In a sense, Ken Burns' new documentary is the photographic negative of the one he delivered in 2009: Instead of swooning full-color shots of azure lakes and soaring mountains, his new film is made of images that could come from the dark side of the moon.
In some of them, the parched land tells its own silent story. In others, we see bleached-out shots of people, in overalls, scowling. Or children in gas masks, looking like humanoid visitors from another world.
And while "The National Parks," from 2009, recounted the tale of triumph, his new film is not nearly so life-affirming.
"This is a cautionary tale," a crisp, decisive Burns explained in an interview this summer. "The national parks represented an extraordinary 'No' to [Manifest Destiny], saying, 'We have enough, we're gonna offer something to everyone — that's what America does.'"
Conversely, the Dust Bowl — the term given to the ruination of about 100 million acres, centered on the Oklahoma panhandle, in the 1930s — was not just a terrible tragedy for its people, its animals and the land. It was a largely avoidable disaster, the foul combination of attempts by the government to turn agriculture into an industry, shady real estate promoters, blind optimism and insensitivity to what the land could withstand.
His two-part, four-hour film, "The Dust Bowl," premieres on PBS on Sunday and Monday.
Burns calls it "a 10-year apocalypse that we can't ignore — the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history." The Dust Bowl mythology, he says, is "'The Grapes of Wrath,' a couple of storms," but in reality, "It was killing not just crops, but cattle and children."
The road to "The Dust Bowl" began more than two decades ago, as writer Dayton Duncan — who would become a frequent Burns collaborator — was researching a book on the nation's most sparsely populated counties, "Miles From Nowhere." When he got to the regions of the Dust Bowl, he was struck by how bad things had been, and how powerful the stories were.
It also seemed like a natural for a documentary, so he and Burns — who's long had an interest in the way the soul of America resides in its landscape — began working on the project in earnest in 2009, the same year "The National Parks" was broadcast. Says Duncan: "It wasn't like, 'We're tired of beautiful waterfalls, give me a big, black blizzard.'"
Burns says that part of the appeal is how little he knew about the disaster and its causes, and how misleading much of the mythology around the disaster was. "We don't make films about things we know," he says. "We make films about things we don't know about and want to know more."
Burns' and Duncan's point of view was shaped in part by "The Worst Hard Time," a 2006 history and National Book Award winner by New York Times contributor Timothy Egan. The book, subtitled "The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl," emphasizes the man-made nature of the crisis.
Its lyrical, sometimes terrifying prose suggests some of the power of the ensuing documentary: "In those cedar posts and collapsed homes is the story of this place: how the greatest grassland in the world was turned inside out, how the crust blew away, raged up in the sky and showered down a suffocating blackness off and on for most of a decade."
Still, film is a visual medium. "We had two great concerns," Burns says. The first was that it would be hard to find survivors of a tragedy seven and eight decades old. The second was that in a poor region of the country, photographs and film footage would be scarce.
Both issues proved difficult, but between putting ads in newspapers, visiting old-age homes, inquiring at local historical societies and so on, they found a handful of witnesses, and 6,000 photographs, culled down to the 400 used in the film. (There are only, says Burns, two known home movies of the disaster.)
Some of the surviving photographs have an austere, formal beauty. Others, like the image of a tempestuous sky over a battered wooden farmhouse used in the film's promotional materials, are almost Wagnerian in their sense of awe. Steven Spielberg, Burns jokes, "would spend millions" to capture that sky alone.
Even with Egan's book and other research, the making of the film was full of surprises. "Every day was a process of discovery," Burns says. "Things you couldn't imagine to be true — happened."
The film resembles Burns' previous work: black-and-white photographs, the strains on "Wayfaring Stranger" played on mandolin alongside Woody Guthrie's "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh," talking heads of historians (including Egan) and survivors of the disaster.
The film, directed by Burns, written by Duncan, narrated by Peter Coyote, kicks off with the basics: A homesteading movement, encouraged by the federal government, in which poor people from the South or Latin America had their first chance to own land. Opportunistic businessmen strained the land. A few good, wet years, which led to 1931's bumper crop — which didn't sell, as the country sunk into depression.
When the storms hit, they were brutal: Dirt moving at 60 miles per hour, looking like a mountain range, almost 200 miles wide and a mile high. Skies went black; people's mouths filled with sand.
Families set tables with glasses and plates upside down so they wouldn't fill with sand. Dust storms choked people to death, blew cars off the road, buried children. Hardware stores ran out of goggles.
The lungs of livestock packed with dirt and sand; ravenous jack rabbits and coyotes feasted like kings. Farmers fed thistles and cactuses to cattle so they wouldn't starve; others drove their livestock into ditches and shot them with rifles for the same reason.
And each time it rained, hopes blossomed that the rough years were over. They weren't. Local economies crashed, people lost their farms and businesses and houses. Suicides were rampant. Others left for California.
In the end, the worst of the Dust Bowl was curbed by a number of factors, many of them instigated by the federal government. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt warned that without government action, we would grow "a new man-made Sahara" in the nation's heartland.
Various programs planted millions of trees to slow winds, stabilized prices and educated farmers on how to rotate crops and limit erosion. The New Deal program the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation sent food and clothes to local organizations to distribute.
Today, much of the region remains barren, but some of it has recovered; it's home to a number of grasslands, including one that stretches 600,000 acres.
Burns sees an irony here. "In a land of flinty individuals — at the present moment, and then, as red a bunch of red states as you can find — they are pleading with the government for help. And the government stepped in and saved this land."
The filmmaker, though, sees himself as a storyteller more than a polemicist: He calls it "a complicated Russian novel, with interrelated parts. … It says, we ignore this at our peril. But we let our witnesses tell the story."