PBS is set to showcase a film by the acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns that looks at the “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s; the period of catastrophic dust storms across the North American prairie lands of the US and Canada. The Dust Bowl – a four-hour documentary in two parts – will air on Sunday, November 18th and Monday, November 19th from 8 to 10pm (EST).
A South Dakota Farm during the Dust Bowl – May 1936
The Dust Bowl can be framed as an ecological disaster with human origins. The Great Plains of what is now the US and Canada has been the traditional home for a number of Indigenous groups and the great herds of wild bison. The settler governments of the late 19th century sought to restrict the free movement of the Plains tribes while simultaneously slaughtering the bison – the latter was done both for food and commercial reasons and also to starve resistant tribal groups into submitting to a life on a reservation. By the start of the 20th century, only 2000 bison remained from an original pre-contact number of up to 30 million.
With Indigenous groups restricted to reservations – whether by force or law – space on the Plains was opened up for waves of immigrants from both Europe and the eastern US and Canada. Atypical periods of wet weather occurred following the US Civil War and again at the start of the 20th century – this lead some to mistakenly believe that the climate of the region had changed and that it could support large-scale mechanized agriculture.
The use of deep plowing almost completely eliminated the native grasses of the Plains – these Indigenous grasses keep moisture in the soil during dry periods. When drought struck the Great Plains regions in 1930 the high winds common to the Plains blew the dried-up topsoil – now no longer held in place by native grasses – into massive dust storms that moved across the land to swallow farms and settlements.
Dust Storm Approaching Stratford, Texas – April 1935
The two worst years for the Dust Bowl were in 1934 and 1936. It would not be until 1939 that the drought ended with the return of more regular rainfall. The following is the trailer for The Dust Bowl, a film by Ken Burns:
For further information on PBS showing of The Dust Bowl, please click this link – The Dust Bowl
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)