Ken Burns' "National Parks" is a Good Idea Indeed
No doubt most of you have heard of Ken Burns' new documentary "The National Parks: America's Best Idea." Hopefully many of you have watched at least part of it on public television. I highly recommend it. Not only is it an excellent history or the national park system, for a nature photographer, it's also a great source of inspiration.
In addition to his normal well researched historical footage, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" contains a great deal of lovingly shot contemporary images of Yosemite, Yellowstone, and yes, Mt. Rainier and the other parks of the Northwest. It is evident that Burns and partner Dayton Duncan truly care about their subject matter. It's simply gorgeous. As a celebration of the diversity and beauty that can be found in America's national parks, it has few rivals.
But the six-part documentary serves as more than just a simple travel guide. Yes, after watching the series you will likely feel an urge to visit a park, but Burns and Duncan set their sights much higher. Even more inspiring than the scenery is the how the series captures the spirit behind the creation of these treasures. Most people tend to take the national parks for granted, but it was through the acts of countless actual people that these places came to be preserved.
In the early days of the United States, the prevailing mindset was to go out and tame the landscape, to exploit it and conquer it for personal gain and wealth. It's regrettable that some still hold to this idea today. But even then, some realized that certain places were special, almost mystical or religuous in quality. Everyone knows at least some of John Muir, but there is so much more to learn from watching this series. Yes, Ansel Adams is here too, but so are less known names such as James Mason Hutchings, Frederick Olmsted, Harold Ickes, and countless others.
Burns had been making the rounds of talk shows leading up to the debut of The National Parks. His standard delivery always included noting how remarkable it is that the Grand Canyon isn't lined by mansions and that Yellowstone hadn't been turned into "Geyser World" amusement park. If this sounds more like hyperbole than honest speculation to you, you need to become more familiar with the early days of Niagara Falls. What Burns supposes could well have been had it not been for the accumulated efforts of those with higher ideals.
The national parks are truly democratic in origin and purpose. "For the first time in human history," says Burns, "land was set aside, not for kings and noblemen, not for the rich, but for everybody in all time." In one episode, President Roosevelt proudly states that "the country belongs to the people. They are not for the rich alone." Given the bickering of politics today, the series will hopefully serve as a wakeup call for what is possible when people look beyond immediate profit taking and exploitation and look instead to how they can be good stewards for coming generations. I told you, inspiring stuff.
Then as now, things weren't always easy. Franklin Roosevelt was vilified by ranchers and business interests for his efforts to expand Grand Teton National Park. Sometimes powerful interests did prevail as happened with the damming of Hetch Hetchy, but in the long view the democratic ideals embodied in even having national parks has won out. Let's hope it continues to in the future.
Photography has the power to convey feelings and emotion. It has the power to persuade. It can connect with a place in people deeper than short term needs and wants. Coupled with the persuasive stories of the ordinary yet remarkable people who made the national parks possible and made sure they grew and prospered against all odds, Burns and Duncan have created a remarkable documentary.
If you missed any of the series, the DVD is scheduled to be released this week. You can also catch full episodes online right now on PBS's website.
Ken Burns' Civil War, Jazz, Baseball and other documentaries were extremely well done too, but none were really my cup of tea in the same way this one is. For me, with his look at the National Parks, he's had his best idea yet. If you have in interest in nature photography or the national parks, you need to see it.
Update 11/26/2009 - The reviews of Ken Burns' National Parks have mostly been quite favorable, but reviewers who were less kind seem to have wanted just to see beautiful imagery of the parks with no back story — some sort of HDTV travel guide of calendar images with plenty to look at but nothing that makes you think. One disappointed review on Amazon that caught my eye claims the series "is not really about the National Parks, it is about the people and the politics related to the history of the National Parks," going on to opine that there's a big difference between the two. Such thinking puzzles me. After all, while all that beautiful scenery scattered around the country had nothing to do with the people and politics that preserved it as national parks, it's not as if it was a foregone conclusion that you and I and generations to come would be able to enjoy that scenery. Without those people and politics I suspect many of these sites would be reserved for the few, locked behind gated communities, or in some cases bulldozed entirely to make way for "progress." While some don't want to admit it, the politics and the parks are inseparable. Without one we almost certainly would not have had the other, at least to the extent we enjoy today. Willfully or not, visiting national parks without wanting to understand how that came to be possible is simply shortsighted.