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Reel Review: Ken Burns "The National Parks – America's Best Idea"

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By Hunter Rothwell
In 1851, during the frenzied California gold rush
and the Mariposa wars, a U.S. Army battalion
chased 200 Ahwahneechee Indians into Yosemite
Valley. The soldiers were the first white men to enter
the valley, and the scenery had a profound affect
on them. A member of the party, Dr. Lafayette Bunnell,
said, “I have seen the power and the glory of a
supreme being. His handy work is in that testimony
of the rock.” This was the beginning of the story of
our national parks.
In Ken Burns’s “The National Parks: America’s
Best Idea,” the highly acclaimed documentary
director and producer has created a masterpiece of
breathtaking cinematography and historical narrative.
Burns’s series, which catalogs the story of
American public lands from 1851-1980, won an
Emmy for Outstanding Nonfiction Series. The six,
two-hour, episodes were originally aired on PBS.
In the mid to late 1800s, America was in the middle
of the industrial revolution. It was difficult for
Americans at the time to relent from their commercial
pursuits. Industry and new technology were
the backbone of the United States’ rise to global
power, and citizens embraced the idea of civilization
conquering the wild land. This embedded attitude
was, and continues to be, the greatest challenge to
the realization of setting aside land to remain in its
natural state. Burns’s work shows the particulars of
the long and fierce fight against these competing elements
of the American spirit.
The powerful first and second episodes, “The Scripture
of Nature” (1851-1890) and “The Last Refuge”
(1890-1915), recount the work and life of John
Muir, who was the most eloquent and dedicated
advocate of the national parks. Muir’s work in Yosemite
and his extensive writings built on Emerson
and Thoreau’s work from the mid-1800s: the idea
that returning to wild nature was restorative and an
escape from urban civilization’s increasing corruption.
Delightful scenes show Muir riding a sluff
avalanche to the bottom of the Yosemite Valley and
climbing into treetops during storms so he could
learn what a storm felt like to a tree. Muir’s tireless
conservation efforts resulted in the creation of the
first large public park set aside for public use, resort
and recreation. President Lincoln signed this bill on
June 30, 1864.
Originally under the control of California, Yosemite
didn’t become a national park until 1890. The
world’s first national park originated almost twenty
years earlier: Yellowstone was created March 1,
1872, with the signature of President Grant. Unlike
Yosemite, it was not under state control because it
was in the Montana Territory. And under jurisdiction
of the federal government Burns shows these
preserved lands had greater chance of survival under
federal protection than under state control.
After Muir, the leading character of the national
parks was the millionaire industrialist Stephen
Mather. Mather had the energy
of John Muir, however
his approach to preserving
natural wonders
was very different. A
successful marketer and
salesman, he understood
that in order to sell the
public on the idea of
national parks, the people
needed to see the parks
themselves. Mather
encouraged the railroads
to continue aggressive
promotions encouraging
passengers to travel to
the parks by train. When
the automobile replaced
the railroad, he commissioned
road building and
opened the parks to cars.
As we travel through
the story of the parks,
Burns introduces us to
some of the most famous
Americans: Theodore
Roosevelt, John D. Rockefeller
Jr., Ansel Adams,
Franklin D. Roosevelt,
and more. In addition to
a tremendous voice cast
including Tom Hanks,
John Lithgow, Andy
Garcia and Sam Waterson,
Burns’s interviews
with historians and park
experts provide wonderful
stories and personal
experiences. We owe a
great debt to the people
who began preserving
and conserving our natural resources and wonders.
“The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” is a
permanent visual and narrative record of America’s
greatest treasures. As a citizen of the United
States, we are all owners of some of the most scenic
and pristine property in the world. Ken Burns
himself makes it very clear: “You’d be hard pressed
to find something that was a purer expression of
the democratic impulse. In setting aside land, not
for privileged, not for the kings and nobility, but
for everybody, for all time.”

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