American beauties

Posted: Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"One learns that the world, though made, is yet being made. That this is still the morning of creation. ... Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike." - John Muir

So begins the latest PBS offering from film-maker Ken Burns. "The National Parks: American's Best Idea." It's hard to imagine a more eloquent opening than the haunting voice-over of those words from John Muir, one of the early champions of preserving the majestic spaces of America.

What you get from Ken Burns is meticulous research, stunning visuals, interesting facts about long-forgotten folks, elegiac music and poetry to soothe the soul. He proceeds at a stately pace. (To be honest, he proceeds at times in this six-part series at a glacial pace.) But persevere. As he did with his documentaries on the Civil War, baseball, jazz, race, feminism and World War II, Burns tells stories that illuminate topics everybody thinks they already know. They don't. They don't know these stories.

Burns subtitles this one "America's Best Idea." A bit of overstatement. We would reserve that claim for, oh, say, the Bill of Rights. But Burns is on firm ground when he says setting aside national park land for the public is as "uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence." The palaces and many parks of Europe, he notes, are owned by royalty and the elites. America's parks are owned by the people.

The ruination of Niagara Falls gave birth to the idea of "public" parks. By the 1860s, private owners controlled every single U.S. vantage point for viewing those magnificent falls. Tourists, hounded by hucksters, had to pay the going rate. Throughout this series, the battle cry raised is "not another Niagara."

Tourists came to marvel at Yosemite even before the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln in 1864 preserved that land and the ancient groves of giant Sequoia trees for public use by entrusting them to California. Yellowstone became the first national park in 1872, mainly because Wyoming was still a territory and there was, as yet, no state to take it. (Congress, however, failed to appropriate any money to manage or protect the park that year.)

By 1890, America had four national parks. They were already being loved to excess.

Before the National Park Service was born in 1916, the parks were in a legal limbo. The U.S. Cavalry came to the rescue. Gen. Philip Sheridan of Civil War and Indian Wars fame commanded the West. He sent Army troops to safeguard those early parks from poachers and vandals, hunters and herders. Capt. Charles Young, who was born a slave, became the third black graduate of West Point and superintendent of Sequoia National Park in charge of the African-American troops, the Buffalo Soldiers, who patrolled there.

A young Teddy Roosevelt went west in 1883 because he was afraid the buffalo would become extinct before he had the chance to kill one. Roosevelt loved hunting. He also became, as president, a staunch conservationist and fierce protector of the parks "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." Those words of his are inscribed on the famed arch at Yellowstone's northern entrance. President Franklin D. Roosevelt expanded the parks to include battlefields and other historic sites. Today there are nearly 400 such parks and sites.

It is the grandeur of the first parks in the West that enthralls in this series. They contain the "spacious skies" and "purple mountain majesties" made legend in song.

Ken Burns will have done the parks a service if this series inspires families to get up off the couch and plan a journey to one of these spectacular spots. You own these parks. Your kids and grandkids will own them. Follow Muir's advice. They are yours to play in. Enjoy.



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