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Column: A Story of Devastation and Perseverance

“When will we ever learn?” asked Pete Seeger in 1955.

Monday and Tuesday night’s airing of Ken Burns’ fine new film, The Dust Bowl, was placed in whimsical juxtaposition with a news report that preceded the film. The report focused on the holiday shopping season, particularly the prospects for Black Friday — an apt name for one of the darkest facets of contemporary American life.

The preview of Black Friday cheerfully aired on ABC Evening News. There for our HD viewing, introduced with a celebratory tone, were lines of tents outside one of America’s big box retailers. Smiling campers declared their firm resolve to not miss a single Black Friday bargain. They planned to spend Thanksgiving on line, grateful, I suppose, for the land of opportunity, where perseverance is rewarded with a deeply discounted flat-screen television. The images of these folks in their tents were rendered even more ridiculous, if that’s possible, by the film that followed.

The Dust Bowl chronicles the environmental disaster in the 1930s when an explosion of irresponsible wheat production in the heartland was followed by a decade of unprecedented drought. The images assembled by Burns form an astonishing record of human suffering and human resilience, in equal measure.

The film is, and should be, primarily a cautionary tale. The dust storms and their victims should be instructive. As the late Grace Paley wrote in her powerful poem Responsibility: “... it is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman to keep an eye on this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be listened to this time.” The devastation unleashed by the dust storms was a consequence of our low regard for the fragile balance of nature. We didn’t listen to dust storm Cassandra and we now seem similarly deaf to the wailing of Hurricane Sandy and the grim lessons she left in her wake.

Yes, the Dust Bowl sounds an alarm we should heed, but it also serves as testimony to the human capacity to endure, persist and craft lives of purpose out of the smallest shards. Several of the women and men who endured the hardships as small children reflected on the smallest pleasures that animated life, even as despair seemed endless.

One woman recalled her mother’s dream — to pass over a distant ridge, descend into the verdant valleys of California and peel a fresh, sweet orange. It was a dream that was thwarted over and over again. Each ridge re-crushed her dream, as the high ground revealed the bleak landscape ahead. But they persevered, made their way to northern California and gradually built a tolerable life. The Dust Bowl immigrants were reviled, endured the pejorative label “Okie,” and settled for the most menial jobs, continuing a hardscrabble existence for decades. But they made a life and, 80 years later, they see life’s sweetness, not bitterness.

One family’s journey from the Dust Bowl to California, preserved in remarkably clear film and still photography, was in an old car converted to a Conestoga wagon. Crudely fashioned ribs held a canvas canopy that became the home for a grandmother, parents and seven children. Their food chest was fashioned out of found scraps of wood. The asthmatic mother needed constant tending. At one point they had to spend down their dwindling resources for a motel room to give the poor woman one night’s respite from the relentless dust. Through all of this, images show the children smiling as though they were on the way to Disneyland. A woman survivor in her late 80s recalled with a warm grin that there were soft mattresses on the floor of the makeshift wagon. They slept well.

In the 1930s, a family huddles under a makeshift canopy, bravely facing a dangerous expedition to an insecure future, not sure where they’ll find their next meal.

In 2012, families huddle in LLBean tents outside Best Buy, braving the dark night to be first in line to feed their insatiable appetite for consumption.

While not ignoring or dismissing the shame of poverty in America, I’m left with the feeling that too many people have forgotten that the American spirit was forged in hardship, not gratification.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school. His column appears in Perspectives every other week.