A couple nights ago, I had the most depressing experience as I watched the Ken Burns documentary, The Dust Bowl. There was a time when I might have been confused by whether my depression arose from Burns’ pacing or the content, but I have had ample opportunity to become used to Burns’ approach to his craft. No, it was the content, and primarily two things about it.
First is the frequent use of images of the children affected by this disaster. As some of them are interviewed as old people, it is clear they have never gotten over the experiences of their youth, especially the loss of siblings to “dust pneumonia.”
Second is that it can and will happen again. Through the intercession of government, old-time farmers were taught new-fangled methods of soil conservation. Yet the wind still blows over the plains and an estimated eighty tons of topsoil are still blown away every year.
The desert where I live all used to be beautiful grasslands. It is said that a hundred years ago, the tall grasses would brush the chests and stomachs of horses. But it is all gone now, overgrazed by the sheep and cattle of ranchers who were more interested in short-term profits rather than the long-term health of the environment. The ranchers are almost all gone and the land has been overtaken by greasewood, an invasive plant that poisons the soil for almost every other species.
The Dust Bowl chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, in which the frenzied wheat boom of the “Great Plow-Up,” followed by a decade-long drought during the 1930s nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation. Even though this is one of the worst examples of man’s abuse of the environment, the truth is it has happened time and time again. When money and greed are involved, man never learns and the environment always loses.
But as I said before, it is the suffering of the children which I found so distressing. I’ve assembled some images of the children of the dust bowl, images which bring to life stories of incredible human suffering and equally incredible human perseverance.
If you will find nothing else motivating, think at least of the children. They remind us that the dust bowl is a morality tale about our relationship to the land that sustains us—a lesson we ignore at our and our children’s peril.
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