I watched the first two-hour segment of the documentary, The Dust Bowl, last night. The second half airs tonight on PBS. But, I know how this movie ends. The stories told by the old-timers in the show are a history already handed down to me. Some of that dust is in my DNA, I think.
I grew up hearing how my grandmother would labor day in and day out to stop the dust from seeping in through every crack of her Nebraska farm house. Grandpa told the story every fall it seemed about that 1930s harvest that amounted to two gunny sacks of wheat. Everything else blew away. My late mother seemed eternally heart-broken by the sight of her parents walking up the hill every evening in the vain hope of seeing a rain cloud. I keep a “dirty thirties” photo of my Betke grandparents in my office (photo, above) as a reminder of those humble roots.
Ken Burns’ Dust Bowl documentary offers a dark history lesson in what can go haywire when human beings get on the wrong side with nature. Poor farming practices and a decade-long drought created what is regarded as the "worst man-made ecological disaster in American history." In the opening episode I was struck once again by the folly of so many people believing in ideas like “rain follows the plow.” Later we learn that among the various cures to the Dust Bowl was a proposal that the area be paved over with cement and boulders shipped from the Rockies to help slow the wind.
An overwhelming impression from the film is that farmers were essentially helpless to take action on their own.“ Unless we take steps, we shall have another, man-made Sahara desert,” Franklin Roosevelt is quoted as saying.
It took a national program to get the ball rolling, beginning with creation of the Soil Erosion Service in 1933.
One of my early-career idols was Hugh Hammond Bennett, a North Carolina soil surveyor who championed soil conservation practices. He rose to the occasion of the Dust Bowl with a combination of scientific credibility and political horse sense. It’s legendary that when Bennett was lobbying Congress for creation of soil conservation legislation, he timed his presentation to the moment when a dark cloud of dust overtook the nation’s capital.
After watching the first episode of The Dust Bowl, I was haunted by the question of whether that history could repeat itself in some form. Have we changed all that much in a couple generations? Is our agriculture capable of such a colossal blunder again? Today’s water quality issues come to mind, for one thing.
I wonder, too, who are the Hugh Hammond Bennetts of our generation who can inspire us to new and better ideas for conserving our natural resources?
I’m watching the second half of the show tonight hoping to be able to imagine that we can improve on history.