An Amarillo photographer's personal journey through the Dust Bowl- with past and present eyes.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Dust Bowl tourism?

CONNECT AMARILLO - The Oklahoma and Texas panhandles expect an uptick in tourism following a two-part television series on the Dust Bowl, what many call the nation's worst man-made disaster.

PBS' series on "The Dust Bowl" concluded Monday night. The film by Ken Burns featured interviews with a number of Panhandle residents who lived through a decade's worth of drought and wind storms.

The executive director of the Guymon Chamber of Commerce, Jada Breeden, expects interest in the area to pick up due to the series.
Nick Olson, director of the XIT Museum in Dalhart, Texas, said the series and books about the period will bring people to the region. Olson says many people who visit think the area still has sand dunes. He says the dunes exist but are now grass-covered.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Great review for: The Dust Bowl

By Ned Martel, Published: November 16

This past April, there was no Pulitzer for fiction. Judges and prize administrators struggled to find the right work for right now, and then they gave up. One aftermath assessment: Novels have gotten twee.

In televised nonfiction, on the other hand, Ken Burns has no problem with the big picture. His documentaries for PBS are never not epic. He knows how to make chapters of America’s past seem urgent, whether he’s obsessing over a sport (baseball) or a musical genre (jazz). He’s unafraid of going wider, too, having assembled sagas on World War II and, most famously, the Civil War.

Like good novelists, Burns finds quiet awakenings amid everyday travails, no matter the time period. There’s no real problem with doing this, except the PBS impresario tends to exhaust interest in an epoch as if he’s conducting an honors seminar in the history department. Halfway through, while we’re all furrowing in airless archives, a question often arises: Can this be taken pass-fail?

With “The Dust Bowl,” Burns keeps himself to four concise hours and ably sifts the story out of the dirt. As the filmmaker chronicles farmers in the southern Plains during the Depression years, he looks more carefully at fewer people and distills deeper meaning.

Over 10 years, farmers tore up grasslands to plant more and more wheat, which soon was worth less and less. Next, winds blew away good soil and then more winds brought bad soil to the surface. In towns called Follett and Enid, the filmmaker has found important things to discuss about ecosystems and economies and how they collapse.

More important, Burns also presents novel-worthy characters against an apocalyptic backdrop.

One Job-like figure in the desertified Oklahoma Panhandle is a farm wife who describes endless chores in her elegant magazine dispatches.

Caroline Henderson, a homesteader with a Mount Holyoke degree, is perhaps Burns’s most apt protagonist. She sounds like Laura Ingalls Wilder with an adult awareness; imagine her as the first mommy blogger.

The land changes under Henderson’s feet. Amber waves become arid dunes. Morning in America leads to darkness by noon. She keeps somber vigil as Manifest Destiny comes to a screeching halt.

Not every viewer will be in the mood for a glimpse of the moment when thousands of poor Americans confronted what looked like end times. It’s unsettling, in the season of the “fiscal cliff,” to delve into four hours recounting some previous battered economy, when recovery stretched from wait-till-next-year to wait-till-next-decade.

Somehow, Burns takes care of viewer and character alike. For sure, the pain of infanticidal winds addles the brains of both farm marms and PBS viewers. Hack coughs lead to “dust pneumonia,” which claimed one family’s youngest girl and eldest matriarch in the same week. On the day of their double funeral, a massive storm engulfed mourners, compounding the pain.

That Palm Sunday devastation, in 1935, blew Plains dust all the way to Franklin Roosevelt’s desktop in the Oval Office, and the viewer can practically feel some film of inescapable particles settling, even after the documentary’s gusts have waned. As narrator Peter Coyote pulls back to a wider world, the discussion takes a needed break, turning to Washington players such as Henry Wallace and Harold Ickes, New Deal Cabinet members who debated whether to plow anew or abandon for good, respectively.

As ever, the screen scans historic images — strong, clear, artful ones. Photographer Dorothea Lange trains her lens on wind-whipped faces. Burns knows by now how to pull emotion out of first-person documents and underscores the testimony with piano chords and violin whines. Woody Guthrie finds his voice. And one of many older survivors recalls her mama’s hymn that hoped for “higher ground.”

Obviously, there are American themes of endurance and pluck, but also hype and hubris. In on-camera testimonies, unsparing eco-historians such as Timothy Egan make sense of the sadness, with ample narrative skill. A viewer will understand arcana about soil conservation and grassland water retention, plus how the government came to pay farmers not to farm, a policy that endures.

Wheat prices soar and sink, and fields of dreams become nightmare landscapes. When survivors finally overcome starvation and disease, many pack up and head to California. There, real-life Tom Joads look as hearty and humble as Henry Ford but get mocked as unwashed and defeated Okies.

“The Dust Bowl” is worthwhile not merely as it documents past perseverance but also as it informs future struggles. Leave it to Burns, our mop-topped maestro of American fact, to find the heroine, Caroline Henderson, who can speak for herself and also bring it all home: “Behind the characteristic American nonchalance, one detects a growing anxiety, especially about the coming winter.”

The Dust Bowl

(two hours each night) Sunday and Monday
at 8 p.m. on PBSa

Watching The Dust Bowl ...

Our little premier of The Dust Bowl last night was a big success. I was happy and very proud to share with my good friends my small part in this wonderful documentary and although I had previewed over an hour of the series - I was still blown away of how outstanding and how much emotional depth Part I had.

During some scenes - when they showed the emotional and physical toll the storms took on Dust Bowl survivors - some of us - had to fight back tears. It truly made me (and others) grateful we didn't live through such tragic times and (at the same time) proud we came from such strong American stock.

It kind of makes bitching that gas prices are high and who is president seem so trivial.

For the last three years I had immersed myself in the history of the Dust Bowl and still find myself stopping to take photos of "echoes" that exist to this day.

It was a wonderful project to be even peripherally involved with, brought me closer to the land I call home and is one I will carry with me in my heart for a long time to come.

I hope you'll tune in and watch Part II tonight.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Big Plow Up - The Dust Bowl

Old photo I found in the Kenton, Oklahoma general store called "The Merc" stuck on a tack on the wall showing a pioneer participating in "the big plow up" where hundreds of thousands of acres of native grasses were plowed under to make way for crops.

Considered useless - these grasses held down the top soil which the constant wind just stripped away.

Dust Bowl location ...

One of the locations I scouted that you'll see in The Dust Bowl tonight - an  abandoned farm located on the far side of nowhere nowhere north of Clayton, New Mexico.

(C) Steve Douglass 

It's now used to store hay but was once the house of a family of proud homesteaders driven out by years of drought and depression. That it survives today bears testament to the pioneer spirit under which it was built.

The Dust Bowl premiers tonight on PBS

Today is like Christmas Day for me. Finally after almost two years Ken Burn's "The Dust Bowl" is airing tonight and tomorrow night on PBS. It was amazing project to be (even if it was a small) part of in bringing to fruition. Hundreds of local citizens in the Texas, Oklahoma Panhandles and Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico lent thousands of personal photos that makes up the heart of this truly American story.

Florentine films also interviewed dozens of Dust Bowl survivors - some of which I found for them - such as Ina K. Labrier living in the small town of Kenton Oklahoma who may be 99 years old but is sharper than I ever will be.

I remember listening to her recollection and watching face as her mind drifted back to Black Sunday - the day they thought the world was truly coming to an end. She welled up - her hands shook and she was there - breathing grit through part of her slip that she had town off and put over her mouth and nose.

She lost many relatives and friends to "dust pneumonia" and the pain of it was written on her face like stone. Please check your local listings and watch tonight and tomorrow night. Check your local listings for times.

Watch The Dust Bowl Preview on PBS. See more from The Dust Bowl.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Ken Burn "Dust Bowl" is cautionary tale ...

Ken Burns' latest PBS documentary, "The Dust Bowl," comes on the heels of the first presidential-election debates in 28 years not to address climate change. If the candidates won't talk about it, leave it to Burns and frequent collaborator Dayton Duncan to draw historic parallels between present-day environmental concerns and the disaster of the 1930s, which was caused by a combination of drought and environmentally destructive farming methods.

"It's a cautionary tale about who we are as human beings as much as anything else," Duncan said of "The Dust Bowl" (8 p.m. EST Sunday and Monday; check local PBS station listings). "Our film was about nature, and it's also about human nature. We're not unique as Americans, but we might be a little more susceptible to it, that we believe that we can ignore the limits of the environment and of nature if it suits our purposes, and that if things are going on a roll, they will continue to go on a roll.

"And all those things converged on the Southern Plains of the teens and the '20s so that by the time the inevitable drought was going to return, they had plowed up essentially a place the size of the state of Ohio and left it exposed to the winds and desiccating drought that was going to occur."

Burns, who directed "The Dust Bowl," and Duncan, who is the film's writer, spoke about making the four-hour program at a PBS press conference during the Television Critics Association summer press tour in July. They were joined by Timothy Egan, author of "The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl," and Calvin Crabill, a Dust Bowl survivor, who are both featured in the PBS documentary.

"The Dust Bowl" sets the stage for this natural disaster, explaining what inspired the land rush that found people who had never owned any property suddenly racing to claim a piece of dirt in a place they'd never visited.

"The Homestead Act was entered. The government was saying, 'Please move here.' Reputable scientists were saying rain follows the plow, that is, the act of plowing would make more rain, that the climate was undergoing a permanent shift towards that, that this was this new Eden, and because it coincided with some wet years, it was," Burns said.

"Suitcase farmers who didn't live there but bought lots of land and paid others to plant it, and they took this buffalo grass that sent its roots down 5 feet into the ground and turned over this soil that had stayed that way for eons, and when the inevitable drought times came back, when the wind continued to blow, that land blew. I mean, we plowed up millions and millions of acres in a kind of speculative agriculture and real-estate bubble."
Egan said the Dust Bowl represents the first time in human history that man changed the climate in a region.

"These storms were human-caused, because the wind had always been there," Egan said. "The drought had always been there. So we peeled this thing off. This is what I get when I talk to college kids about this. They see the modern parallel to climate change. ... It's an earlier version of the tale of how human beings literally change the earth for worse, and then the earth got its revenge, if you want to look at it as an anthropomorphized thing."

Egan said repairs have been made -- 16 million acres of grasslands were restored in the Dust Bowl area -- but he's not confident lessons were learned.

"The larger human lesson of being able to listen to nature and push it too far and think we can push it, you see that every day in comments by our politicians about what we're going through right now," Egan said. 

While parallels to recent times are evident throughout "The Dust Bowl," the film's focus is truly on those who survived it. Before beginning work on the program several years ago, Burns recorded spots that aired on PBS stations in the Dust Bowl territory, seeking survivors and photos. Crabill was among those who responded. He describes a harrowing trip home from school to round up cattle before a dust storm hit and the fallout of being a Dust Bowl survivor after his family moved to Burbank, Calif.

"I never invited anybody into my house. ... I felt that I was the poorest kid in the high school," Crabill said. It was a stigma that's never left him. At his 55th high-school reunion, a woman whose family owned the house Crabill's family rented said, "These were 'Grapes of Wrath' people. They were terrible. They were old and poor." 

"I was shocked," Crabill said. "My other classmates came up and apologized for her. But, yeah, it sticks."

(Egan compared the diaspora created by the Dust Bowl to Hurricane Katrina, which also sent people on the move away from New Orleans.)

Sunday night's first part of "The Dust Bowl" ends with the introduction of Woody Guthrie and his dust-storm-inspired tune, "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You." This installment also includes the sad, moving story of a child who perished in the Dust Bowl due to dust pneumonia.
Read more HERE.

Another dusty Saturday in the new Dust Bowl

Click to enlarge
photo (C) Steve Douglass

The new Dust Bowl continues ... dry northerner rearranges the real estate on a Texas Panhandle farm. The drought continues with more of it forecast for the coming winter.
(C) Steve Douglass

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Dust Bowl companion book released


In this riveting chronicle, which accompanies a documentary to be broadcast on PBS in the fall, Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns capture the profound drama of the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s. 

Terrifying photographs of mile-high dust storms, along with firsthand accounts by more than two dozen eyewitnesses, bring to life this heart-wrenching catastrophe, when a combination of drought, wind, and poor farming practices turned millions of acres of the Great Plains into a wasteland, killing crops and livestock, threatening the lives of small children, burying homesteaders' hopes under huge dunes of dirt.

 Burns and Duncan collected more than 300 mesmerizing photographs, some never before published, scoured private letters, government reports, and newspaper articles, and conducted in-depth interviews to produce a document that may likely be the last recorded testimony of the generation who lived through this defining decade.


Amarillo Museum of Art hosts Dust Bowl era photos

Dust and Depression: Farm Security Administration Photographs from the 1930s October 3 - December 9, 2012

Dust and Depression: Farm Security Administration Photographs from the 1930s takes viewers on a journey back to a time of historic economic crises, when Americans experienced dire financial crises due to the 1929 Wall Street crash and record draughts that crippled the nation’s agricultural production.

Sixty black-and-white images from the museum’s permanent collection feature works by nationally renowned photographers John Collier, Jr., Jack Delano, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Carl Mydans, Arthur Rothstein, and Ben Shahn.

The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was one of several federally-funded New Deal economic programs enacted during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency to provide relief to the economically disadvantaged, support economic recovery, and reform the financial system behind the Depression.

Part of the Historic division of FSA, the photography project not only created a “visual encyclopedia of American life” but also through mass media outlets like magazines and newspaper informed the public about the plight of fellow citizens nationwide and often facilitated government action to address their needs.

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