After what was one of the hottest and dryest summers the United States has experienced in many years, the topic of Ken Burns' new film The Dust Bowl took on particular relevance. Seventy-nine guests gathered for An Evening at WKAR on November 15 to see a preview of the film and hear a talk about its implications from Sandra Clark.
Clark, Michigan's state historian and Director of the Michigan Historical Center, brought the topic home to Michigan, sharing stories of growing up in Kansas -- one of the places where the Dust Bowl hit hardest -- and connecting the topic to land use today, here and in general.
Guests saw a 40-minute preview of The Dust Bowl, which premieres November 18 and 19 at 8 p.m. on WKAR. With Ken Burns' classic style of combining archival film and photos with compelling interviews from those who lived through the period, the audience learned of the devastation of the land and the lessons that should be learned from that event.
Burns also focuses on the human element of the environmental tragedy, with poignant stories from now-grown children of the Dust Bowl who recount how they wore masks every day to protect them from the dust. Many faced illness from "dust pneumonia" and experienced the deaths of loved ones.
Sandra Clark: "He Gets It Right"
"He gets it right, doesn't he?" Clark said, speaking of Burns' work after the preview. Clark, who grew up in Manhattan, Kansas was the daughter of a historian who lived through the Dust Bowl. She describe the wind of Kansas blowing grit before a rainstorm and focused on the land and peoples' relationship with it.
Putting the event in the context of history, she explained how the grass of the prairie holds the earth and ground in its place with its roots. When an economic boom hit the region and the land was plowed for wheat fields, it destroyed that foundation. Later, when the drought hit, there was nothing to hold the earth steady and the dust storms were the result.
"We Are Poor Learners Sometimes"
"As he often does," Clark said, "Ken Burns reminds us that we are very poor learners sometimes," adding that we tend to not give up what we are doing when it is profitable if our neighbor is doing the same thing, even if the consequences can be dangerous.
She also spoke of the Ogallala Aquifer that runs from Nebraska to Northern Texas. Burns discusses the aquifer in the film and Clark was personally familiar with it. Her grandparents in Nebraska were able to have a well-watered garden because of it and her grandfather said that because of it and the tomatoes they grew and canned, he was able to feed the town during that period. Now being used for irrigation, it is in danger of drying up in 20 years.
Clark asked the audience if they had any recollections of the Dust Bowl, either personally or through family stories. "My dad used tumbleweed for a Christmas tree in South Dakota," one guest said. Another told of how her mother was nine months pregnant in July 1938, when for 30 days the temperature exceeded 100 degrees and of course, there was no air conditioning.
Susan Rabidoux of Mason was attending her first Evening at WKAR. She was surprised to learn about the Ogallala Aquifer. "It's very scary," she said. "We are very short sighted on the use of our land.
Rabidoux grew up on a farm. "As you grow older, you become more aware," she noted.
National to Local
Clark acknowledged the power of public television to take national programs and make them local. "We're a resilient and creative people," she said. "I was pleased that people spoke up and shared their stories.
The Dust Bowl on TV
The Dust Bowl will premiere on WKAR November 18 at 8 and 10 p.m. Part two will air November 19 at 8 and 10 p.m. It will be repeated on WKAR World on November 21 (part 1) and November 28 (part 2) at 8 p.m.