I've been watching the DVDs of Ken Burn's latest documentary: The National Parks; America's Best Idea. Burns and collaborator Dayton Duncan have brought their cinematic eye and art to the American wilderness, illuminating places such as the Grand Canyon - about which Teddy Roosevelt observed; "The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it." - and ideas about conservation and public benefit that the filmmakers present as emblematic of American democracy.
It is a powerful story, carried forward by stunning visuals and Burn's signature treatment of historic images and personalities. Like many viewers I find it inspiring and it makes me want to visit and revisit many of these places (which will likely be welcomed by the Park Service in the face of a marked trend of decreasing visitation and connection between Americans and our Great Outdoors.
It is also a story that embodies great complexity, with larger than life figures like John Muir who somehow outshines even Teddy Roosevelt in the first part of the series. Some of the "talking heads" help to weave together what for the sake of the story is tempting to cast as opposing conservation viewpoints rather than two sides of the same coin. The nation's first Forest Service Director, Gifford Pinchot, still gets less than his due, in my opinion, particularly after having just read Timothy Egan's brilliant new history of The Big Burn; Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America. Pinchot was certainly more significant as a conservationist than just as the pragmatic proponent of sustainable use of forestland that he becomes when juxtaposed to the wilderness prophet Muir.
Those talking heads without whom a modern documentary would be unthinkable are a narrative device pioneered and perfected by Burns. I am always intrigued to see which emerges as the charismatic authoritative voice in the film, as Shelby Foote did in Burn's treatment of The Civil War. Two episodes into the series, there are two voices that stand out for me, but for very different reasons.
One belongs to William Cronon, the Frederick Jackson Turner Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and author of the excellent Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England. His is the voice of gentle intelligence and sensitivity, seeing the study of history and ecology as mutually sustaining (a perspective with which I am fully in accord).
The other is Shelton Johnston, a charismatic veteran park ranger, a marvelous story teller whose love of the parks is palpable. Johnston is an African American with considerable Native American ancestry who was raised in Detroit. More than this, his background makes him a distinct minority both as a Park Ranger and among visitors to our national parks. Not even 1% of those who visit Yosemite, for example, are African American. As Johnston said in a recent interview:
"It's bigger than just African Americans not visiting national parks. It's a disassociation from the natural world," said Johnson, who has worked in Yosemite for the past 15 of his 22 years in the Park Service. "I think it is, in part, a memory of the horrible things that were done to us in rural America."
The rejection of the natural world by the black community, he said, is a scar left over from slavery.
"All Snoop Dogg has to do is go camping in Yosemite and it would change the world," said Johnson, 51. "If Oprah Winfrey went on a road trip to the national parks, it would do more than I have done in my whole career."
The conservation movement in America has a long way to go before this disconnect is resolved.
Burns' film emphasizes that the creation of National Parks was a reaction to the wholesale exploitation of natural resources during the final decades of the 19th century. Yet the very idea of setting aside land for non consumptive public benefit would not even have been considered for the American wilderness if we had not already chosen to do so within our own developed habitat. The rural cemetery movement, the development of public parks within the urban landscape by Frederick Law Olmstead and those he inspired, and even the setting aside of some of the great killing fields of our nation's Civil War as monuments to its memory, all preceded the establishment of the first National Park.
This was not the case in the 18th century, when the Common was a place for the community's livestock and there were better uses for old battlefields than places of quiet reflection. We do not set aside land until we believe what it contains is both essential and irreplaceable. Nor do we invest in the survival of what we do not see as having value. Whether that value is intrinsic, as Muir would have it, or essential to our own health and well being, or both of these things, has long been part of the national conservation debate, and especially so regarding the conservation purposes, use and management of public lands.
One thing, at least, has changed since Roosevelt's Day. Nature does not take its course, at least during the span of human lives, completely free of our influence. Our hands may mar without our even being aware, but they can only mend if we are deliberately conscious in our choices and pay close attention to the results of our interventions. Having a national conversation along these lines would be a wonderful outcome of Burn's storytelling.