Ken Burns Explores Our National Parks

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Early in Ken Burns’ new mega-documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, a mythic figure appears. At first, he isn’t named (“he called himself an ‘unknown nobody,’” the narrator intones), and the otherwise twangy score settles into gentle piano chords. After a lyrical interlude, the man is finally identified as John Muir, a vagrant Scotsman who entered the Yosemite Valley in the late 1860s and died five decades later as one of the central reasons it remains preserved today.

Burns—the legendary documentarian known for The Civil War, Jazz and Baseball—frames Muir as a naturalist miracle who arrived precisely when the country needed one most. Today, Burns says, “we’ve superimposed our sort of conservation-environmental mindset” on our national parks. “Which is perfectly all right,” he’s careful to add. “But at the heart of the national-park compact, I think, is that they’re ultimately transformational places at a uniquely individual level.”

That personal connection to nature, Burns says, helped set in motion the parks’ history, which his six-part, 12-hour National Parks (set to debut Sept. 27 on PBS) traces over 150 years. The series opens with hypnotic images of live volcanoes forming new land on the ocean’s edge. More than any other Burns series, National Parks includes large sections that focus on nothing but massive natural vistas—a gesture for viewers to think of the national parks not as dad-mandated family-vacation spots but as some of the most quintessential places on our soil.

The preserves are “an utterly American invention” still unique in the world. “They provide a glance into the primeval,” Burns says. “How things once were. It touches in us something very elemental, and we all respond in different ways. Even those people who just sort of drive through the parks.”

Burns—who is so influential in his field that Apple named an iMovie editing feature after him—says that Parks underscores an idea he’s explored in all of his movies. “I think,” he says, “looking back, you begin to see that I’ve made the same film over and over again. Each one asks a deceptively simple question: Who are we? Who are these strange and complicated people who like to call themselves Americans?”

In Parks’ case, that meant exploring the contradictory tendencies of the parks’ earliest American visitors at the height of westward expansion in the 19th century. “This is the human impulse,” Burns says with a muted laugh. “We look at a river, and we say ‘dam.’… We look at a beautiful canyon, and we think, ‘What mineral can be extracted from that place?’ But there’s also a parallel impulse that says, ‘Why can’t we save this?’”

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