MADELEINE BRAND, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Filmmaker Ken Burns' new PBS documentary series starts in 19th century America. The natural wonder of the early frontier Niagara Falls was so commercialized and overdeveloped that the great French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville urged his readers to come see it soon before it's too late.
The new and visually stunning series that Burns has made with writer Dayton Duncan is about the idea that rose up in opposition to that commercialization. It is the uniquely American idea of the national parks: Yellowstone, Yosemite, and today, nearly 400 parks nationwide.
One of the story's heroes, whose letters are read in vintage Ken Burns style, is the Scottish-born naturalist John Muir, the champion of Yosemite.
(Soundbite of television program, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea")
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. LEE STETSON (Actor): (Reading) As long as I live, I'll hear waterfalls and birds and the wind sing. I'll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm and the avalanche. I'll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens and get as near to the heart of the world as I can.
Mr. KEN BURNS (Filmmaker): When I would say I was working on a film about the history, not a travelogue, not a nature film, but a history of the national parks, they go, oh, Theodore Roosevelt, conservation. I go, yeah, that was the second impulse. The first impulse is spiritual, that you would walk into these beautiful places and have these revelatory experiences. They would rearrange your molecules, and let us not do to them what we did to Niagara Falls. Let us set them aside. Wouldn't it be possible for a democratic people to own in common these things?
And then later on, Roosevelt recognizes the democratic impulse at the heart of that and the conservation issues that it naturally entails, and then the park idea evolves. But the initial one is people would say, now, let me die for I am happy, when they'd look at Yosemite Valley.
SIEGEL: Talk about John Muir. What was the role of John Muir in giving us the idea of the national park?
Mr. BURNS: Well, you know, he's not responsible for setting aside. What he was able to do, in much the way Lincoln was able to do in the mid-19th century, he was able to contain the best of us and reflect it back to us.
We didn't yet know we needed these places, and he reminded us, for both scientific but also sort of spiritual reasons, why saving these places would be good for our souls, and he was this ecstatic holy man who would run over the High Sierras and drink in nature.
He had been beaten as a child by a Calvinist father until he had memorized the entire New Testament and most of the Old Testament. And here he was in America, out in the Sierras, liberated from that oppressive Christianity and could devise a new faith based in nature and really was able to amplify what had taken place half a century before with the transcendentalists.
So the parks represent in the early years almost a spiritual advancement for the United States, and only later does the conservation ethic come in, and Muir is very much a part of that, too.
SIEGEL: But in Muir's case, in addition to the spiritual dimension, he is discovering glaciers. He is finding geological structures that people didn't know about.
Mr. BURNS: He went against the state geologist of California, Josiah Whitney, who had assumed that Yosemite was formed by some cataclysmic collapse of the valley floor, and he said, no, this is glaciation, and let me show you. And he would bring in other scientists, and they said, yes, Muir, this already dismissed as a kook kind of holy man was right and Whitney was wrong. And so what we have is the classic merging, as we're beginning to find today, of science and religion in some of the biggest questions that face us with regard to environmental and ecological issues.
SIEGEL: I want you to relate a bit of the story of Yellowstone before it became the first official national park that people heard crazy stories of someplace way out there, where there were hot pools and geysers.
Mr. BURNS: Well, you know, the best story is there are all these mountain men, beginning with John Colter. John Colter is on the Lewis and Clark expedition. He's heading back, and he's seeing the first glimpses of civilization after being away for two and a half years, and he goes, nope.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BURNS: And he turns back around, and he heads back into the mountains.
And he comes back describing this place, where mud boils, where huge steam rises that you can see these fantastic wonders, and they described it as Colter's hell. The next guy, Joe Meek and the other mountain men would come through and say there's a lake where you can catch a fish and then swing your line over and cook the fish in a hot spring, and people wouldn't believe it. And the expedition went, rode up their findings, sent it to Lippincott Magazine, and they said, we're sorry, we do not print fiction.
SIEGEL: People just didn't believe.
Mr. BURNS: They just didn't believe.
SIEGEL: Didn't believe it's (unintelligible).
Mr. BURNS: And finally, an expedition in 1871 went and proved that there were glories. They brought William Henry Jackson, the photographer, and Thomas Moran, the painter, and they came back, and here was proof of what everybody was saying. We had discovered this wonderland.
SIEGEL: For you, making a film documentary about all of this and, of course, much more that followed, the role of photography is central. This first of all demonstrated that the people who'd seen - talked about the hot pools weren't out of their minds, and then it attracted people, and it's what brought people to want to go and see these things.
Mr. BURNS: Later on, in our fifth episode, when Ansel Adams, the great photographer himself, becomes a character and he speaks about the functions of art. It really raises a question.
Tolstoy said that art is the transfer of emotion from one person to another, and the role of art from the very, very beginning, from the Hudson and later Rocky Mountain Schools of painting, through Jackson's photographs and other early photographers, the Cole(ph) brothers in the Grand Canyon, other painters like Moran, we have had to have these artists mediate our experience.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt created Kings Canyon, a wilderness park in California, based on the photographers of Ansel Adams. He would never be able to get there as a paraplegic. If you have a roadless wilderness, a priori, the president's not going to be there, but art could be this way to convince.
We lined the walls of the capital with the artwork and helped convince people that Yosemite and, later, Yellowstone were worthless, as the legislation described…
SIEGEL: (Unintelligible) demonstrate that there was nothing, quote, "productive" you could do with this land in order to set it aside as a park.
Mr. BURNS: That's exactly right. You know, we had miners who wanted to exploit. I mean, Americans are an inquisitive and extractive people; some would say rapacious. We look at a river, and we think dam. We look at a beautiful stand of timber, and we think board feet. We look at a canyon, and we wonder what minerals we can extract.
And - so the national parks become a story not just of beauty and birds and that lovely little deer and feeding the bear cubs, but a huge conflict against very real forces in America, one that wants to preserve and one that wants to exploit.
SIEGEL: One point of this series - one point that you make - is that this idea of the national parks, in all of its many dimensions, is an American idea.
Mr. BURNS: It's completely American. For the first time in human history, land was set aside not for kings or noblemen or the very rich, as all land had been disposed in all of human history before that, but for everybody and for all time. We invented it. And like the idea of freedom, it's a pretty good export, more than 200 countries, more than 4,500 parks around the world have copied us.
And if you ever go to Yosemite or Yellowstone or stand on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, English is the third or fourth language you hear, after German and Japanese and French. And that's thrilling to understand that the world beats a path to our door for this very simple idea, what Wallace Stegner said, the best idea we've ever had.
SIEGEL: Ken Burns, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. BURNS: My pleasure.
SIEGEL: Filmmaker Ken Burns, talking about his new series, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea." It's a six-part series spanning 12 hours, and the first episode premieres Sunday night on PBS.
BRAND: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.