Ken Burns brings “The Dust Bowl” to life

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns will debut footage from his new documentary, “The Dust Bowl,” on Friday in Oklahoma City.
by Ken Raymond Published: April 10, 2012

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 after awhile in this history business is you think that the past is really far away, and in many cases it is,” Burns said in a recent phone interview. “But memory, the thing that recalls the past, is present.

“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 Oklahoma Panhandle.

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.

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by Ken Raymond
Book Editor
Ken Raymond is the book editor. He joined The Oklahoman in 1999. He has won dozens of state, regional and national writing awards. Three times he has been named the state's "overall best" writer by the Society of Professional Journalists. In...
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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.

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