In 1935, in Morton County, Kansas, 2-year-old Rena Marie Coen succumbed to dust pneumonia, one of a countless number of tragedies caused by one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in history, the Dust Bowl.
In April 2012, three men stand at Rena Marie's grave and weep. Two are her brothers, Dale, 90, and Floyd, 87, who still mourn their baby sister. The third: filmmaker Ken Burns, whose two-part documentary, The Dust Bowl, airs Sunday and Monday on PBS (8 ET/PT, times may vary).
The Coens are two of the aged survivors of the Dust Bowl who share memories of loss and hardship in Burns' film. "I haven't really ever gotten over it," Dale says of Rena Marie in the film, his eyes filled with tears. "It was bad, bad, bad."
"Early 1935 is an awfully long time ago," says Burns, relating that private cemetery visit. "But both of them breaking down and crying as if the death had happened yesterday, that's the spectacular thing about time and memory and that DNA that eventually forms what we call story or history."
For Burns, whose own mother died from cancer when he was 11, the visit stirred up emotions. "How much of it was grief for my mother, how much of it was empathy for Floyd and Dale, and how much was thinking about a little girl and having little girls (Burns has four, ages 2 to 30) and all of that is mixed in."
The decimation of the soil on the Southern plains in the 1930s, brought on by drought, greed and destructive farming practices, was exacerbated by winds that lifted hundreds of tons of roiling topsoil and sand into the air. It blackened the sky, killed crops and suffocated livestock. Add in Depression economics, and countless farm families were brought to their knees.
Cal Crabill, 88, who lived on a cattle ranch near Holly, Colo., recalls the day school was let out early as a dust storm and clouds began bearing down. "Black, black clouds," he says in an interview. "It was as loud as anything I ever heard, including thunderstorms and a hurricane at sea, and it was great fear."
"You can talk about the Dust Bowl and you can tell a good story, but unless you have people remembering what it was like, we didn't think that the real drama of it would be there," says Burns. And each day of the filmmaking process, he says, "was a revelation of discovery of the extensiveness of the storms, the 10-year apocalypse that it was, the fact that it was a man-made ecological disaster."
The bedrock of any of his films, The Civil War to Baseball, says Burns, is "emotional archeology. ... We weren't just interested in excavating dry dates and facts and events, but looking for some higher emotional glue that would make all those date and times and events stick together and coalesce."
After completing 2007's The War, telling the story of World War II through the men and women who lived through it, Burns and his partners realized there was no time to waste locating those who lived through the Dust Bowl. Many of the witnesses would be older than the witnesses to WWII.
Morton County, where the Coens grew up, lies in the geographical heart of the Dust Bowl, millions of acres that included the panhandle of Oklahoma and tangential areas of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Texas. To find them and other Dust Bowl witnesses, Burns recorded appeals that aired on local PBS stations and held roundtables at retirement homes, assisted living facilities and historical societies. People brought albums and photographs and memories.
They shared their families' stories of hunger, depression, suicides, land forfeitures and sickness. They recalled the dust that covered every inch of their homes, filled their ears and eyes, caused them to cough up mud. How they sat in their homes with damp flour sacks pulled over their heads as they struggled to breathe. The infestations of locusts and rabbits that overran their lands, like biblical plagues.
Like any other boom-and-bust tale, the Dust Bowl is a complicated one, about human nature and mother nature colliding. "It's at its root a story of hubris and the inevitable greed," says Burns. "It was the classic bubbles of real estate, agriculture and market speculation. ... It looked like it would be rosy, that the crop would always come in." But it became, he says, a question of, "What did we do wrong?" Farmers had turned over millions of acres of soil that had been held together by buffalo grass, and when the rain stopped falling, the winds became the enemy.
Burns doesn't draw comparisons to contemporary concerns about drought and global warming, but hopes the film leads people to think about environmental issues. "We just want to tell a good story," he says. "We're not unmindful of the fact that these have resonances in the present, and to say we would hope that the film could itself be a catalyst for conversation of an environmental nature today."
Experts say we probably won't ever see another Dust Bowl, and today's farmers like Roy Bardole are painfully aware of their role as custodians of the soil.
Bardole, 69, of Rippey, Iowa, his wife Phyllis and sons, Peter and Tim, raise corn and soybeans on more than 1,400 acres that have been in their family for five generations. During the Dust Bowl, Bardole says, his father and grandfather had to remove, by hand, the dust that partially buried their crops, blown into Iowa from hundreds of miles to the south. (Bardole, Crabill and Burns participated in the 2012 National Youth Summit on the Dust Bowl in October at the National Museum of American History.)
The Bardoles employ a "no-till" technique that helps the soil absorb and retain moisture. "The agriculture that I embrace is all about the soil. Soil is looked at as dirt to most people, but to me it's a very fragile and very valuable asset. And I must be terribly careful in how I use it."
Burns, a man with a similar passion for his films, says his life leaves little time for anything but work. He lives in Walpole, N.H., in a colonial-style 1820 home with his wife Julie and their daughters, Willa, 2, and Olivia, 7. He has two other daughters, Sarah, 30, and Lilly, 26 from an earlier marriage. His one nod to downtime is doing the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink every day. "Seven days a week, 365 days a year. That's my time to myself," says Burns.
The rest of his time is spent keeping history alive through film. It's an obsession he acknowledges is linked to his mother's death. He says he realized, at one point in his career, that in all his films he "was waking the dead," undoubtedly linked to his loss of a parent from cancer at such an early age.
"What we do is really hard work. We make maple syrup in New Hampshire, and it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. That's sort of like documentary filmmaking," Burns says. "We spend an awful lot of time in the editing room. You've got to be able to know that whole 40 gallons in order to finish the film, and say 'here's the best story we can tell.'"