The National Parks: America's Best Idea
National parks represent a spectacular legacy handed down to today’s generations, but it is one that also carries a hefty responsibility of stewardship. That becomes quickly obvious in Ken Burns’ The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.
This notion of responsible stewardship is not new at all. In many ways it’s trite. But it is revived, consciously and subconsciously, through Mr. Burns’ unique story-telling approach that in years past has dissected and brought to life topics as diverse as baseball and the Civil War.
With national parks the 55-year-old documentarian has taken on a sprawling project, one that begs more than the 12 hours that we are being treated to over a handful of days. Indeed, “national park” purists might be content that Mr. Burns focuses almost exclusively on those units of the National Park System that carry the “national park” designation, while those whose favorite units are “monuments,” “lakeshores, “seashores” or one of the many other national park designations might feel slighted.
This absence, though, should not take away from the entire system and its 391 units, Mr. Burns says.
“We’ve always known that good story-telling has to respect the negative space of creation,” he explained during a late-summer stop in Salt Lake City. “Just like that sculptor who imports that block of marble into the studio and she has to carve away. The rubble on the floor is not bad stuff. It’s just not what’s in it.
“We in no way wish to be encyclopedic. You can go on-line and in two clicks you can find a list of all 391 units, the 58 ‘natural,’ full-fledged national parks. We’ve got an image from each one of those 58 in the film. But we don’t try to tell every single story of them, nor do we of course try to tell all the stories of the other parks. What we talk is the evolution of an idea as seen through the eyes of 50 or more of the historical figures that we introduce to you. Some of them known, like Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and most of them very much unknown to most Americans. And that’s the thrilling part of it.”
What are we to make of this “parks palooza”? National park advocates, those already converted, likely will be swept up by the beauty and grandeur that Mr. Burns and his team so vividly captured during the course of six years spent exploring parks from Alaska to Florida. There are scenes of molten lava spewing into the Pacific Ocean from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park -- “Earth’s maternity ward,” says Dayton Duncan, Mr. Burns’ long-time collaborator -- of bison in Yellowstone National Park’s snowy backcountry, flights of egrets and ibis at Everglades National Park, and of snowmelt plunging into the Yosemite Valley from falls named Bridalveil and Yosemite. In one inspiring scene you’re gazing at a cloud-strewn landscape that practically explodes into grandeur when the clouds part to reveal Mount McKinley in Denali National Park and Preserve.
History aficionados will be captivated by the rich archival footage that not only delivers to the high-definition screen the Roosevelts (Theodore and Franklin) as well as Stephen Mather, the National Park Service’s first director and his lieutenant and eventual successor, Horace Albright, but also seemingly bit players who add great depth to our understanding of the evolution of not just the national park idea, but the national parks themselves.
Messieurs Burns and Duncan lead us down the road of national park history from the pre-park days of the 1850s when Yosemite Valley was discovered by whites on up to the 1980s. They do so by weaving together historic photographs and film, interspersed with commentary from writers such as Rudyard Kipling, Terry Tempest Williams, Nevada Barr, and Kim Heacox, from historians such as Alfred Runte and William Cronon, from individuals with Park Service ties, such as the late George Hartzog, Mount Rushmore National Monument Superintendent Gerard Baker, former Yellowstone Park naturalist Paul Schullery, and from Carl Pope of the Sierra Club and Marian Albright Schenk, the daughter of Horace Albright, the second director of the Park Service.
Determined researchers even tracked down former members of the Civilian Conservation Corps -- Juan Lujan, Claude Tyler, and Burton Appleton -- so they could recount their experiences in building trails and facilities in the parks during the Great Depression.
And, too, the documentary introduces America to Shelton Johnson, an African-American interpretive ranger at Yosemite National Park whose eloquence in expressing the natural, not religious, spirituality that can be found in the parks hangs in your mind as you watch the scenery unfold.
“Yes it’s transcendent,” the ranger tells us of experiencing the parks. “Just as walking into a cathedral is transcendent. But what could be more cathedral in feel than Yosemite Valley, or Grand Canyon?”
And, of course, there is John Muir, a visionary whose imprint on the national parks movement remains today. Mr. Burns brings him to life in his documentary through images, words, and rare footage.
“Muir is the god of it all. This is the man who was able to find in the national parks the sponsorship of the highest ideals I think we Americans have ever had, and he gave them back to us, and he vaulted into my pantheon of the top ten Americans that I’ve had the privilege to meet in the course of 35 years of making documentary films. I’m talking Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Elizabeth Katy Stanton, Jackie Robinson, Lewis Armstrong,” Mr. Burns replied when asked which figure connected to the parks most impressed him. “His character, his heart, his art, his ability to write and express himself and just his sheer ‘is-ness,” this wonderful, loping figure in the parks, in Yosemite, who could just be transformed by nature but then find the language to remind us all of what we are missing and what we possibly could lose if these places weren’t set aside. He’s the bee’s knees.
“You read his stuff today and you feel that you’re dealing not only with a kind of Emersonian spiritualism, that great transcendental American thing that’s ecumenical and very much rooted in democracy, that you can find god the way that you felt it, in the cathedrals of nature and not by following some dogmatic devotion in cathedrals built by the hand of man. That was Muir,” the filmmaker says. “But at the same time, you’re dealing with a scientist whose writings also prefigure all of our most complex ecological and environmental issues that we talk about today.”
Indeed, continues Mr. Burns, with the multitude of controversial issues he touches upon -- clear-cutting of the Appalachian landscape in the pre-Great Smoky Mountains National Park days, the debates over how to manage wildlife in parks, even the "paradox" of whether parks should foremost be preserved for future generations or managed for today's enjoyment -- and with the teachings of Mr. Muir in the documentary, there was no need to delve into the sticky issue of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park or climate change and its impacts on the parks’ landscape.
“Every single thing is mirrored and replicated in all the other stuff. John Muir himself knew that the parks desperately needed constituents, understood the democratizing effect the automobiles would have to be able to escape the specific gravity of your railroads that were attracting only an elite clientele by the very nature of the amount of money that was required to buy the ticket from the East Coast and take the Grand Tour.
“The car opened it up,” points out Mr. Burns, “but he worried that the horseless carriage would mingle its gas breath with the cool air of the pines and the waterfalls.”
While some might come away with the impression that Yosemite figured too prominently in the 12 hours or that short shrift was given the non-‘national park’ units of the system, watch carefully and it becomes obvious that in the parks that are captured by Mr. Burns’ cameras there is something to be learned and treasured about each and every one of the 391 units. And sometimes that lesson is not black and white, but something you simply feel in your gut.
“We need to hold onto these places, and I can’t explain why,” Mr. Heacox says in episode five.
So what will the casual viewer come away with after 12 hours of parks and history? Will there be a boost in travel to national parks next year -- (PBS plans to rebroadcast the series early next year with an eye to persuade folks who are thinking about summer vacation plans, according to Mr. Burns) -- will lodging reservations be more in demand, or will nothing spectacular happen? Will members of Congress be so impressed that they will pay more attention to the needs of the National Park System?
In episode three, The Empire of Grandeur, we learn that Stephen Mather saw that a National Park Portfolio, compiled with sweeping photos of the parks and strong supporting text, was presented to members of Congress to get their support for the national park movement. Mr. Burns acknowledged that he hopes his documentary will serve much the same purpose.
“We just want to start off with this simple -- but it’s not so simple -- but maybe the clear objective of just telling a good story. In this case six episodes over 12 hours. And I think we’ve done that, and the response to the film has been as great as any film we’ve ever done, and we’re thrilled by that,” he says. “But yes, we’ve become, and in a sense have always been, evangelists for the larger purpose of the parks. ... we hope that this will be a huge call to arms for those people who are concerned that the last eight years have represented a neglect of the parks, that we’ve now accumulated an $8 billion plus backlog of necessary maintenance, that our real mission over the next few years will be restoration as the writer Terry Tempest Williams suggests in the last moments of our film. And that we hope that the film can be used and exploited by those who wish to get the best possible results from the upcoming centennial celebration.”
Is this documentary worthy of six straight nights of viewing? Without a doubt.
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