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National Parks Confidential: Q & A with Filmmaker Ken Burns

On the eve of his much-anticipated documentary, Ken Burns discusses the heroes and history of America's most precious wildlands–and the new challenges they face now.
ken burns telluride 445x260Burns at the Telluride Mountainfilm Fest

If you’re expecting the latest Ken Burns film, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, to be a sweeping armchair tour of the country’s most beautiful wilderness, think again. "We didn’t want to make an encyclopedia or travelogue or nature film," Burns told BACKPACKER last spring in Telluride, Colorado, at the world premiere of his new six-part series. Instead, he and filmmaking partner Dayton Duncan worked to create a very human history. Airing September 27 to October 2 on PBS (see our episode guide), the documentary highlights little-known players and events in the creation of the world’s first national park system–and a good dose of epic scenery, too. BACKPACKER editors Tracy Ross and Jonathan Dorn sat down with Burns for a preview.

BP: You’ve talked about celebrating the "nameless faces" of the national parks. Who stands out for you?
KB: Early in the film you meet African-American buffalo soldiers, the cavalrymen who were the guardians of Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks at the turn of the 20th century. And there’s George Melendez Wright, a Hispanic-American who was the first biologist of the National Park Service. This is important because, even now, you have Hispanic-Americans and African-Americans in this country who do not feel an ownership of the parks. One of the great delights for us is going into schools across the country and showing black and Hispanic kids heroes that look and sound like them. We’re hoping to create a generation of people that will use parks and feel that ownership. Without it, the parks won’t survive.

BP: In introducing the first episode at the Telluride premiere, you spoke emotionally about a backcountry trip in Yosemite that you took during shooting.
KB: I thought Yosemite would be the first natural national park I’d ever visited. [Editors' note: "Natural" refers to the scenic parks, like Yellowstone, as opposed to the historical parks, like Gettysburg.] On the last day of filming there, we tramped up past Vernal and Nevada Falls to spend the night camping. We’d worked really hard, and I thought I would just fall asleep. But I suddenly realized, "This is not the first." I had simply forgotten. In 1959, when I was 6 years old, my mother was dying of cancer, our household was demoralized, and my father was absent. He didn’t play catch, he just wasn’t there. But one Friday after school, he took me to Baltimore, where he’d grown up. He put me to bed in his room under his old comforter. He woke me up at 4 a.m., and we left in the dark. We went to Front Royal, at the north end of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. We drove through clouds, we drove through tunnels, and we saw deer. I can remember the jean jacket my dad put on me and the warmth of his hand as we walked. He described every tree and rock. We turned over logs and found these bright red salamanders, and I can remember the songs he sang. I’ve sung them to my three daughters, having forgotten–until I went to Yosemite–where they came from.

That’s what happens in a national park. You can stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon and see rock that is 1.7 billion years old, but it matters very much who’s holding your hand. We save these places, and they show us a glimpse of what the land was like before–but there are also intimate histories. Parks are places where we forge connections. It turns out my grandfather took my father to Shenandoah, and I’ve taken my daughters again and again to [historical] national parks, and they’ll take their children. There is, as John Muir said, a practical sort of immortality in that.

BP: There’s a prominent spiritual narrative throughout the film, and a significant religious history to the parks that won’t be familiar to a lot of viewers.
KB: One of the things that hit us over the head [in researching the film] was the essential spirituality at the heart of the park story. As historians, we tend to focus on our political and military narrative, the succession of administrations and political freedoms punctuated by the wars and the hero generals. But we’re also a country that said you could worship God the way you wanted to–that it didn’t have to be in a cathedral. It was inevitable that we’d have Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau who said, "Europe may have the cathedrals, but we have this beautiful Garden of Eden." And then comes John Muir, this Scottish-born wanderer who will walk into Yosemite [and see it] as the morning of creation, as being born again in nature in every moment.

The language that everyone used, including Abraham Lincoln, who first authorized Yosemite, was the rhetoric of the Bible. That’s why we named our first episode "The Scripture of Nature"–because the national park idea was born from people who were talking about finding God in nature.

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