I just spent an hour watching previews and excerpts from the latest Ken Burns magnus opus, “The National Parks, America’s Best Idea,” which opens Sept. 27 (this coming Sunday) on PBS stations nationwide. If you haven’t seen it already, the 25-minute preview opens with a park ranger recalling his oneness with Yellowstone bison at 60 degrees below zero. You kinda get the shivers, and not from his depiction of the cold. Another part has a cinematographer recounting a nighttime shoot of a river of orange molten lava flowing into the ocean at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It’s pretty cool on a computer screen; imagine seeing it live.
Oddly enough, the one guy who seems to speak mainly in platitudes about our national parks is Burns himself. Genuine wilderness junkies get a crazed, eyes-too-wide look on their faces when attempting to put their experiences into words. Burns looks like he’s memorized his script.
I got a little misty-eyed when they played the old-fashioned fiddle music as the cameras panned over Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Zion, the Great Smokies. I fell for all these places at first sight, as any person with an ounce of soul should.
Still, there’s something slightly irksome about waxing on for night after night about how great Americans were because we “saved” these lands, which came into being over the course of billions of years and will last billions more, long after our kind becomes extinct. None of this was really done for the edification of nature; it was done for the edification of Americans — motivated by an urge to preserve pretty things.
Nature is not just awesome shots of the sun setting behind the Grand Tetons. It’s what grants us permission to live. I have this nagging fear that folks will see these shows and think “hey, we saved all those national parks, our work’s done here. Let’s get back to building more subdivisions.”
The parks are just a start. We won’t stand a chance till we treat the whole planet with the reverence lavished on its showiest places.
(All pontificating aside, this page of videos is worth a look. Best seen at full screen — click on the little box in the lower right hand corner).