As I've mentioned about a zillion times before, television is not a major part of our existence when we're residing on a narrow island off the North Carolina coast. While there is a tiny, 13-inch model down in the bedroom occupied by my wife's bachelor brother when he visits, we generally forego watching it ourselves, preferring the glorious sights provided by the Atlantic Ocean just across the winding, two-lane blacktop that fronts our place, or the equally interesting views in and around the intracoastal waterway that borders our backyard.
But since we arrived back here a few days ago, a nor'easter just up the coast has kept skies steely gray, while buffeting us with chilly, gusty winds and cold rain. We've read, cooked, cleaned and restlessly walked from window to window, hoping for a break in the relentless weather.
Finally, we decided we'd try watching a little TV.
Cheapskate that I am, I've steadfastly refused to install cable or a satellite dish, so the options are fairly limited. On a good day, the rabbit ears we hooked up can be turned and twisted--just like in the good old days--to pick up a meager handful of semi-local stations, though the only one that seems to come in on a dependable basis is the feed from UNC-TV, the university sponsored public television system that operates all but one of the PBS stations in the state.
Not all bad, since we tend to like a lot of the programming they offer, though I do wish they'd consider carrying Chicago Bears games (when they win) and the NCIS re-runs I watch incessantly when I'm at home in Illinois.
We just happened to be downstairs trying to catch a strong signal the other night when we stumbled upon a two-part documentary that caught our attention.
It was called, "The Dust Bowl."
It's by Ken Burns, who also produced historic epics like "The Civil War," "Baseball," "Jazz," "The War," "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," and "Prohibition."
"The Dust Bowl" tells the story of the environmental catastrophe that, throughout the 1930s, destroyed the farmlands of the Great Plains, turned prairies into deserts, and unleashed a pattern of massive, deadly dust storms that--to many--seemed to announce the end of the world. It was, in fact, the worst manmade ecological disaster in American history, happening, as fate would have it, in the midst of another now-famous people-problem, the Great Depression.
But here's the thing:
Hardly anyone remembers it.
In a day and age when Hurricane Katrina, The Deepwater Horizon oil spill and SuperStorm Sandy fill nearly everyone's consciousness, we have all but forgotten an agonizing, drawn-out, cataclysmic event that left over half a million Americans homeless, with over 2.5 million residents of the southwestern plains states eventually leaving for homes and work in other parts of the country. Some statistics indicate that over 7,000 people died during the dust bowl, quite a few from "dust pneumonia" caused by the overwhelming, pervasive dust storms that raged through the region, while malnutrition was a factor in other deaths.
Economic depression coupled with extended drought, extremely high temperatures, poor agricultural practices and the resulting wind erosion all contributed to making the Dust Bowl. With wheat prices falling due to poor economic conditions, farmers planted even more in an effort to survive. They covered the prairie with wheat in place of the natural drought-resistant grasses and left any unused fields bare.
Then it got hot. It got dry. It got windy.
The resulting dust storms--called "black blizzards"--killed what remained of the crop and made the land nearly uninhabitable. Eventually, the government enacted aid programs to help, with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal providing jobs and other kinds of aid, plus helping farmers learn better ways of growing crops while protecting the soil.
And then, in 1939, God got involved, too.
There's no doubt that the story of The Dust Bowl should make us think about our response to troubling economic conditions, our effect on the natural world around us, and our responsibility to it, as well as the place of government in regulating what we do. Most of us worry--a lot--about the economy, and the disasters--manmade and otherwise--that sometimes strike. In addition, we often disagree as to whether our government is the right choice to help us through it all. But the value of history is that it teaches us, and, hopefully, helps us remember important lessons from our shared past.
It could be worse. It has been worse.
I, for one, am most thankful that it's not.