Ken Burns Teaches Mission Students Lessons From the Dust Bowl

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Trixie Davis was just a teenager when the Dust Bowl tore through her small town in rural Texas.

In what appeared as a weather twist of divine proportions, ominous plumes of dust blanketed the sky, obscured the sun and converted entire neighborhoods into uninhabitable disaster zones.

“We knew people in our town who were afraid that it was the end of the world,” she said.

Davis’ experience is not unlike that of thousands of American families who lived through the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, an environmental disaster created by severe dust storms that decimated farmlands. Thousands throughout the Great Plains were forcibly displaced, becoming environmental refugees in a chapter of American history that uprooted entire communities but is rarely discussed.

Last week, sitting onstage before a packed auditorium, Davis told her saga to hundreds of students at Mission High School.

Ken Burns, the renowned documentary filmmaker who told Davis’ story in his upcoming documentary on the Dust Bowl, joined her onstage for a presentation on lessons from the calamity. The program included excerpts from the documentary, testimonies from Davis and Burns and a question-and-answer session with Davis.

Following the presentation, students from Mission High’s Mission Youth Television class interviewed Burns for a TV segment. They discussed the genesis of his idea for the documentary, which premieres this weekend on PBS, as well as his background with documentary filmmaking.

“The Dust Bowl is the greatest manmade ecological disaster in the history of the United States and maybe the world, so far, and that’s a very scary thing,” Burns said to students at the beginning of the presentation.

But, he continued, “we can go back into the past and learn a little bit about what happened then so that we can perhaps not make the same mistakes.”

After a couple minutes of background and historical context, Burns showed students two clips from the documentary — one from the introduction and one from a later scene in the first episode – about the Dust Bowl storms as experienced by survivors. He urged that students pay attention to the age of the storytellers, noting that they were teenagers during this time of environmental calamity.

“At the heart of our story are individuals who are now in their 80s and their 90s, who gave us the great gift of trying to go back to this traumatic event,” he said. “Now you’re going to look at people who look relatively old, but remember, they are your age. You are looking at children. You are looking at yourself.”

The modern-day comparison engaged students, who put away their iPhones and iPods and focused intently on the film’s stories and images from an era not even 100 years ago, when families hard-hit by storms huddled in blankets, flickering candles their only source of illumination against an inky sky.

The film’s dated, grainy images portrayed a rural 1930s lifestyle that now seems a relic of generations past. But Burns reminded students that an environmental disaster like the Dust Bowl could strike at any moment. Drawing upon recent environmental catastrophes, including Hurricane Sandy, he encouraged students to think of the links between the past and future, and stressed the importance of environmental stewardship.

“The word history, which many people find boring, is mostly made up of the word story. And one of the reasons why people find it boring is because people forget to tell stories,” he said. “The ingredient that makes a good story is getting to know other people.”

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