What caused all this was a massive boom in wheat sales. Farmers plowed under the buffalo grass that had stabilized the soil for centuries in favor of the profitable wheat. There was a feverish land rush. Men bought up land and paid tenants to farm, and immigrants came in droves in search of a better life.
“The government was saying, ‘Please move here,’” recalls Burns. “Reputable scientists were saying rain follows the plow, that is, the act of plowing would make more rain, that the climate was undergoing a permanent shift toward that. This was this new Eden, and because it coincided with some wet years, it was. And everybody flooded in ... and when the inevitable drought times came back, when the wind continued to blow, that land blew. I mean, we plowed up millions and millions of acres in a kind of speculative agriculture and real estate bubble. And we know what that’s about, and we never learned those lessons,” he says.
The film is not only about the terrible force of nature but about human nature, says Duncan, writer on the special. “We have an innate ability — we’re not unique as Americans, but we might be a little more susceptible to it — that we believe that we can ignore the limits of the environment and of nature if it suits our purposes. And that if things are going on a roll, they will continue to go on a roll. And all those things converged on the Southern Plains of the (19)’10s and the ’20s so that by the time the inevitable drought was going to return, they had plowed up essentially a place the size of the state of Ohio and left it exposed to the winds and desiccating drought that was going to occur.”
It is the eyewitnesses who vivify the film. They found them, Burns says, by visiting nursing homes, talking to local historical societies and running short appeals on local PBS stations asking for anyone who lived through the maelstrom.