The Great American Grassland

by Brian Leith, Executive Producer of Human Planet

Choosing which stories to film for Human Planet was demanding: ideally we wanted to show our audiences something new and surprising – something they’d never seen before. That’s why we often went for dramatic eye-popping moments from half-way around the world…but there were also times when we could have chosen stories from right under our noses – stories which we’d all heard about, but which were just as amazing as anything you’d find 10,000 miles away.

For the Grasslands episode I kept thinking about a filming trip I’d made 15 years ago in one of America’s most beautiful – if surprising – landscapes: the high plains of Oklahoma and Kansas. This was the old ‘dustbowl’ country of the 1930s, the flat-as-a-pancake lands which had been settled in the late 19th and early 20th century with grants of free land to anyone prepared to try and make a living there.
And the settlers came! Those were troubled years in Europe and tens of thousands of immigrants came to this promised land, grateful to have the chance to make an honest living growing their own crops on their own land, enjoying freedom and the open-armed welcome of their newly adopted nation.

But it wasn’t easy. This was also a brutal land – suffering extremes of weather and climate on top of a thin soil which (if truth be told) was never really going to support much wheat or livestock. It was classic Human Planet: people pushed to the very limits of their ingenuity and bravery, attempting to forge a life for themselves in the most trying of circumstances.
And we all know what happened. The winds came, the topsoil blew away, and grasslands that were never really capable of growing vast fields of grain on such an intensive scale turned to dust, along with the dreams of those settlers, many of whom were forced to move on westwards towards another promised land.

But that’s not the end of the story.

The people I met on those plains 15 years ago were the descendants of the dustbowl survivors – the ones who’d stayed and stuck it out. They’re among the most impressive people I’ve ever met: hard-working and determined, people who know their land – its potential and its limitations – much better than most of us. They are as impressive survivors as anyone we filmed for Human Planet.

I’m often struck by how it’s just such people - with tough lives – who often show the greatest generosity and kind-heartedness. I made one or two friends on that filming trip who remain friends to this day: people who persuaded me to stay and enjoy a good meal and a conversation rather than drive back to my distant motel.

One Response to “The Great American Grassland”

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