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Ken Burns makes Aspen stop

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – From Bush v. Gore to Arby’s, the designated hitter to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (the film version; I didn’t read the book and, unless it has Cate Blanchett in it, I’m not going to), America has come up with some spectacularly bad ideas. But in this litany of failures, the United States can claim at least one perfect idea.

When documentary filmmaker Ken Burns appears at The Aspen Institute Tuesday, part of his presentation will focus on his latest project, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” The subtitle comes from the environmental writer Wallace Stegner, and in Burns’ new work, the debate over the country’s proudest accomplishments begins early on. Burns comes down on the side that, at least since the Declaration of Independence, our national parks are the best thing we as a nation ever created.

“Once we started these United States, under Jeffersonian ideals, this is the best idea we’ve ever had,” said Burns by phone from his office in New Hampshire.

One of the principal reasons Burns buys into Stegner’s assessment has much to do with Thomas Jefferson’s statement of inalienable human rights. The national parks system – formally established in 1890 under Theodore Roosevelt, with the creation of Yellowstone National Park – is a reflection of democratic thinking.

“It’s democratic impulses at its heart,” said Burns, whose presentation, History as Art, is at 5:30 p.m. at Paepcke Auditorium, part of the Aspen Institute’s McCloskey Speaker Series. “This was the best places set aside not for the elite, nobility or kings, but for everybody, for all time. And you couldn’t dream that up unless you had a democratic foundation.”

Returning to Jefferson: Burns observes that the third U.S. president believed America would never run out of natural beauty. It was, said Burns, “this bountiful garden of Eden which Jefferson believed would last forever.” In fact, the concept of America as an endless frontier was over around 1890 – just 64 years after Jefferson died. Fortunately, there was some uncommonly enlightened, far-sighted thinking demonstrated by writers, politicians, artists and nature lovers.

“We said, ‘No, no, no. We need to save these places. We need to preserve a glimpse into America’s abundant garden of Eden,'” Burns said.

He said that, beyond the political philosophy and history, “The National Parks” – a six-part series that airs on PBS in the fall, and which will be previewed at Tuesday’s talk – emphasizes the personal experience of the parks. He said he wasn’t prepared for the element of emotion that would surface in the documentary.

“I don’t think we were prepared for the amount of emotion,” he said. “You expect that with films about war – and I’ve done two films about war. But the power, on a grand, patriotic level, and also on a personal, intimate level – people were crying when they saw this at Mountainfilm [in Telluride, where “The National Parks” had its premiere last month]. Standing before these immense structures, you feel a cosmic insignificance. But it also makes us feel bigger.”

Burns notes that the national parks have come to play a significant role for the history of individual families. “These are not just about the immensity of time, but the intimacy of time,” he said. “Each person connects to these parks through their families. We find them a powerfully memorable thing. In the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, we would pack everyone in the station wagon and take them for a three-week tour. It’s where you bond. It’s not the repetition of everyday life.”

“The National Parks” also examines Yellowstone, Yosemite, Mesa Verde, et al., as the product of individual vision and will battling commercial interests.

“If you lift the rock and look underneath, you’ll find the story of individuals who fell in love with this place, and then worked so hard, against great forces who couldn’t see a river without thinking, ‘Dam,’ or who couldn’t see a forest without thinking ‘board feet,'” Burns said.

He has said that race is the most important sub-theme in American history. That element has an obvious place in his past works, “Jazz” and “The Civil War,” and even “Baseball.” (“Baseball” is being updated with an episode that focuses on the latest racial transformation of the national pastime.)

Race is not so pronounced in “The National Parks,” but Burns uncovers stories relevant to his ongoing theme. When Yosemite and Sequoia were first being established, before the abolition of slavery, they were protected by black regiments of the U.S. Cavalry. “African-American Buffalo Soldiers told you what you could and couldn’t do in the National Park,” said Burns, adding that the new series fully addresses what he sees as the second biggest sub-theme in American history: space.

Aside from childhood memories, Burns came to “The National Parks” with little formal knowledge of the topic. He prefers it that way. All of his films, with the exception of “Baseball,” have been a process of discovery for him.

“That’s so much better,” Burns said. “Documentary films, particularly historical documentaries, have been like homework. They tell you what they already know, and what they think you should know. Not, ‘Hey, look what I just learned.'”

America’s national parks may not seem to fit in with Burns’ past topics – or his next subject, Prohibition, which gets a three-episode treatment. To Burns, though, it was a natural.

“I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to do the parks,” he said. “They are so essentially us.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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