No Man's Land

An interview with the filmmaker Ken Burns

Farm north of Dalhart, Texas, abandoned during the Dust Bowl, circa 1938

Courtesy of Dorothea Lange; Library of Congress

Erin Espelie: What compelled you to make The Dust Bowl, which will air on PBS in November, and to intersperse the narrative with the words of Caroline Henderson, an acclaimed writer and persevering homesteader in No Man’s Land, Oklahoma?

Ken Burns: I pick a topic solely based on evidence of a good story, with the realization that human nature never changes. The Dust Bowl is not just a parable of human nature but of Mother Nature in relationship to human nature. You can find the same degree of heroism and courage and perseverance, the same degree of greed and thoughtlessness in all eras. The decision to put Henderson in a central spot was made by Dayton Duncan, the writer of the film. When you say “Dust Bowl,” people think of The Grapes of Wrath. Well, the story is far more complicated. This was a man-made ecological disaster, with dozens of storms per year for ten years, superimposed over the Depression.

EE: How did both Presidents Roosevelt, about whom you have another forthcoming film, shape American land ethics and ecological legislation around the time of the Dust Bowl?

KB: Theodore was the first really active conservation president. He reinterpreted the spirit of the Antiquities Act, and his naming of the entire Grand Canyon as a National Monument remains one of the greatest gestures of presidential chutzpah. Of course, the settlement of the Southern Plains was a foolhardy thing for the government and corporations to encourage. Everyone knew buffalo grass had adapted over thousands of years to hold onto the fragile soils. Yet no one imagined the epic repercussions of plowing up an area the size of Ohio. It required his fifth cousin’s, Franklin Roosevelt’s, administration to restore the plains by contour plowing, paying farmers not to plant, planting shelterbelts, and drawing on the Ogallala Reservoir.

EE: Some of the imagery you employ in the film comes from photojournalists, such as Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein, hired by the Farm Security Administration starting in 1935. What other key roles did the New Deal government play in the Dust Bowl?

KB: Nothing was more important than the Soil Conservation Service, headed by Hugh Hammond Bennett, who came in at the local level to reeducate farmers. In the midst of the worst economic cataclysm and the worst man-made ecological cataclysm in American history, the federal government improved the lives of people known for not being interested in intervention. Suddenly people realized they needed the government.

EE: Your stories often resonate with the present, as is certainly the case with the current drought. Do you think of your historical subjects as being timeless or does contemporary culture steer you?

KB: Complex storytelling is the ability to tolerate the contradictions within us as well as among us. History continues to be the table around which you can have conversations with people who might automatically start yelling if you were talking about the same circumstances today. I don’t mean just those who question
climate change. It’s true of Prohibition, the Civil War, baseball, jazz, national parks. What is history, after all, but people in the present asking questions of the past?

EE: You mentioned the Ogallala Reservoir, as does one of your interviewees, Wayne Lewis, who speaks with regret about irrigating with that water source.

KB: Lewis was one of the first farmers to tap into the Ogallala after the Dust Bowl. That was a technological accomplishment, but it simply kicked the can down the road because they were depleting a vast underground reservoir of glacial melt that, when it runs out, could turn the entire Plains into an American Sahara.

EE: It was that realization, along with the extraordinary number of children who died of dust pneumonia in the 1930s, relayed with your gentle use of Woody Guthrie songs, that most moved me. How does lyrical sound affect your work?

KB: Music is not something you add at the end of editing to amplify emotions you hope are there. Music is an integral part from the very beginning; it determines the pace and rhythm of scenes. I’m trying to avoid sentimentality and nostalgia—the enemy of good articles, good documentary films, good anything.

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