Ken Burns’ National Parks: America’s Best Idea is more about people than places

The documentaries I cover on reality blurred are those that, like the very best reality shows, tell the true, dramatic, entertaining stories of real people. So, while I had no doubt it’d be informative and interesting, I didn’t plan to cover Ken Burns’ latest documentary opus, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, which began its six night, 12-hour run on PBS last night.

Then, in August, I heard Burns tell this story to TV critics. Burns had told his crew that he hadn’t ever been to a national park, but just before production began, he told us:

“And the last night, I suddenly couldn’t sleep and lay awake and realized that I had forgotten — hadn’t repressed — I had forgotten this moment in 1959 when I was six years old and my mother was dying of cancer and our household was an unbelievably demoralized place. My father was absent in every sense of that word. No catches in the backyard, no attendance at ball games. Very hard, hard situation. My mother would die in 1965 after many, many agonizing years. That destabilized our family in every way imaginable. But one day, and I had forgotten this, after school my father had taken me from our home in Delaware to his home in Baltimore and put me to bed in his old bedroom in his old bed and woke me up in the middle of night and took me to Front Royal, Virginia and the top of the Skyline Drive that runs down the spine of Shenandoah National Park. And we spent the first and only road trip I ever spent with my dad, who passed away a year and a half before this — way too young — at this time that we were filming in Yosemite.

…It had performed a kind of open-heart surgery that permitted me to remember something that had been lost in all of the other stuff. And I can remember the songs my dad sang. I can remember the hikes we took. I remember, most importantly, what his hand felt in mine. The songs that I had sung to my three daughters that are permanently part of my hard drive now, I had forgotten where I had learned them. It was on this trip. So for me, Shenandoah, which is a relatively small park … but I think it’s so much so for me because it awakened me and was able to permit me to reclaim something. And I think that we find that again and again and again.”

That story, which made me instantly recall my own childhood family visits to national parks, like Great Smoky Mountains National Park, makes it clear that Burns’ film is “a story of people,” as PBS says on its web site.

That applies to how people experience the parks (PBS is soliciting and publishing those stories online) and also in the way that, as PBS says, “people from every conceivable background — 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, and in doing so reminded their fellow citizens of the full meaning of democracy.”

Here’s an extended preview of the series, which continues tonight (check your local listings) and is narrated by Peter Coyote:

The National Parks [PBS]

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