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November 15, 2012 at 11:55 AM

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Updating John Steinbeck: Ken Burns' 'The Dust Bowl'

The dust bowl of the 1930s has been kept in the American mind by John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel, “The Grapes of Wrath," and John Ford’s 1940 movie of the same name, starring a young Henry Fonda. The story portrays a family of pathetic tenant farmers, the Joads, who fled in their jalopy to California, where they were not welcome. The story ends with a blast of New Deal social philosophy.

“The Dust Bowl” is Ken Burns’ two-part, four-hour documentary, which airs 8 p.m. Sunday and Monday on PBS-TV. In Burns’ telling, most of the story is not about tenants but owners. Most of them stayed—and the dust storms lasted 10 years. And the storms were “of Biblical proportions,” he says. Some people died from the effects of the dust. Those who weathered them were tough.

If you have to assign blame for the dust bowl, you could blame the government for opening up unsuitable land to dry-land farming. You could blame the profit motive and the “greed” of real estate people who sold it and the farmers who bought it. You could say all these people should have known better. A decade of wet weather had tricked farmers several decades before, luring them into the upper plains states and ruining many of them.

What made the dust bowl different was the storms. The wind picked up your soil and dumped it on someone else. Or it picked up other people’s soil and dumped it on you. There was no escaping the dust, and in some cases it was fatal. The disaster required a collective response —except that the government couldn’t make it rain, either.

The medium-term solution, Burns said, has been to tap the aquifer for ground water so that the soil doesn’t blow away. But the ground water is going to run out. What is the answer, then? We asked Burns when he visited The Seattle Times. He didn’t know. He’s not a scientist. He’s a storyteller.

And one of the best.

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