In a Film About Land, Stories About People

Filmmaker Ken Burns describes how he hopes “The National Parks” will succeed both as a topical statement about conservation and a timeless human story.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: What are the most compelling human stories in your new film?

Ken Burns: Well I think we’ve been surprised, certainly, in a lot of the work that we’ve done, but particularly so in “The National Parks” by the amazing diversity of the story. This is not just a top-down history. I mean most people think American history is just a series of presidential administrations punctured by wars and that gives you a fairly, you know, I suppose superficial handle on things, but it’s much more complicated than that, and the bottom-up view that we’ve always tried to adopt delivers you much more complexity and undertow. It allows you to penetrate more fully into the number one subtheme of American life, race born as we were under the idea that all men are created equal, but the guy who wrote that sentence owned a hundred other people and never saw the contradiction, never saw the hypocrisy, and more important never saw fit in his lifetime to free any of those people, and set in motion an American narrative that in almost every way is constantly bumping up against this question of race.

The Civil War, the most important event in our history, wouldn’t have happened had slavery not existed in a country that was proclaiming to the world this new idea of individual liberty. So that is there and diversity, naturally occurring diversity is an important part of the films that we make and in this one to understand that the Buffalo Soldiers, the celebrated African-American cavalrymen of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were the first park defenders in California’s Sierra Mountains at Yosemite and General Grant, what was then called General Grant National Park and Sequoia National Park and what an amazing phenomenon that in the first decade of the twentieth century, a decade by the way when more African- Americans were lynched than in any other time in our history that African-Americans might be telling other Americans what to do in a national park was interesting and that compliments the top down of the more top down story of John Muir, the Scottish-born naturalist beaten by his father until he memorized the entire New Testament and three quarters of the Old Testament, could find a new faith in nature that was utterly American, utterly transcendental, therefore in wild nature that he could dispose of the dogmatic devotion that the European tradition worshipping cathedrals and representatives of God meant and could free himself and his countrymen, his adopted countrymen and women by sharing a new faith in the mountains, and he is the most important prophet of not just the national parks, but the idea behind the national parks and that’s why we made the film. This is not a travelogue or a nature film per se. This is the history of individuals and ideas, and we say it’s America’s best idea knowing full well it’s provocative and challenging, but once you’ve started a country on the idea of individual liberty you’d be hard pressed to find a better idea than setting aside for the first time in human history land not for kings or noblemen or the rich, but for everybody and for all times. We invented it. It’s an utterly American idea and could have only happened where people are struggling to figure out how to govern themselves however flawed that original conception might have been.

Question: What do you hope “The National Parks” will contribute to the conservation movement?

Ken Burns: I finished a film on the Civil War in 1990, and a couple of years later I was back at Gettysburg, which is a National Park site, walking across the lawn of the visitor’s center with the superintendent, and he stooped down at one point and picked up a popsicle wrapper and waved it in my face and said, “It’s all your fault.” And what he meant was that his attendance had gone up 100, 200, 300% after my film on the Civil War and had stayed there, so I guess what I want is for every superintendent of every national park unit, and there are 392, to be mad at me because they’ve got people coming and they don’t know what to do with them and that’s already happened. All of the things I want have already taken place. We had a huge… tens of millions of viewers on public television. People are rearranging their plans to go to the national parks and that in and of itself without having a specific political agenda will change the agenda of the United States with regard to parks.

The parks have undergone years of neglect. The previous administration allowed upwards of eight or nine billion dollars worth or maintenance, deferred maintenance to take place and we now have to go back and figure out where that money comes from and how to bring the parks back up to snuff and how to think about wild places for the twenty-first century and that’s a challenge which I think the parks reminded people that they were invested in, that you know you say you’re working on the national parks and it’s like uh-huh. It doesn’t sound so cool and everybody just assumes they’ve already been there. They haven’t, and therefore that threatens them. They assume the National Park Services have always been there to take care of them. They haven’t. They don’t show up until 50 years into the existence of the National Parks and therefore they’re threatened. And they assume they’ll always be there, and if people believe that, then they’re most definitely threatened because once you lose a place it’s lost forever. Once you’ve saved it the saving is like liberty itself, and it requires a kind of eternal vigilance, and I think that what we did was help re-instill some of our fellow citizens with that sense of the vigilance required, and in that case it’s already a success and we’ve gotten what we’ve wanted.

Recorded November 25, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen