Text by John Rasmus. See a Mountainfilm photo gallery >>
Here at ADVENTURE, we're big fans of the national parks (we do a cover feature on them every year). We're also big fans of the definitive, iconic documentaries of Ken Burns (The Civil War and Jazz are two favorites). Knowing that Burns had just completed a new series on America's national parks, we asked him to write an introduction to our section this year, and he graciously agreed. So you could say we've already bought into this thing.
The twelve-hour, six-part series doesn't air until Labor Day, so I won't give away too much, but if you love the outdoors and American history, you simply have to watch it—and buy the DVD set, which will be released at the same time. The cinematography, of course, is enthralling. After the first ten minutes of Episode One, you'll want to quit your job, pull your kids out of school, and spend the next six months visiting all 58 of them. (Well...maybe not.) But there's so much more to it than that.
Of all Burns' series, The National Parks may be the most powerful subject through which to tell the story of post-Civil War America: How our unique natural heritage defines this country to ourselves and the world. How the fight to establish a park system brought out the best and the worst of us—greed and rapaciousness, idealism and generosity, often colliding head-to-head on the valley floor of the Grand Canyon or the forests of Great Smokies. How the automobile really did change America, swiftly and drastically. How we worked ourselves out of the Great Depression. How our country evolves, fails, starts over, and moves on, constantly and relentlessly. Sometimes there are huge historical forces at work—the transformative power of the railroads, the tragic dispersal of Native Americans. Sometimes great individuals, like John Muir, just make great things happen. Thankfully, in the case of the parks, it's worked out pretty well. So far.
One challenge Burns has with these Big Iconic Subjects is that we think we already know the stories, the themes, the broad strokes. And we do. But Burns' storytelling is powerfully affective. In Episode Four, a couple from Nebraska spends every summer for decades traveling the parks with their dog, Barney. She keeps marvelous journals, capturing their love of these special places. He takes the photographs—5,000 of them. The first Parks Director, Stephen Mather, despite his own bouts of depression, manages to save and expand the system time and again, and sets the bar for generations to come. Seeing it all through their eyes, you start to understand how just important and wonderful these places are. When the lights came up after that episode with the story of the couple from Nebraska, Burns himself was choked up. He's seen that segment, he said, a couple hundred times. "And," he said, "it happens every time." A young African American man, Shelton Johnson, interviewed on screen about his job as a park ranger, left the theatre for a few minutes after the section on his hero Stephen Mather, who understood that rangers were the human face of the parks, and did everything he could to help them. I asked Johnson if he'd seen the section on Mather before, and he said, "Yes, three or four times, and it's always difficult."
Twelve hours and six episodes may seem like a big commitment, especially if you know you're going to choke up a few times along the way, like Ken Burns, Shelton Johnson, and the rest of us did. Trust us, it's worth it.