Because of a number of other priorities, I don't watch television nearly as much as I once did. Usually the evening news and a couple of news related programs. After that, it's mostly a matter of stopping for a couple of minutes to watch something interesting as I pass through the room. Anything else is normally dependent upon whether it lasts no longer than a half-hour.
Recently, though, through the magic of the digital video recorder and a temporary willingness to shuck other duties in favor of late-night viewing, I devoted two hours a night for two consecutive nights to watching television. I mention this because -- and I realize tastes vary -- what I watched was one of the best things I've seen on television in a long time.
I refer to the Public TV showing of "The Dust Bowl," Ken Burns' masterpiece portrayal of a great American tragedy. If you missed it, I highly recommend it if and when it runs again.
"The Dust Bowl" holds appeal for a number of different audiences: viewers who were alive during the decade just prior to World War II, viewers who like history, viewers who are looking for lessons that can apply to today's world, and viewers who just appreciate a work of art. If you fit into one or more of these categories, the rewards of watching are significant.
The basics of the story are well known, so I'm not giving away secrets or spoiling suspense. The disaster began with honorable motives. The government had offered land on the plains to be homesteaded. Citizens willing to work hard in primitive conditions had been given a quarter-section, 160 acres, of land. There were warnings from some quarters that this land grew prairie grass because Nature had determined it to be appropriate for the plains, and that it was not good for dirt farming. The Plains Indians had understood this and had let the bison fatten on the grass while they fed on the bison. That era had passed.
A confluence of events and circumstances, seemingly full of promise, eventually led to disaster. World War I had led to inflated prices for wheat. Supposed experts insisted that growing wheat on the plains was a wonderful idea. Nature's natural cycles led to an extraordinary wet period. Wheat crops were bountiful and expansion was encouraged. Millions of acres of prairie were plowed up and the moisture-holding habit of the prairie grass destroyed.
Then the Great Depression arrived. Wheat prices hit bottom. Nature's cycle reversed and a decade of severe drought began. Plowed-up land became dry dust and sand, and with no trees or other natural barriers to slow the prairie wind, dust storms of unimaginable proportions and ferocity rolled over several states. Children died of dust pneumonia. Dirt from Oklahoma blew all the way to Washington, D.C. Many people left, but even more hung on, with nowhere else to go.
The government's WPA and CCC provided a modicum of self-respect and food, and a gentleman from my home county in North Carolina provided direction to recover the land. Hugh Hammond Bennett, "the father of soil conservation," directed a massive effort to shift farmers to contour farming, while droves of CCC members planted more than 200 million trees that began to slow the killing winds. Strips were turned back to prairie grass. The greatest man-made environmental disaster in the history of this country was gradually reversed.
The immutable lessons are these: Mother Nature is oblivious to and unforgiving of human bumbling. Promises of near-term riches often blind us to far-term disaster. We are almost never as clever as we think we are.
These lessons don't make us feel proud. But there is another lesson from the Dust Bowl, illustrated by survivors interviewed in the documentary. There is a strain of indomitable courage in the human spirit that, if it lasts, may see us through future disasters.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."