Field Notes: Bearing witness to the Dust Bowl

Nov 23, 2012

This is the latest installment of Harvest Public Media’s Field Notes, in which reporters talk to newsmakers and experts about important issues related to agriculture and food production.

For this edition of Field Notes, Harvest Public Media's Grant Gerlock spoke with Dayton Duncan, who wrote and co-produced the film "The Dust Bowl," which was directed by Ken Burns.

Pictures from the Dust Bowl of the 1930s are jaw-dropping. They show mountains of dirt riding gale-force winds across the bone-dry prairie. Homes, towns and the people who live in them are engulfed by black clouds.

Those pictures are worth a thousand words, but nothing can replace the stories of those who lived through it.

I recently asked Dayton Duncan about interviewing Dust Bowl survivors for a new PBS documentary. The living witnesses of the Dust Bowl who can recall firsthand the storms and poverty of the 1930s are well into their 80s or 90s by now. They were only children at the time, but Duncan said their memories were incredibly vivid.

“I think that’s a testament to just how catastrophic things were and therefore how burning the memories are,” Duncan said. “A great part of their life was enshrouded in this ‘brown world’ as one of them called it.”

They remembered the storms and choking on the dust. They remembered siblings, relatives and neighbors suffering, and sometimes dying, from a condition called “dust pneumonia” caused when the airborne particles gathered in their lungs.

“Some people then started seeing some sort of almost moral judgment on them,” Duncan said. “As one survivor said, we started to think that God was punishing us for turning that sod over.”

Of the 26 living witnesses to the Dust Bowl that appear in Duncan’s documentary, five have died since filming. Duncan said that is one reason he and Ken Burns wanted to do the film now. It may be the last film on the Dust Bowl that can rely on the personal testimony of people who lived through it.

More: Click to see more Dust Bowl photos

Text by Grant Gerlock