Not once in Ken Burns’ masterful documentary on America’s National Parks does he overplay his most abiding lesson: good government is the heroic engine by which we save special places, ourselves, our nation, and our planet. Methodical and meditative, Burns dramatizes monumental themes by telling stories that start small, one visionary or scattered cluster who find the human and the sacred in the natural – redefining significance for all in the process.
Colossal achievements were initiated by single activists, like John Muir, and national triumphs inspired a worldwide phenomenon of rare wilderness set aside from perfidious “improvements.” Repeatedly, we learn more effort and greater wisdom comes from not intruding, letting nature be, than from cut and rip, dig and construct. As Shakespeare wrote (sonnet 94), “They that have the power to hurt and will do none … They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces.”
Likewise, Burns does not call out the permanent enemy, depicting specific, profit-driven developers blocking park or national monument, wilderness or forest. A greater obstacle is the smug, self-serving dogma, still driving the Party of No, that government is the enemy, the nemesis of freedom and progress, the antithesis to creativity, community, and nationhood. Strange, this anti-regulation crowd never rejects corporate welfare like grants, subsidies, tax credits, research, or wars that open markets. If the democratic majority rules, then how can duly elected government, except when corrupted, qualify as an enemy?
Other than corporate profits and stock prices, exactly who or what is better off than when Reagan articulated this nonsense? Assaults against the average man, woman, child, forest, mountain, and beast have been nothing short of catastrophic – jeopardizing ecosystem health, education and research funding, employment opportunities, equitable distribution of wealth, and rational public discourse. Except for the super-rich, what a three-decade scorecard of misery. Burns’ panorama of gorgeous scenery never slights implicit power relationships, reminding us everything is connected: nothing is just about land, rivers, sky, or trees, but what our species needs to survive: clean water, safe housing, access to sustainable clothing, heating, and housing. Dollar bills may not grow on trees (except for loggers) but we choke without green leaves.
Nature, Even Wildness, Not ‘Out There’
However beautiful and spiritual, land and resource use govern human existence, and we are everywhere pushing the edges of sustenance. Burns is not alone, suggesting if we don’t find ways to make our government work again, we can kiss goodbye our national rendezvous with destiny. Though focused on Parks after Lincoln, this documentary offers a New Deal essay on what today blocks progressive goals, nodding both to our better angels and soaring, if open-ended presidential promises. To displace “government is the enemy” cant, we need not believe the opposite – that government flawlessly applies to every problem – only that no other entity is big enough, or credit-worthy enough, to tackle job creation or health reform or genuine energy options.
Certainly, the National Parks blaze forth victorious stories by those who “saved nature” (historical sites) to save themselves, their brethren, and all to follow. Unifying Burns’ six episodes are these epic drum beats: in community, awareness, and foresight there is strength, and America’s survival depends on restoring community and relearning to willingly share. Thus, his assumption what defines a country: history, shared values, and place. For Burns, the culmination of America can’t simply be making a buck, turning rigid, partisan denominations into dogma, or spending trillions to victimize sovereign countries when there’s a gorgeous, sacred planet to save.
Burns’ timing is exquisite as the first step to change is recognizing the avalanche that surrounds you. Electing Barack Obama speaks to recognition Bush-Cheney took us far off the trail. Surely, Iraq and Afghanistan will certify nation-building is out. But there’s still enormous denial, signaled by Obama’s nearly pathologically caution. But at least this ex-community organizer talks about unity, stakeholders, and consensus that transcends private or spiteful self-interest.
The Best Idea – or Last Gasp for Unity
National Parks merit Burns’ designation as “our best idea” – what, trumping the Constitution? – only because this advance models how to integrate culture, economics, science, and nature. Dynamic yet stable when unspoiled, natural gateways into our evolving planet incorporate preservation and research, glimmers of paradise, the spirituality of wild nature, a century of hard-fought battles, and America’s “can-do” belief in itself. If we can save nature, Burns implies, our insatiably acquisitive species has a future.
But I fear worse before better, if it comes: polarization trumps reconciliation, especially since common ground or knowledge has evaporated. Birthers et al are not just “crazy,” or wrong, but dead set against anyone else in charge. Children show how much easier, and quicker, to destroy a vase than make one. Burns implies preserving the physical planet could still define a unifying national crusade. Full of flexible models, this documentary moves from the mundane (parks as vacations from cities) to the sublime, redefining our relation to each other by redefining our relation to nature and a creation beyond our means and ken.
We can quibble whether National Parks is “our best idea,” but it does epitomize achieving the “greatest good for the greatest number,” just like health care, or energy transformation, or climate control, if they happen. That’s what makes Burns’ documentary the best antidote to today’s diseased politics, mired between critical care and utter irrelevance. For six episodes, every major milestone portrays how functional government responds to inspired activists, evoking our last progressive era 40 or so years ago. That golden age spawned the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the womens movement, wars on poverty, stepped up enforcement of fair housing, gender, disability, and employment regulations, the EPA and the iconic Endangered Species program. We even ended a misguided, incredibly divisive Asian land war. To dwell in this history, human and natural, is to believe miracles, or just change, is possible.
In case you missed any of the episodes:
PBS: The National Parks
The National Parks: America’s Best Idea is the story of an idea as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence and just as radical: that the most special places in the nation should be preserved, not for royalty or the rich, but for everyone. As such, it follows in the tradition of Burns’s exploration of other American inventions, such as baseball and jazz.