Dusty Old Dust

The latest Ken Burns documentary project is about the Dust Bowl in the central plains in the 1930’s.

The four hour series debuted last night and will conclude tonight on PBS stations. Here in the Twin Cities the first two hours debuted at 7 last night and were repeated at 9pm, and on Monday at 1am and 3am. Like the dust storms themselves, the series fills the air and just keeps coming – it completely engulfs you.

I’ve recorded it and plan to watch when there’s sufficient time – probably sometime in 2013. But My understanding is that one of the major points of the series is that the Dust Bowl was an environmental disaster that was largely man-made.

For this project, Burns was fortunate to find dust bowl survivors who could tell their stories in front of the camera. He couldn’t do that with the long-dead eyewitnesses of The Civil War. And for the Dust Bowl he had the advantage of great archival photos and movies from the time, along with a sound track by none other than Woody Guthrie.

Here’s more on the series.

Meanwhile, the Mars Curiosity rover reports “feeling” dust devils pass by as it sits in Gale Crater. Maybe the Martian terrain is an example of what might have happened to Oklahoma if the government hadn’t intervened and the drought hadn’t ended.

Will Curiosity’s next shovel load of soil uncover some Martian troubadour’s ode to the Okies of Gale Crater?

What’s the most severe environmental calamity you’ve witnessed?
(Natural or Man-Made)

58 thoughts on “Dusty Old Dust”

  1. Morning all,

    The answer to this is easy – my house! And, to log on and see Dust in the title of today’s piece is perfect, since I got up at 4:30 this morning to dust. Have done all the rooms upstairs… taking a break before I head downstairs.

    I’ve had people ask me how I get everything done. My answer is always the same –
    “My house is dirty.” On a day to day basis, I’m not a great cleaner. Luckily I like to entertain so the house does get cleaned up for other folk, but left to my own devices, it can get pretty dusty and dirty.

    The last three days has been a cleaning blitz, including lots of little things like the toaster oven and the shower curtain. Throw rugs went in the washer last night. My mom’s flight lands at 11 a.m. Last time the house was this clean was in April, the last time my mom visited!

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    1. My wife gets her cleaning mode going when her folks come too, I used to wonder what the heck that was all about and them I noticed that they walk in and immediately start cleaning, the kitchen the porch the windows . Dusting sweeping spraying scrubbing it’s a riot, I haven’t been to this new house ( sold the homestead and moved into a 1 br town home with a yard they don’t mow in a sun city retirement deal in the burbs of Chicago.

      The dust bowl is fantastic I have watched it a researched it already. Ken burns makes it look so easy,
      My natural disaster experience was skiing Yellowstone 20 years ago with my friend who moved to Montana and when we finished up the day I asked him if the trees being down were because something happened? He laughed and said that yes the Yellowstone fire from the year before had burnt everything to a crisp from one end of the park to the other. It was obvious the next spring when I went back but the snow covering the char had me fooled on my first peek , I had always commented Yellowstone was a tree lined road that circled smelly cauldrons and beautiful freaks of nature that you had to park and walk to in order to realize. It felt like they had the geysers and fountains in cages at the end of roadside pull offs Andcul de sacs. With the fire the landscape opened up and you could appreciate the terrain and natural beauty. A good disaster for sure.

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      1. That’s kinda how it goes around here most days. Teenager yelled at me last week because I used her toothbrush by accident. She took it downstairs and ran it under boiling water! And I know that when Teenager has a home of her own, I won’t care a whit what it looks like when I visit, but that never stops me from cleaning and cleaning before my mom comes!

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    2. Verily sherrilee…we are soul mates of house cleaning methods. The difference is, I won’t get up at 4:30 to do anything, especially not dust!! Luckily or unfortunately, my mother seldom came to visit…!

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  2. China is an environmental disaster in spades. Reading about the new heads of government and how they will alter the direction of china, environment has got to be on top of the list.
    When I started visiting china my observation
    was that as you pulled into the big cities by plane you could see the yellow black purple smog cloud over the city and feel bad. You could also see the smoke clouds roll into hong long from the unregulated smokestacks in the Chinese factories in the distance. Today it is like there is a forest fire going as you speak, the air is terrible, your eyes burn the building 4 blocks away can’t be seen because of air quality problems they refuse to face. The old government said they couldn’t be asked to create a clean air working environment because they are a third world country, well we all have to clean the air that comes over our part of the world and it is all connected so I think we need to find a way to bill them for our clean up expenses.

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  3. Rise and Shine Baboons!

    Great to see you all at BBC. I watched the show last night with my mother who remembers the effects in Minnesota–nothing like “No Mans Land” which the show documented, but still she remembers significant weather variations. We all found the show profoundly depressing.

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    1. Yes – I was in tears a couple of times during the program. When the cows were slaughtered and when the children died of dust pneumonia.

      It’s always good to see your “voice”, Jacque!

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  4. Good morning. I will be doing a lot of cleaning to prepare for the holidays, similar to VS. Also, I will be doing my best to keep this holiday season from becoming a disaster. Trying to get all of the holiday preparations done and the impossible task of doing it in a way that pleases everyone is sure to seem like a disaster in progress.

    The biggest natural disaster I have been in was the Halloween ice storm we had in 1991. We were without power for 4 or 5 days. I have come close to being hit by tornados a few times. One passed around us last year and took out some farm buildings as well as destroying a grove of very large old oak trees among other things.

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  5. When I first moved to the West Side in 1974, we’d experience an environmental calamity with some regularity: the stench from the stock yards in South Saint Paul. Thankfully, it didn’t happen that often, but when it did, it was awful. When the winds were coming from an easterly direction, it was virtually impossible to go outside. The smell was unlike any I have ever smelled anywhere else, putrid, burnt flesh and hide, absolutely disgusting. Even thinking about it now makes me gag, ugh! I was not among those who mourned the demise of those stock yards.

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      1. No, BiR, far worse. I don’t know if it was incinerating carcasses or what that gave it that extra nauseating stench. Truly horrible. Don’t know how people who lived east of there dealt with what had to be a whole lot more frequent episodes because of the prevailing winds.

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        1. had a highschool frined move to newport and we laughed about how bad it smelled. he said you got used to it in a matter of a couple of hours and never smelled it while you were there. i can smell the mix of death and blood and excreations. it was memorable wasnt it.

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        2. tim, I can in all honesty say, I never got used to that smell. I have never smelled anything that disgusting before or since. Where I live, it happened about 2 or 3 times a year for a number of years. I’m guessing it was more frequent if you lived east of the stock yards, but had no real interest in testing that hypothesis.

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  6. I once won a writing contest whose prize was a full-expenses paid fishing trip to the Florida Keys so we could chase bonefish, tarpon and lesser fish. I had never given a moment’s thought to the Keys before. What I saw there broke my heart because half a century of poor development policies has reduced one of the most beautiful places in the world to a garish theme park. Florida has always pretty much let developers do any damn thing they want. To my eye, the Keys now remind me of a formerly beautiful women who has trashed her looks with decades of heavy drug use.

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    1. ui have only landed at key west by boat as a tourist destination and i liked it. sorry the road there is messed up. the vacation theme and bars and hemmmingways house and the art shoppes. my kind of screwed up.

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  7. I feel pretty lucky to have avoided almost all natural disasters. Tracy, MN had a real bad tornado when I was in Jr. High School, and I remember seeing the devastation from the flooding in Rapid City in the mid 70’s. Out here we had a really warm Halloween night about 15 years ago when a cold front came through suddenly, with really strong winds that sparked range fires that took ranchers totally by surprise and lots of cattle were burned up before the ranchers could get them out of harms way. Ranchers are still traumatized by that. We also had a tornado that took out many houses in the south end of town a few years ago, but our area of town was untouched.

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  8. Morning–
    I watched Dust Bowl last night. Yes, it left me feeling depressed too. We always tend to think ‘Next year will be better’… I don’t know how long I could keep that up. Next year, Next year, next ye….. next…… n–.

    I’ve seen a lot of flood damage and dealt with that from a township POV. I remember the 1978 flood in Rochester; seeing peoples basements that had been filled with water and now were just big mud pits.
    But I think seeing a big gully washed out in some farmers field because they didn’t leave a water way there; that makes me sick to my stomach because it’s PREVENTABLE and they simply choose not to do it.

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    1. I talked with my parents this morning; they’re both in their mid 80’s so were kids during the 30’s. Both grew up right around Rochester.
      Mom says they didn’t know there was a depression on because they grew all their food – and didn’t have the drought or grasshoppers around here to extent other places did. So nothing was really different to them.
      Mom told the story of her Mom having her appendix out sometime in the ’30s and had to pay the doctor right away. She borrowed money from a brother in law, who was so stingy he cut the toes out of the kids shoes and ate lard instead of butter so therefore he had cash. And then Grandma didn’t dare wear a dress or anything ‘nice’ until she had paid him back…”because she knew he would look at her sideways if she did.”

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      1. I like that story that your mother told, Ben. It reminds me of other stories I have heard about rural life and the old days. Here’s one I was told about an early resident of Clarks Grove. Clarks Grove was founded by Danish immigrants. The stores in the early days were coops because coops were one of the traditions of the Danish founders. However, one old Dane apparently wanted more than his share of the items at the coop hardware. They had to watch him to keep him from adding some items to his pockets that he took without telling anyone. He was know to stand beside a keg of nails and fill his pockets with nails when he thought no one was watching.

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  9. The sorest I’ve ever been was when I sandbagged in 1973 – the big St. Louis flood. They let us off school three days in a row and sent us in school buses to the waterfront and along the river. Hard hard work!

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  10. I’m in cleaning mode, too. My mom is coming for Thanksgiving. I almost never clean until I know she’ll be coming to stay for a night or two. There is thick dust on everything; piles of books and papers and craft projects and maps are everywhere; the windows have doggie nose marks on them due to the interaction between Pippin and the squirrels on the deck. I feel a peculiar inertia when confronted with it all.

    The greatest natural disaster I’ve ever witnessed was the St. Peter tornado. I wasn’t there when it happened but I have many friends who live there and I went there a few days later when they finally opened the town. My friends are still terrified when the sirens go off. It gave me new respect for the power of nature.

    We are all witness to two enormous man-made environmental disasters. The first is global warming. As a species, we are destroying our own planet. It’s amazing to me that we know we’re doing it but don’t seem to have the will to stop it or even slow it down. That should tell us a lot about the human race. (Did someone say “cynicism”)?

    The second is the massive erosion by water and wind of the cropland that was formerly northern tallgrass prairie. The Minnesota River runs like chocolate milk, even after millions of state and federal dollars have been spent in programs like Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and others. The truth is that almost 100 percent of the former tallgrass prairie has been put under the plow. Buffer strips and small prairie restorations are good but not enough. All of the little chocolate-colored ditches, streams, creeks and small rivers from western Minnesota to the Twin Cities dump into the enormous Minnesota River watershed. Each little tributary carries with it from the fields the sediment and soil that took thousands of years to build. The soil would have stayed intact if more of the prairie had been left intact. This is exactly the same environmental problem as the Dust Bowl but the erosion and soil loss is caused mostly by water instead of wind. The water flows downstream, from all the little streams and tributaries to the Minnesota River to the Mississippi River, where it creates new islands in Lake Pepin, then it flows out to the Gulf of Mexico where it creates a spill that can be seen from space. It’s easy to look the other way when all of that sediment-laden water is washed downstream. It isn’t choking our lungs with dust. It’s just flowing away.

    This is a huge topic and I could go on and on about it. I won’t. I know there are farmers who read this blog and I hope you know that I don’t blame farmers or agriculture. I blame the system that works to reward the biggest corporations like Monsanto. I blame all of us, myself included, for not understanding the system we have and for not forcing change. I know that farmers truly care about the land and water but they are caught in a financial trap due to the system and the farm bill.

    I watched the Ken Burns Dust Bowl program last night and I just kept thinking: ‘the same thing is happening right here, right now.’

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    1. I kept thinking: “will we ever learn?” It boggles my mind to realize that we have so little respect for the natural forces we’re unleashing by downright reckless practices in so many areas. Very scary and depressing to think about.

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  11. We too watched the Dust Bowl last night. I obviously had heard about it before, but really didn’t realize how devastating and long-lasting it was. Really gives me pause that it was largely man made, and that we don’t seem to have learned the lesson that our actions can have dire consequences.

    The Mississippi and Missouri River flooding in 1993 was a natural disaster of some magnitude, though nothing compared to the Dust Bowl. That year my friend, Tia, and I drove from Chicago where she lives, to St, Louis and from there to Carbondale in the southern part of Illinois on a trip in celebration of 25 years of friendship. We encountered many detours en route due to flooding, St. Louis was particularly hard hit. By the time we got there, about a week after the peak of the disaster, much of the water had already receded, but damage to property was extensive.

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    1. kind of makes you wish ken burns woud go to the rain forests in brazi and throughout central america where they are doing the same thing with forests instead of grassland. god why cant we stop it in this day and age when we all know better and it is obvious the boobs who are selling the land are jerks in it for the short term with no thought of the consequences. well then again we have china doing the smae thing on a global platform where do you say enough and start nailing the silly bastards?l

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  12. I’ve been lucky enough not to have been personally affected by natural disasters. I was 5 when Hurricane Diana (per Wikipedia – sixth costliest U.S. hurricane of the 20th century) brought its aftereffects to Connecticut. My only memory is being able to wade on my driveway because my boots were high enough whereas my brother’s 3 year old boots were not.

    When the tornado hit South Minneapolis in 2009, the one that decimated the trees on a few blocks of Portland, I was working at home (as usual). The sirens went off but I dismissed them, thinking, “oh, it’s Wednesday, those are the test sirens”.
    While I was surprisingly oblivious, a friend 4 blocks away was more aware. He had been washing dishes when he headed for the basement. When he came back upstairs, all the wash water from his kitchen sink had been pushed out of the sink and onto his kitchen floor. I went over for dinner that evening and had to dodge tree service trucks cruising the neighborhood, looking for work.

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  13. The Northeast Mpls. Tornado was the closest devastation I have seen. We had been in Bloomington while it roared through and didn’t see anything till we reached our driveway – filled with the retaining wall and its contents. (Wall was ready to go – probably the heavy rain rather than the wind was responsible.) When we drove through Wirth Park a few days later, we could not believe the damage, the number of trees down. Same through parts of N. Mpls that were in our path – roof torn off, trees on houses and cars…

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  14. Back in the 80s there was a tornado that came through south Minneapolis – skipped across Lake Harriet and tip-toed through Lakewood Cemetery. I was at home with my brother at the time, we were only a couple blocks away from the direct path of the tornado. Our block lost trees (and power), but no roofs. I remember my brother saying, gosh it’s gotten awfully windy and that sky doesn’t look good, let’s turn on the radio…the siren went off after the tornado had passed. My brother was on the front porch as it went by, I was trying to tune in ‘CCO on the radio. I remember going past the park building on Bryant Ave and 40th (across Dupont Ave from the cemetery) – they had blue tarps over the building and a big sign in the window that read, “has anyone seen our roof?”

    I also remember visiting Hannibal, MO as a kid. We were on a family trip, driving through Missouri and my mom thought it’d be fun to stop and see the Mark Twain-related sites. Only problem was a lot of Hannibal was under water. I think we managed to see “Beckly’s” house and one of the other houses we could see the outside of, but not get to because of the water. I distinctly remember standing on a hill looking down the road; brown water came about half way up the block we were standing on. Downtown was totally flooded.

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      1. Tiptoe through the headstones
        By Lake Calhoun, that is where I’ll be
        Come tiptoe through the headstones with me…

        Oh, tiptoe from the grave site
        By the entrance of the mausoleum
        And tiptoe through the headstones with me…

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  15. When I was in Grade 3, the ceiling collapsed in the middle of the night in the classroom next to mine. Large light fixtures crashed onto the desks and the room was totalled. We had to have class on the stage and other places while builders and engineers checked out the structural integrety of the ceilings in adjacent classrooms and the building as a whole. It was lucky that the ceiling didn’t fall down on a school day when there were children in the room.

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  16. While going to school in Carbondale, wasband and I were taking a nap on a lazy afternoon when suddenly there was a loud noise and our house started to shake. The tremor was fierce enough that canned goods were falling off the shelves in the kitchen and books were dropping off bookshelves. We thought our furnace was exploding and rushed outside. Once there we discovered that all of our friends from neighboring houses were also outside wondering what was going on. We concluded that something big, possibly a nearby gas station, had blown up. Turns out it was an earthquake. No major damage was done, but it scared the crap out of all of us.

    Quite a few years later, in 1989, I was in San Francisco for a conference a week after a large earthquake had buckled roads and collapsed bridges there. I took lots of photos of the carnage and was very grateful that I wasn’t there when it happened. Can’t imagine living in a place that’s prone to earthquakes.

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  17. I’ve seen farmers suffer from a variety natural disasters. This last year there were some fields where the corn and soybeans were in bad shape due to lack of rain. Hail can cause a lot of damage to crops. In the worst case I have seen fields completely leveled by a very heavy hail storm. Then there is late spring frost damage and damage due an early fall frost. The worst crop damage, in my experience, was flooding of the vegetable fields on low lying ground in the Hollandale area. I saw the water run over the ditch banks and flooded potato, onion, and carrot fields more than once causing very extensive damage to these high value crops. In Southern Minnesota this year the hay crops were short due dry conditions and I think farmers who need hay will have a hard time finding enough to feed their livestock.

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        1. It seems that Southern Minnesota has the right climate, soil, and growing conditions to avoid having very many years when farmers experience wide spread crop loss. Around here they say that farmers are always complaining numerous problems that they are sure will result in crop failure and then end up with good yields.

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  18. ot. i have two tickets to the schubert club tomorrow night at the ordway at 730. two tickets good seats please take them if you’d like. i will call will call and leave your name on them.
    some kick ass pianist classical.
    the schubert club brings in the best musicians in the worlsd and lets them go solo for a couple of houtrs instead of getting to do one number wiht the symphony. wish i could go. i can’t my loss could be your gain. who wants em?

    http://www.schubert.org/ias/

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  19. Both of my grandchildren were described at PT conferences by separate teachers as “quirky,” which both meant as a compliments. It’s nice to know there are young Baboons out there.

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