Saturday, June 27
WALPOLE, N.H. -- The depths of the Grand Canyon. The graceful sandstone arches of southern Utah. The grizzly bears of Glacier National Park. Half Dome towering over the Yosemite valley. The rolling blue hills of the Shenandoah. The haunted swamps of the Everglades. The bubbling pots and steamy geysers of Yellowstone.

These are some of the iconic images that often come to mind when a person thinks about the majesty of the United States' national park system.

But the 58 national parks are more than just spots on a map, pictures in a photo album or places we one day hope to visit. They are the embodiment of the American spirit -- its freedom, its democracy and its history.

But even deeper than that, the national parks are places where we connect with nature, our families and friends and our own deep longing for self-knowledge and transformation.

"In 1959, my dad had taken us on our first and only road trip together to Shenandoah National Park," said Ken Burns, during an interview with the Reformer.

At the time, said Burns, his mother was dying of cancer.

His father "was not a very good dad," admitted Burns, but the memory of the trip and the emotions it evoked were stored away, waiting for the day they would arise and be recognized for the influence they had on his life.

"I wanted to recapture something I had forgotten," he said.


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That sentiment was shared by Burns' long-time co-producer and writer, Dayton Duncan. One summer, he and his wife had taken their children to Glacier National Park in Montana.

"During that trip it brought back a lot of memories," said Duncan.

One of those memories was of a trip his family took in 1959 when he was 9 years old and that memory was an epiphany of sorts for him, helping him to realize "The powerful emotions embedded in the national parks for many Americans, particularly those with the great fortune to go with their parents."

So how else would Burns and Duncan recapture those feelings but by sharing the history of the park system and the passion of the people who fought exhausting battles to protect these treasures for future generations?

Their six-part documentary, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," is set to premiere Sunday, Sept. 27, on PBS affiliates nationwide, including New Hampshire and Vermont Public Television.

On Wednesday, July 1, Burns and Duncan are hosting a preview of "The National Parks" at the Bellows Falls Opera House to benefit the Student Conservation Association and the Walpole Historical Society.

Ten years ago, Duncan brought the idea to Burns, who said he thought about it for all of 30 seconds before realizing it was a great idea.

Burns was quick to emphasize that the film is not a travelogue.

"It's a history of the ideas and the individuals who made this unique American thing happen."

What made the idea of national parks so unique?

"For the first time in history, land was set aside not for kings or nobles of the wealthy, but for everybody," said Burns.

Working with historians and writers, Duncan and Burns were able to delve deeply into the myth of the parks to discover the universal truths shared by all who had an impact on their formation and those who were changed by their experiences in the parks.

Doing justice to the story of the national parks was a difficult task, said Burns, taking a decade of work, because of "the layers of relationship and the layers of passion."

The individuals featured in the film include, among others, Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir and little known champions of the park system such as George Melendez Wright, a forester who emphasized the necessity of preserving the ecosystems of the national park, and Adolph Murie, the first scientist to study wolves in their natural setting.

Burns called Muir "one of the 10 most exciting Americans who ever lived," in the ranks of such greats as Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. "I enjoyed getting to know him."

Muir dominates the first two episodes of the series but his spirit is throughout the film, said Burns.

Muir once said in order to go inside yourself you have to get out.

"I think he meant -- I know he meant -- into nature," said Burns.

Much of the narrative in the six-part series is in the words of the people who helped create the idea of national parks, especially Muir.

"When John Muir is speaking ... get out of his way and let him have the stage," said Duncan. "If you don't understand the transcendent experience that John Muir has in Yosemite in our first episode, then I have failed as a writer and we have failed as filmmakers."

But it wasn't only white people who were responsible for preserving what was to become the national parks.

It was also people "black, brown, red, yellow, female and the unknown," said Burns, such as Lancelot Jones, the son of a slave, who helped to save Biscayne National Park in Florida, and George Dorr, who helped put together a number of estates to create Acadia National Park in Maine.

The parks are a "durable and tangible glory" that can connect people to the "political, spiritual and personal truths that everyone has," said Burns. "This is a system that grew out of spiritual impulses. That's the thing we would like to see rekindled."

What truly worries Burns is that a younger generation is becoming disconnected from the natural world due to its connection to the virtual world.

"The parks have fewer and fewer champions," he said. "Without champions they become more susceptible, more vulnerable to acquisitive and extractive energies that are always a part of human society and particularly in America."

Duncan shares that same worry.

Because of technology, he said, "a shrinking proportion of our young people are getting in touch with nature."

That's where the Student Conservation Association, located in Charlestown, N.H., plays a vital role, he said. Many of the people working in the national parks or are dedicated to their preservation got their starts in SCA.

"It's not only important work for the parks, but probably more importantly, the work it does of opening the minds and hearts of young people to the world around them," said Duncan.

SCA and the Walpole Historical Society are the beneficiaries of the July 1 screening.

In their film, Burns and Duncan hope to inspire people with the tales of those who selflessly gave themselves to the cause of creating the national parks, which have become a symbol of all that is good in the United States.

"They wake us up and make us better Americans," said Burns. "They're reminders of our best selves."

And the history of the national parks mirrors the history of the United States, he said.

Not only were areas of natural beauty and historical significance set aside for protection, said Burns, but so were areas of shame or bereavement, such as a Japanese internment camp, Central High School in Little Rock, the site of the Oklahoma City bombing, the Civil War prisoner-of-war camp in Andersonville, Ga., Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site and Shanksville, Penn., where United 93 crashed on Sept. 11.

Preserving not only the natural splendor of the country but also the sites of shame and courage is an expression of the evolution of liberty in America, he said.

American history is about the continual enlargement of the concept of liberty, he said, and the national system symbolizes that concept.

"(The film is) a story of an idea and the people behind those ideas set against the most spectacular landscape on Earth," said Duncan. "We have this great stage upon which our human character walks on to and performs."

The most challenging part for Duncan as a writer was sifting through the mountains of information gathered during the 10-year process and figuring out a way to fit it into the 12 hours of the final cut.

"There are so many great stories to tell," said Duncan, who said he had to resort to "triage" to make it all fit.

His task was to condense 150 years of history into a "narrative that gets to the essence of the national park idea. There are so many stories but so little time. A lot of things had to fall on the (cutting) floor."

Burns, Duncan and their crew of 20 people filmed 146 hours of footage, or 60 miles of film, and edited it down to six two-hour episodes. They collected 13,000 archival images, but were able to use only 10 percent, and conducted more than 50 interviews.

The pair are busy working on their next projects, including an update of Baseball, called "The Tenth Inning," a history of prohibition, the tale of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Central Park jogger case.

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.