- The Washington Times - Friday, September 25, 2009

Ken Burns knows America.

The Brooklyn-born documentarian has made the history and culture of this country his life’s work. In films airing on PBS — often hours long — he’s explored “The Congress” and “The Civil War,” “Baseball” and “Jazz.” He’s traced the lives of Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

He’s never used a superlative quite like this before, though: His latest work has the grand title “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” The 12-hour series premieres on PBS on Sunday at 8 p.m.; a two-hour episode airs each night until Oct. 2.

With a Constitution admired the world over and a musical genre just as widely influential, the United States has been the birthplace of a lot of great ideas. Is Mr. Burns really serious in suggesting that none has been greater than setting aside land for national parks, a system that officially began with Yellowstone in 1872?

“We deliberately were provocative,” Mr. Burns says with a twinkle in his voice, speaking by telephone from New York.

Historian Clay Jenkinson says in the film that Jefferson’s idea to found a country in which all men — or at least almost all — would be free and equal was probably America’s best idea. “But right up there is the idea of national parks,” he says.

Mr. Burns says he left in Mr. Jenkinson’s disavowal of the title on purpose. “The remaining 11 hours and 50 minutes are one hell of a good proof that we’re right,” he says. “Once you establish a country under liberty, you’re hard-pressed to find a better idea than this one — land shared with everyone for all time.”

The film, which was directed by Mr. Burns and co-produced and written by Dayton Duncan, isn’t just a high-definition look at the beauty contained in the 58 national parks and 333 national monuments and historic sites — though it showcases Mr. Burns’ most striking cinematography yet. It’s a history of the idea of the system itself and a collection of stories of the men and women who built it.

The film declares that the national parks are “as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence and just as radical.”

“Basically, all land through all human history belonged to the king, the noblemen or the very rich. The idea could only have grown out of democratic experience, to share land in common,” Mr. Burns says. “It’s a hugely radical idea. Thomas Jefferson didn’t follow John Locke and say, ‘life, liberty and property.’ He said, ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ The parks are one of those things that have brought us endless happiness.”

Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, puts it another way in the film: “In Europe, the most magnificent places — the palaces, the parks — are owned by aristocrats, by monarchs, by the wealthy. In America, magnificence is a common treasure.”

Of course, with a much older history, Europe has a different sort of magnificence — beautiful old buildings, for example, palaces and churches. The younger America doesn’t have those — but it does have a lot of land with a lot of natural beauty.

The contrast here between the Old World and the New goes beyond “just the physicality of it,” the 56-year-old filmmaker believes. “We created not just political freedom, but religious freedom,” he says.

America was founded in part by people looking to escape the confines of certain organized religion — and they found spirituality all around them in their new country.

“We didn’t have palaces and shrines to religion,” Mr. Burns says. “The genius of America is we can worship God as we feel like. We’re not following a dogmatic devotion in cathedrals made by man, but finding God on our own in nature.”

Europe once took pleasure in humiliating America for its lack of grandeur, Mr. Burns notes. “Now the world beats a path to our door,” he says. “Go to Yosemite; you’ll hear German, French, Japanese as well as English.”

Preservation as an American ideal might seem strange — after all, this is the country of the archetypal robber baron. That’s what makes the film more compelling than just a collection of pretty pictures, its maker says.

“What makes this not a travelogue or nature film, what makes this a drama — high drama — is that we are an acquisitive and extractive people. We do look at a river and think ‘dam,’” Mr. Burns says. “We do look at a canyon and think, ‘What minerals can we pull out of it?’” It was a struggle to create the system of parks that millions of people visit each year.

Mr. Burns is often called America’s national documentarian, and one wonders if this is a big burden to carry, especially as some wonder if this film is as weighty as his last, on World War II, “The War.”

“As a filmmaker, I’m harder on myself,” he says. “I live in rural New Hampshire; we handmake all these films. [The late historian] Stephen Ambrose says more Americans get their history from Ken Burns than anywhere else. That and 50 cents gets you a cup of coffee in my village. I put my pants on one leg at a time.”

That’s not to say the renown doesn’t come with perks. He screened his film for President Obama, who took his family this summer to Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. After grappling with the economic crisis, it might have been a perfect time for the president to take a reflective and inspiring trip to a national park.

“In fact, the parks thrived as never before — and it’s counterintuitive — during the Great Depression,” Mr. Burns notes. “People went to their parks to be reminded why they’re Americans. As our virtual world distracts so many Americans, we’ve actually experienced an uptick. These are the glories we had the foresight to save.”

The filmmaker extols the egalitarianism implicit in the universal access to these public lands. “Any kind of geographical or political or racial barriers float away,” he marvels. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a millionaire or a mom who changes sheets at the local Motel 6, you are a co-owner. Let’s take that metaphor a little bit further. When you own property, you need to go and inspect it once in a while. Then you put it in your will for posterity.”

As historian William Cronon observes in the film, in the national parks the personal meets the permanent. “One of the things we witness is the immensity and the intimacy of time,” he says, talking about how a person might go as a child with his parents to witness thousands-year-old beauty and then return as a parent with his own children.

These are some of the reasons Mr. Burns considers the national parks at least one of America’s greatest ideas. “Without the national parks, the Grand Canyon would be lined on both sides with the mansions of the rich, and we’d never be able to see it,” he says. “Zion and Yosemite, two of the most beautiful places on Earth, would be gated communities.”

He concludes, “This is what the national parks represent — our best selves.”

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