Kenneth Lauren Burns is an American director and documentary filmmaker whose landmark films include The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz and The War. In 1982, his film Brooklyn Bridge was nominated for an Academy Award, as was The Statue of Liberty in 1986. He has won three Emmy Awards. He currently lives in Walpole, New Hampshire with his wife and three daughters.
The Dust Bowl
FOR A TRAVELER DRIVING SOUTH DOWN US 385/287 through the flat relentless expanses of first Prowers and then Baca County, Colorado, in the southeastern corner of that state, heading toward Oklahoma and the geographical heart of the ten-year disaster known as the Dust Bowl, it is impossible not to notice the relative stability and even peace of the landscape. Part of it is irrigation, of course, the modern wells and the giant-wheeled watering machines that suck up and distribute the scarcest commodity on the southern Plains.
Passing through Campo, the last town in Colorado, that landscape of immense farms and pasturage changes. One is near the center of the Comanche National Grassland, part of an immense federal effort starting in the 1930s to save the land that was once blowing away, convincing farmers to abandon the questionable agriculture practices that had for decades compelled the frantic human effort—and suffering—there, and return it to its natural state. The cottonwoods, willows, and locusts seem forlorn and sometimes bent, on guard, it almost seems, against the memory of forces once unleashed there, perhaps to come again.
A constant breeze stirs everything. Every green thing, the grasses, the thistles, the sagebrush (the “fag end of vegetable creation,” Mark Twain once called it) are all in perpetual frantic animation, like the jerky, spastic motion of an old silent movie. Periodic crosses in the ditches just off the highway memorialize momentary mistakes at 75 miles per hour.
Leaving the relative lushness, if that is what can be said of it, of Baca County and entering Cimarron Country—No Man’s Land it was once called, at the extreme western end of the Oklahoma Panhandle—you realize you must be in a desert. Is it? Was it? Will it always be? Dead cottonwoods line the banks of the near bone-dry bed of the Cimarron River that, one is assured later, does run wet some of the time. Dust devils dance off to the left and then the right, innocent playful reminders of the devastating plagues that once beset this place.
It is a postapocalyptic world. Something happened here, and it is hard to even imagine agriculture ever thriving in this dryness—or a mountain range of dust coming at you, threatening everyone and everything dear to you. The first rise in miles is just a tumbledown butte, where whitewashed rocks, painted and arranged by the hands of still unseen humans, advertise St. Paul’sMethodist Church down the road in the once dishon¬estly named Boise City.
But over a rise and beyond a graceful arcing bend in the blacktop, green fields sud¬denly stretch out as far as the eye can see and the landscape returns once again to flatness. Beautiful crops of grass and wheat, even high-maintenance corn (thanks to those giant water “walkers” that overrule the usual poor odds of moisture) unfold, which then just as fast yield to grazing land and weeds and back to cultivated land again. Farm buildings announce human habitation. The pickups pass with increasing frequency, their drivers waving in the custom of the Plains, a gesture of genuine friendliness that mitigates and helps to abolish the genuine loneliness of the mind-numbing distances required to do almost everything: shop, go to school, get to the hospital.
The card security code is an added safeguard for your credit/debit card purchases. Depending on the type of card you use, it is either a three- or four-digit number printed on the back or front of your credit/debit card, separate from your credit/debit card number. To make shopping at Book-of-the-Month Club®
even more secure, we require that you enter this number each time you make a credit/debit card purchase. Please note that your security code will not be stored with us even if you have saved your credit/debit card information.