what i'm watching: the national parks: america's best idea, a film by ken burns

In honour of the fact that I'll be in Yosemite National Park the week after next, I'm writing something that has been sitting on my to-write list since last winter: about the documentary film "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," by Ken Burns. This was mostly an excellent film, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in history and in conservation - with one big, fat caveat.

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Ken Burns is not as well known in Canada as he is in the US, so I'll give some background. Burns is a documentary filmmaker known for his long, multi-part films about different aspects of US history. His films debut on PBS (public television) and have become a staple for PBS viewers, beginning with "The Brooklyn Bridge" in 1981. But he became nationally recognized and achieved an unprecedented stardom with PBS fans with "The Civil War" in 1990, a nine-part series in which he pioneered the use of using sound and photography techniques to create an illusion of movement in still images, interspersed with actors reading first-person accounts of participants.

In a similar vein, he's done a nine-part series about baseball and a ten-part series about jazz, as well as shorter films about US historical figures such as Lewis and Clark and Frank Lloyd Wright. Burns looks at each of his subjects through the lenses that forged America: race, labour, the struggle for democracy. A full list of his films is here, on the website of his production company, Florentine Films.

Many people feel Burns' style has become a cliched, and he does use similar techniques in every film. But although his style may be easily parodied, to me it is truly outstanding and can be thrilling. Each film has a distinct point of view and emphasis, so students of the particular subject tend to be hypercritical. Amateur baseball historians picked apart "Baseball," and hardcore jazz aficionados decried "Jazz". But to my knowledge, Burns doesn't claim to be telling a definitive history. He's more interested with placing his subject in historical context - teasing out how it was shaped by the forces of its time and in turn changed those times - and with offering first-person accounts to make the history real.

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We rented "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," from Zip, and spent weeks engrossed in it. I traveled to many US national parks as a child with my family, and continue to try to visit national parks in both the US and Canada. Since travel is one of my greatest passions - and since I enormously value the beauty and majesty of nature - and since I really dig Ken Burns' films - this seemed like a natural for me. And in many respects it was.

But. There is one big but. "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" is shellacked with a nauseatingly thick layer of America-worship and American exceptionalism.

Every episode begins with a heavy-handed patriotic ode, connecting the very idea of nature conservation and parks for the average citizen to the core values of America itself, in purple prose dripping with hyperbole. Then the stories in the film go on to completely demolish the rhetoric, proving that the truth is exactly the opposite!

Every single story in the history of the US's vast and spectacular National Parks System is the story of ordinary people wresting a piece of their country from corporate interests, attempting to save and preserve it from certain destruction, privatization and profit-making enterprises. Every. Single. Story.

Left to their own American devices, industrial and corporate interests - mining, oil, lumber, sugar, railroad, real estate, you name it - would have destroyed, paved over or privatized every single scrap of natural beauty and historical significance in the the United States. There wouldn't be a tree standing, a river left undamned, a mountain not covered in billboards or a vista without a private company charging admission.

And the only reason this didn't happen, according to this film, is because individual visionaries dedicated their lives to fighting corporate interests. In every era and region, one person with vision, determination and tenacity marshaled public interest, found a friend in government, fought like hell, and managed to save at least a portion of the land that meant so much to them. The great John Muir was the first of these, but he is only the head of a long parade of men and women from all different backgrounds whose passions led to become crusaders for the land and the people's right to collectively preserve it. And even after the land was preserved, park superintendents in every era fought for even semi-adequate funding and against the constant intrusions of commercialism.

It may be possible to see this dynamic as very American, too - the individual hero as a force for change. But every episode begins with some gooey nonsense about the parks as America and America as the parks, freedom and coming home and rites of passage. Yet over and over, we see that the most American thing about the parks is that they almost didn't happen. They were almost lost to capitalist notions of "progress".

So if you love travel, history and nature, see this movie. But if you're less than keen on the US, don't say I didn't warn you.

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There were dozens of highlights in "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," but I want to mention one that was new to me: Adolph Murie, hero to wildlife, and especially to wolves.

Early conservation efforts viewed all predatory wildlife as pests that needed to be exterminated - especially, of course, wolves. Murie was the first person to study wolves in their natural habitat. He used facts to prove that not only were wolves not ruthless murderers, but that their extermination actually harmed the environment. Murie was instrumental in forming Denali National Park, one of the great treasures of the US that I've been fortunate enough to visit, as well as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

I also credit Ken Burns with portraying Depression-era CCC workers in a positive light - a rarity - and for a particular poignant take on the Japanese-American concentration camps. Burns never glosses over the racism and labour struggles that are so much a part of US history.

The movie is about the formation and history of the parks, but also about how they were used or enjoyed in various eras. One thread was particularly meaningful to me. In episode four, we meet a couple who traveled alone and independently long before this was the norm - just them and their dog, actually a series of dogs as they grew old together.

They traveled first by train, and then by car, the man taking photographs and the woman keeping a travel journal. Starting from their home in Nebraska, they criss-crossed the country, and eventually visited every park that existed at the time, more than 30 in all, some several times. When the man died, the woman made one last trip without him before hanging up her traveling shoes for good.

Much of their story is told through her journal, which is the kind of work Ken Burns does best. I trust it isn't difficult to see why this story moved me so: Margaret and Edward Gehrke.

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