An Education about the National Parks Thanks to Ken Burns

Ken Burns.

Ken Burns.

America has 58 National Parks. Each park is unique and has its own breathtaking landscapes and fascinating history. But now they all have been woven together in a cinematic tapestry that emphasizes the fabric of America, thanks to the master storyteller Ken Burns.
“The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” is Ken Burns latest film. It is a six-part, 12-hour documentary series about the National Parks, airing on PBS, on our local KCET beginning Sunday, September 27. It is packed with stories that will enlighten and entertain the same way Burns did with his acclaimed documentaries covering everything from World War II to “The Civil War” to “Jazz” and “Baseball.”
Chatting with Ken at the recent PBS press tour, he told me that he hopes taking viewers on a grand tour of the National Parks will encourage people to get out and enjoy the parks, “which are connected by the transformative idea that great sections of our natural landscape belong to each of us, providing a shared place that lives in the memory of every individual and every family that has visited them over the years. The parks were put aside for us, not for royalty or the rich but for everyone, for all time. And they are connected by the notion that they will be preserved for future generations.”
The educational richness of the series cannot be overstated. The narrative traces the birth of the national parks idea in the mid-1800’s and follows its evolution for nearly 150 years. For the epic story archival photographs, first person accounts of historical characters and compelling interviews are used, along with what Burns describes as the most stunning cinematography in Florentine Films’ history. It also chronicles the steady addition of new parks through the stories of people from every conceivable background. They are rich and poor; famous and unknown; soldiers and scientists; natives and newcomers; idealists, artists and entrepreneurs; people who were willing to devote themselves to saving some precious portion of the land they loved.
“The Scripture of Nature” is the first episode that will launch the series, directed by Burns and co-produced with his longtime colleague Dayton Duncan, who also wrote the script. The series was filmed over the course of more than six years in some of nature’s most spectacular locales—from Yellowstone, to the Grand Canyon, from the Everglades of Florida to California’s Yosemite, from the Arctic in Alaska, to Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii.
“Just as many of the lands that make up today’s national parks were the spiritual homes for the indigenous tribes who lived there, they had a profound and often spiritual impact on the settlers who first saw them and on the visionaries who fought tirelessly to preserve them as the common property of the American people,” said Burns. “They saw in them a visual, tangible representation of God’s majesty. Our film celebrates the beauty of these parks and the vision and foresight of the men and women who made sure that this land would be preserved.”
“Making this film was one of the greatest joys of my life,” said Dayton Duncan, who has visited all but one of America’s 58 national parks, and who is the author of the impressive companion book published by Alfred Knopf, with an introduction by Ken Burns. A DVD will also be released and feature “Making of The National Parks” among the extras.
Like all of Ken Burns’ films, there is tremendous talent involved with the production. In addition to Peter Coyote’s narration, “The National Parks” features Tom Hanks reading the first-person accounts of key moments in the parks history. Andy Garcia, Eli Wallach, John Lithgow, Adam Arkin and George Takei are among the other celebrity voices. And a star is born with Yellowstone Park Ranger Shelton Johnson, who brings wonderful stories to life. Ranger Johnson has a knack for transmitting his passion for the scenic beauty and wildlife wonderment that is part of our national parks.