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Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Ken Burns’ new documentary series – “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” – will change the way America views its national treasures. When it comes out in September, the series will channel rich emotion into our unique and inspiring landscapes, revitalizing our natural legacy.

If this sounds like a shameless promo for Burns and his series, that’s the intent. I want people to see this series, every living American, whether descendants from founding families or the newest immigrants, because this film captures what it means to be an American.

Burns was in Aspen last week for a two-day seminar at The Aspen Institute, where he spoke with poetic verve about the National Parks. “Patriotism is a religion of the soil,” he said. “The National Parks represent our nation’s patrimony.”

A character central to the reverence Burns conveys for the natural splendor of America’s parks is John Muir, the Scottish-born naturalist, scientist, writer and conservation advocate, whose name is synonymous with Yosemite National Park.

It was Muir who emphasized the transcendental qualities of Yosemite to President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, when something all-too-rare occurred in U.S. history. Muir and Roosevelt spent two nights camping in Yosemite, making Roosevelt the last standing president to sleep on the ground.

The story has mythical qualities, revealing the equal passion of both men as they discovered common ground in their love of wild places. They sat around campfires beneath towering sequoias and slept on the rim above Yosemite. They camped in the open air, covered only by woolen Army blankets. They were snowed upon, and they gloried in the experience. They shared the vitality of renewal in the wilds.

Roosevelt sought out Muir, specifically, to hear his views on preserving Yosemite, a place that touched Muir with a religious fervor. No longer was Muir’s spirit hampered by his strict Calvinist upbringing. In wild nature, Muir’s spirit grew wings and flew as free as an eagle. At Yosemite, that eagle soared to dizzying heights.

Roosevelt already appreciated the wilds. As an avid hunter, he believed that contact with the wilds through hunting was one of the most visceral connections possible. Muir, nonetheless, admonished the president to stop his “infantile” desire to “kill animals.” According to Burns, Muir was the only man alive who could have said that to Roosevelt.

Muir and Roosevelt make up only one chapter of the “National Parks” series, in which Burns hits an artistic height that propels the National Parks into a spiritual realm linked to the very soul of the American experience. The content is strong, but the images are stronger still, filling the screen with majesty, wonder, and awe.

During the seminar, organized by Ken Adelman and Cristal Logan, Burns warned that visitor numbers have been in decline at National Parks. This is a concern to conservationists and legislators who know that, without a constituency, the parks could be imperiled.

Burn’s documentary will change that, making park managers angry with him for sending people to the parks in droves. “I want to make all the managers angry with me,” Burns smiled. “These parks need visitation.”

As we witness a growing preoccupation with the virtual world of TV and video games, the National Parks are the natural antidote. This new series by Burns will set into motion renewed appreciation for what nature created and man has had the wisdom to preserve for generations, and hopefully for generations to come.

“The effort required for the conservation of National Parks has been incredibly demanding,” explained Burns, “and that same effort must go on far into the future if we are to hold onto these remarkable places.”

The National Parks, wrote Wallace Stegner, “are the best idea America has ever had.” Ken Burns may be the most important spokesman for that idea since Muir communed with Roosevelt beneath the swirling stars shining down on Yosemite.


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