THE DUST BOWL, ALSO KNOWN AS “THE DIRTY THIRTIES.”

This post is also available in: Ita

The Twentieth Century’s Thirties marked one of the most dramatical periods for the United States of America’s history. The Wall Street Crash in 1929, followed by the Great Depression, and the strengthening of organised crime due to Prohibition are just a few of the elements of a deep social and financial crisis which undercuts the idea itself of capitalism and free market at its base. The American dream, until then a strong magnet for all the people wishing to change their lives, loses sheen. The unemployed ranks in the big cities’ streets, the suicide of industry’s magnates ruined overnight, the collapse of companies and banks hit the headlines of the whole world’s newspapers. It’s a domino effect inevitably touching the sturdiest heart of the country’s spirit, the agriculture world. Peasant farmers, suddenly, besides suffering the banking credits and loans’ cuts, have to deal with what on every side looks like a punishment of biblical proportions.

Between 1930 and 1939, the central level grounds, especially the ones included by the less developed Southern states, are affected with a windstorm series of extraordinary power increasing the devastating effects given by the long ongoing drought. Cultivated lands are reduced to wastelands, an area of thousands square kilometres transformed into a boundless dust sweep which, raised by the wind, covers people and things like a mortal blanket. The despairing efforts of the population in order to restrain damages serve no purpose. It’s such a strong situation from the emotional viewpoint that still nowadays is used by American cinema, as we can see in the movie ‘Interstellar’ by Christopher Nolan, where the event is reinterpreted in the same zone of the historical desertification’s scene in a sci-fi twist. The places involved in that environmental disaster at the time are called ‘Dust Bowl’. From Oklahoma to New Mexico, from Arizona to Texas, from Utah to Iowa, from Nevada to Nebraska an uninhabitable hell creates which everybody try to escape sooner or later.

Even if back then they weren’t talking about ecology still, and environmentalist conscience even less, the feeling was that the balances of nature were disturbed. The intensive one-crop-treated green level grounds were irreparably weakened. The area was already economically depressed, inhabited mainly by small landowners and seasonal workers. From these zones a prodigious exodus starts: thousands and thousands families load their poor belongings on makeshift means of transportation and move toward West, searching for whichever job in a bid to start a new life. Their craved destination is the bright California described as a flourishing Garden of Eden where any dream can come true. A century after the Gold Rush, once again The Golden State attracts dreamers and desperate people, seeking for a possible richness not as much as a piece of bread to feed on. A migration which causes social unease and violent reactions from those who feel threatened by newcomers, saw as a danger and a pack of beasts. Cities prevent them from entering, redirecting them into big tent-cities on the border of the urban area. Fierce raids to force them moving away aren’t missing, police and private vigilantes persecute them. Nobody wants this mass of ill-fated people minded to work as farm-hand for a paltry pay.

It’s a wild and frantic epic skilfully told by John Steinbeck’s books and Woodie Guthrie’s songs. A tragedy in front of which politics can’t be insensible. President Franklin Roosevelt and his administration promulgate extraordinary measures aimed to support both who decides to abandon the disaster area and who stubbornly chooses to hold onto his own land. This plan also features an extraordinary activity of cinematographic and photographic documentation entrusted to field’s big professionals. It’s thanks to the crews sent on the place that nowadays we know the faces of those who lived that catastrophe. They’re shocking images of people that even in extreme poverty show a great dignity and a remarkable moral strength. For the first time the exponents of what’s considered the planet’s most evolved society, the WASP (‘White Anglo-Saxon Protestant’), are put close to the idea of defeat, a vision that foresees that of the European civilisations in the Second World War. The photographers who outlined with energy and great empathy this situation went down in legend. The images by Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein and Russel Lee represent one of those years’ highest moments in documentary photography, meaning to raise solidarity and social conscience in favour of the weakest people. It’s a very precise symbolic choice that Roosevelt’s New Deal is offering a nation set on hitting back at the depression, but from which it’s doomed to recover only thanks to the huge military effort of the Second World War. With the cinema version of Steinbeck’s book, Hollywood as well presents the exemplar model of American people’s moral fibre, played by John Ford, a victim of the ‘Dust Bowl’ who struggles not to give up but to give his family a better future.

From the produced documentation it stands out how much the stage costume main character of this historic event is denim. A population all dressed in workwear, from the cradle to the grave, which couldn’t afford any other clothing type. The blue fabric in its several faded shades, together with the ochre of dust, are the chromatic elements characterising the historic period. It’s one of the few occasions where jeans, linked with freedom and independence, finds itself accompanying a dramatic scenery, for which the American is the big loser.