Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns knows a thing or two about history — which makes him something of an expert on memory, as well.
“One thing you learn
“When someone breaks down and cries over the death of a little baby sister who died of the dust pneumonia ... it's happening to them now. The feelings are now. The memories of the wind and the dust and the sand rattling like an evil spirit against their window is now.
“Watching the sand dribble from the ceiling onto your tabletop and being able to etch with your finger a little painting, a child's painting, into the dust on your dinner table is now.”
This month, Burns will debut footage from his latest project, “The Dust Bowl,” at the Oklahoma History Center.
The full two-part, four-hour documentary is set to air on PBS in November.
The Dust Bowl lasted as much as a decade in some areas, spanning the 1930s, a confluence of bad luck and poor planning that created “the greatest man-made ecological disaster in American history,” Burns said.
Farmers overworked their fields, replacing the native deep-rooted grasses with shallower crops, and did little to stop wind erosion. A years-long drought parched the soil.
The wind-fueled dust storms swept the loose earth from the Southern Plains toward the East Coast and out into the Atlantic Ocean.
“There was a moment after several storms when FDR (President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) in the White House in Washington, D.C., could move his index finger across his desk in the Oval Office and pick up Oklahoma on his fingertips,” Burns said.
The hub of the disaster was Boise City in Cimarron County, the westernmost county in the
Neighboring areas — the Texas Panhandle, southwestern Kansas, southeastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico — also were among the hardest hit.
The massive dust storms peaked on April 14, 1935, a day that became known as Black Sunday. Towering columns of dust choked out the daylight, reducing visibility to a few feet in areas throughout the Dust Bowl.
“A young itinerant singer found himself in Pampa, Texas, in the midst of Black Sunday ... and
Burns and his producing partner, Dayton Duncan, knew little about the Dust Bowl before they read Timothy Egan's compelling book, “The Worst Hard Time.”
(In an equally compelling review of the book, The New York Times said: “Racing at 50 miles an hour, the Dust Bowl storms of the 1930s blasted paint off buildings; soil crushed trees, dented cars and drifted into 50-foot dunes. Tsunamis of grasshoppers devoured anything that drought, hail and tornadoes had spared. ... Families couldn't huddle together for warmth or love: the static electricity would knock them down. Children died of dust pneumonia, and livestock suffocated on dirt, their insides packed with soil. Women hung wet sheets in windows, taped doors and stuffed cracks with rags. None of this really worked. Housecleaning, in this era, was performed with a shovel.”)
The book piqued their interest, and Burns and Dayton resolved to collect oral histories from the survivors and put them together into a film.
The documentary includes interviews with 26 survivors and the written accounts of two women who lived through the Dust Bowl years.
“Unlike any other story that we've told,” Burns said, “this is almost completely a bottom-up story, told by the folks who experienced it, their own memories. That's what makes this particularly special for us.”
Burns' other films have won 12 Emmy Awards and two Oscar nominations.
His work includes “The Civil War,” “Baseball, The Tenth Inning,” “The War,” “Jazz” and “The West,” among others.
He was heralded in The Baltimore Sun newspaper as “not only the greatest documentarian of the day, but also the most influential filmmaker period.”
The late historian Stephen Ambrose said, “More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source.”
If you go
The nationwide promotional tour for the documentary will begin in Oklahoma City on Friday. Ken Burns will host a Q&A with local film and history students during the day. Excerpts from “The Dust Bowl” will be screened for the public at 7 p.m. at the Oklahoma History Center. The screening is free, but advance registration is required. For more information, call 522-0765.