the many years it took Burns to make his crafted film, we learn at the end) who share their own and their families’ experiences of living in the Great Plains here are clearly not ideologues who have been awakened by Al Gore or the Occupy Wall Street protesters.
Salt-of-the-earth farmers who represent cherished American values of self-sufficiency and resilience in the face of unimaginable hardship, their memories speak to universal traits of endurance and hope.
”If it rains” and ”things will change” was their mantra. It didn’t rain and only occasionally did things change.
We learnt slowly, we tried harder with the same things that did not work, says one of the witnesses to the drought and depression, words that resonate for farmers in another part of the world in a different era.
There is a happy ending of sorts to the series. Three-quarters of the population stayed and would eventually benefit from New Deal programs and new methods of farming.
This time around, Burns has a wealth of material to work with. As well as the survivors, there’s frontier woman Caroline Henderson, whose articles in The Atlantic Monthly are eloquent portraits of life on the plains, and the iconic photographs taken in the ’30s by Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Marion Post Wolcott and Dorothea Lange, who were hired by a government agency to demonstrate its efforts to fix the nation’s problems.
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