National Parks: Ken Burns’ Worst Idea

I thought I would love the new Ken Burns PBS series, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”

Twelve hours on my DVR is a big chunk of real estate, so yesterday I decided to begin watching the series that premiered two weeks ago. I’d recently returned from a trip to the Grand Canyon, and I was eager to hear the back-story of this – and other – national parks.

I’m a Ken Burns fan. “Frank Lloyd Wright” prompted me to read a biography and half a dozen books on his work. “Mark Twain” introduced me to Twain’s dark side, but still gave the most celebrated writer in American history his due. I was brought to tears by the random, cruel hand of war and the dignity and eloquence of the soldiers and civilians Burns interviewed in “The War.”

It was during the latter documentary that I first noticed a trend, one that is perhaps not new, but was never before so obvious. In “The War,” Burns went into greater detail than necessary on digressions of only passing interest. Those sections paled in comparison to the abundant drama inherent in World War II. No doubt those were the parts added at the last minute as a bone-throw to special interest groups.

The significant contributions and sacrifices of minorities in World War II indeed deserve recognition, but a work of art takes time. If the footage you have is substandard, you go get more – in a perfect world. Filmmaking for television funded by grants and the public dime is, I suspect, far from a perfect world.

So in this new documentary by Ken Burns, I expected the usual throat-clearing of various special interest groups to run as a faint background noise. Even so, I had high hopes. It’s the Grand Canyon! It’s El Capitan! How do you mess that up?

Ken Burns found a way.

That’s not to say my last four hours of television viewing was a total loss. I learned a few things.

I didn’t know the snowy egret was hunted almost to extinction to adorn women’s hats. And passenger pigeons, whose migrations could fill the sky for several hours, were killed with such ferocity they died out in 1914.

I had, like most people, heard of Sierra Club founder John Muir, but I didn’t grasp how instrumental he and President Teddy Roosevelt were in preserving wilderness for future generations.

I was interested, but not surprised, to learn that politics a century ago worked exactly like politics today. The public interest fights with local business interests for dominance – and often loses. “Nothing dollarable is safe,” as Muir succinctly put it. The battle never ends.

I learned that to bring water to San Francisco, a glacial valley in Yosemite was flooded and destroyed. Before last night I’d never heard of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, but now I’m not likely to ever forget it.

What I didn’t need to know – or rather, what I already knew because I’m over 8 years old: Writers, scholars and park rangers believe unique, historic places in nature and the species therein should be protected instead of vandalized and exploited for commercial gain.

Among the statements repeated ad nauseam: These places are beautiful. They’re sacred. We get a sense of peace. What it means to be human. We get in touch with ourselves. Rich men in Europe and their private playgrounds. Distinctly American. Democratic. Belongs to the people. Majesty of creation. God’s handiwork. One with nature. Lubrication of the human spirit (I laughed out loud on that one).

What a great drinking game this would have been. Well, I’ve got four more episodes to go!

Mr. Burns, do you suppose your PBS audience has at least an average IQ? Have you ever heard the word “understatement”? Don’t you think Muir’s own writing was florid and religious enough without piling on the musings of the Woodstock generation?

The photography in this documentary was, of course, spectacular. But cutting away from giant trees, sunsets reflected on lakes and rivers, frolicking bear cubs, wildflowers of every color framing snow-capped peaks, waterfalls and canyons half a mile high, calving glaciers, glowing lava emptying into a dark sea to talking heads spewing one half-baked, new-age cliche after another was worse than a bad idea. It was painful.

Gentle reader, if your 12 hours of “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” is still parked on your DVR, I recommend you watch and get it over with. Just keep your trigger finger on the fast-forward button and keep a jigger of whiskey handy for every time you hear “spirit” or “human” or “sacred.” On second thought, make that light beer.

[originally published by Politics Daily in 2009]



About Quixotic Chick

I write. I take pictures. I survived cancer.
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