October 2, 2009

Personal essay: In praise of Ken Burns' "National Parks."

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)

(Psst: There's over two dozen other clips from the mini-series over at YouTube for those who want to see more, including a half-hour overview of the entire twelve-hour project.)

So have you heard yet about mega-popular documentarian Ken Burns' newest mini-series for PBS, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea?" Oh, wait a minute, you're a voluntary visitor to a left-leaning arts blog -- of course you've heard about it! I've been watching the six-part series myself this week (the final episode airs tonight); and I have to admit, I've been so impressed, I felt the urge to jump on the website today and make a special mention of it, just in the hopes of convincing a few others to check out the final part while they have a chance, and of course to catch the whole thing again during one of the endless billion repeats sure to come. See, international readers, Burns is unfortunately saddled with a bit of an unfair reputation here in the US, as the so-called "savior" of the non-profit, education-oriented Public Broadcasting System; a half-century-old experiment that's never been exactly popular even in its Modernist heyday, it seems sometimes that Burns' breathtaking multipart documentaries have been the only single thing on PBS in recent years to garner any kind of mainstream attention at all, and that only from annoying wealthy liberal white people (i.e. PBS's main donor base), and thus has PBS picked up a bad reputation in recent years for endlessly repeating Burns' various documentaries over and over on their member stations, and thus is his very name so closely associated now with the kind of cloying, cash-flush, McMansion-owning, politically correct "bohemian bourgeoise" that make so many roll their eyes at the mere mention of.

And it's true, even his latest mini-series plays at least somewhat into this stereotype; I find it hilarious, for example, that out of the 21,000 current employees of the national park system, the only two who have so far been interviewed in ten hours of footage have been a black guy and a Native American (although in his defense, Burns has insisted in interview after interview that this wasn't done deliberately to be PC, but simply because they were the two most interesting people they came across during their research). But if you can get past such details, there's a much bigger message to be learned here, the whole reason that people go so crazy for Burns in the first place; because just like with his other projects, he does no less with this one than explain in a moving, powerful, mind-changing way why America's national park system is so important to begin with, and why we should appreciate and support it a lot more than most of us currently do.

See, for those who don't know, the National Park Service here in the US is special to Western civilization, a highly unique idea that not only originated in America but has barely ever been repeated by most other countries on the scale seen here; originally gaining steam in the mid-1800s, it is the attempt to section off huge portions of the country and then ban any manmade developments from taking place within their boundaries, essentially leaving these areas of wilderness in the exact same condition they've been in since literally prehistoric times. I had never really thought about it before, but the fact is that in places like Europe, the vast majority of natural wonders that used to exist were long ago taken over and/or destroyed by human hand, in many cases centuries before anyone found it important to even think about these issues in the first place; but it was a much different case here in the US, in that by the time the term 'conservation' was first invented during the Victorian Age to begin with, there were still giant sections of America that had barely even been visited by humans in the first place. (In fact, it turns out that this was one of the early selling points of the national park system, the idea that it was America's answer to Europe's Roman ruins and other ancient history; because "if ancient history is what you're after," or so went the argument at the time, "there's nothing more ancient than a freaking glacier or volcano.")

And in his typical fashion, Burns has been spending the week walking us chronologically through all the steps that followed -- the national alarm over the tourist takeover of Niagra Falls in the early 1800s, the horrors of Industrial-Age mass clear-cutting and the like, the determination among groups of passionate individuals nationwide to bring an end to such activities in the areas where they lived, the magic combination of progressive politicians and the charitable rich and the civic-minded public, a suddenly prosperous nation that wasn't even close yet to spending 75 percent of its annual budget being the world's police, as is the case today. It was a rare and lucky combination of elements that all came together right at the turn of the 20th century to make such a thing happen, but come together they did; and that's why today we have nearly 60 national parks spanning a total of 84 million acres (or a third of a million square kilometers, essentially the same size as the entire country of Germany), encompassing pretty much every type of geological formation found on the planet, including mountains, deserts, caves, forests, bodies of water and a lot more. (And of course this doesn't even include the approximate 25 battlefield sites, 40 lakeshores and seashores, 75 monuments, 40 nature preserves and recreation areas, and 15 rivers also maintained by this governmental department, plus all the things I haven't even mentioned.)

And for international readers who are wondering, these 60 parks and hundreds more locations are indeed used on a daily basis (the system as a whole received nearly 300 million visitors just last year), and in fact nearly every American you'll ever meet will have at least one story about vacationing at a national park while they were a child; for example, my family visited the Great Smoky Mountains down in the Appalachians a total of four or five times when I was a kid, because of its close proximity to the St. Louis area where I grew up, and the languid shots of that park that Burns included in episode four were enough to make me burst into tears, just from the flood of pleasant nostalgic childhood memories they conjured up. And that of course is the ultimate irony of the national park system, and why the entire system is in more danger now than at any other time since its founding; namely, because the American public mostly takes the system for granted by now, and forget about the 1.1 billion dollars a year it takes simply to maintain it all, which allows for conservatives and business interests to chip away at that budget little by little these days, with barely any public outcry at all.

This is the real power of Ken Burns, and why his documentaries are always so welcome; because whether it's baseball or jazz or the Civil War he's exploring, his combination of soul-moving images and academic-worthy research always reminds us of why these subjects are so important in the first place, why they're worth remembering and studying and supporting. It's certainly the reaction I've had this week while watching "The National Parks," and I have to confess that for the first time in decades, I find myself now with a strong desire again to get out into unstructured nature for awhile, to strap a pack to my back and go traipsing around Yellowstone for a week like crazy ol' John Muir or something. As a mostly urban fellow, it's astounding when a television project has the power to influence me like this; and that's why I always love Burns' projects so much, even with all the BoBo tendrils that come following them. ("Don't forget to pick up the 'National Parks' soundtrack! Have you bought your 'National Parks' beach towel yet? Oh, and did we mention for the millionth time yet to donate to PBS, donate to PBS, donate to PBS, donate to PBS, donate to PBS?" Sigh.) They're all things I've been thinking about this week while watching this extraordinary series, which is why I wanted to take a moment today and mention it all. I encourage all of you to check out "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" whenever you next have the chance.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 12:41 PM, October 2, 2009. Filed under: Arts news | Movies | Reviews |