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Ken Burns on the Importance of 'America's National Parks'

Ken Burns on the Importance of ‘America’s National Parks’
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Ken Burns' next series, on America's national parks, begins on PBS September 27.
Photo/Art by Christian Kozowyk
Ken Burns’ next series, on America’s national parks, begins on PBS September 27.

Producer/Director Ken Burns describes his work as “emotional archaeology.” For nearly 30 years, Burns has unearthed compelling, surprising, complex stories surrounding seemingly well-documented subjects.

His newest film, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, a six-part, 12-hour series, is scheduled to air on PBS stations beginning Sunday, September 27. We spoke with Burns in his office at Florentine Films in Walpole, New Hampshire.

“History is mostly about stories, and I think it connects us to the eras–not just the accumulation of facts, but sometimes the accumulation of really contradictory feelings.

“If your wife says, ‘Honey, how was your day?’ you don’t say, ‘I backed so slowly down the driveway. I pulled out onto the street, and pulled up to the stop sign.’ You say, ‘I can’t believe what that SOB did at work today,’ and then you tell a story. A story is the way we distill experience. And stories will always be the way we do it. A blog is somebody’s story, right? God help us, but it’s somebody’s story.

“You take on the topic not because you know something about it, but because you don’t know something about it. It has a kind of siren call; it interests you, it fits into what you’re thinking about. And I’ve said I think we’ve made the same film over and over again. We’re just asking the simple question Who are we?”

“If you think that we could have done without the national parks, just imagine what the rim of the Grand Canyon would be like with McMansions all along it. No access, or maybe a tiny path that permits the public a tiny view. But it’s not [like that]. It’s completely clear. It’s the grandest canyon on Earth, and it’s [with] amazing foresight that we were able to arrest our acquisitive and extractive energies, which are a part of what made America great. Let’s dam that river, let’s mine for gold, let’s dig a tunnel for even more gold, let’s chop down those trees …”

“And we’ve been able now, as the idea of the national parks has evolved, to leave them as a vignette of wild America, and that has huge psychological as well as civic and historical repercussions. What we’ve done is evolve the idea [of the national parks] so that it isn’t just about scenery. It’s about wildlife, it’s about species. We would have lost the buffalo, period. End of statement, extinct, had there not been a Yellowstone National Park.”

“[America] is this Garden of Eden that Thomas Jefferson thought, after he sent Lewis and Clark to explore, would take hundreds of generations to fill up, and when we did it in less than five, there was this kind of Yikes, boy, what are we going to lose? And out of this incredible relationship to the landscape was spawned a kind of democratic response, an Emersonian and Thoreauvian response that you can worship God as you feel, not in cathedrals made by man, but in cathedrals made by nature.”

“We take [these parks] for granted. Most Americans think that the Park Service has always been there to take care of them, but the Park Service doesn’t show up until halfway through our third episode out of six, and it raises questions. How did it come about? Who was taking care of them?

“Well, it came about usually [through] individuals, people you and I have never heard of. Not just the John Muirs and the Teddy Roosevelts and the John D. Rockefeller Jrs., but many other people from every conceivable background and ethnicity dedicated their lives to saving the parks. It was African American buffalo soldiers in Yosemite and Sequoia national parks in the late 19th century, because there was no one [else] there to stop the poachers and the vandals and the errant tourists. It’s a really great story, and it’s just one of hundreds that we tell.”

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