'National Parks': Camped Out, But Trailing Off

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ken Burns's "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" was six years in the making and it is 12 hours long, camped out every night this week on PBS, beginning Sunday. It is beautiful and erudite and contains all the underlined importance and swelling emotion that a major Ken Burns moment requires of its viewers, but at least four cumulative hours of it are goshawfully boring. Just like camping with people who love it more than you do.

It's as if Uncle Ken has gotten out his slide projector and is going to show us everything from his trips to Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, stopping frequently to make the same poetic points over and over and over, which are:

The parks belong to all Americans. The parks are transcendent. It's not about how you and I visit the parks, it's about the permanence and awe that the parks visit upon our collective psyche. You should go to the parks soon and often; you own them, after all. (It's a $25-per-car entrance fee at Yellowstone these days, just the beginning of what a trip to a big national park will cost you, but nevertheless, you own it.) The parks make us better people. Their beauty is beyond words and pictures.

Which of course doesn't stop any of the historians, writers, rangers and environmentalists featured in the documentary from describing, and describing some more.

"One of the things I think we witness when we go to the parks is the immensity and the intimacy of time," historian William Cronon explains at a point early in the slog. "On the one hand, we experience the immensity of time, which is the creation itself, it is the universe unfolding before us, and yet it also time shared with the people we visit these places with, so it's the experience we remember when our parents took us for the first time to these [places], and we as parents passing them onto our children . . . the love of place, the love of nation, that the national parks are meant to stand for."

And so on. Refreshingly, in what seems like hour 97, Burns at last quotes a funnyman from long ago, Irvin S. Cobb, who said this about the Grand Canyon:

"Nearly everybody, on taking a first look at the Grand Canyon, comes right out and admits its wonders are absolutely indescribable, and then proceeds to write anywhere from 2,000 to 50,000 words giving the full details. . . . When the Creator made it, He failed to make a word to cover it."

God is also not a documentarian, but Burns is now regarded by some as the next best thing. Employing the meticulous research and trademark pomposity we have come to expect after his explorations of jazz, war, baseball (upper-middle-class white guy subjects all the way). In "The National Parks," after seeing in Part 3 what I would swear is the same bank of clouds roiling over the same glacier in time-elapsed wonder that I saw in Parts 1 and 2, I got a familiar, stultifying dread: Uncle Ken's slide show never ends.

Still, what a trip! I would think that with the right high-def TV and Barcalounger, millions of Americans can watch "The National Parks" all week and then cross the actual 58 national parks (and 333 national monuments, forests, etc.) off their bucket lists. This is the all-access pass with unlimited lingering, with so much acoustic guitar in the background that the musicians' fingers must have been bloodied by the end. Not a single frame of Burns's stunning, soaring aerials and up-close nature shots features any of the drawbacks to actual park tourism: Here there is no gridlock on switchback roads, no crowds of foreign tourists, no $7 chicken tenders, no asphalt parking lots and ticket lines at visitor centers.

Yellowstone is one of the most wondrous places in the world, and while I am fully aware of its splendor (my mother insisted I be aware), I was unfortunately 12 when I first saw it. I was that kid you don't want in your station wagon. In 1980, we were just more of the millions of visitors to America's national parks, and we were stuck in traffic, and within a few hours I'd figured out that all the grocery-and-curio shops in Yellowstone stocked comic books and Rolling Stone magazines that were at least a month old, which I'd already read.

I was an avid indoorsman in a family of ambitious mountaineers, game hunters and even a forester. Eventually, as a grown-up, at places like White Sands National Monument and the Los Padres National Forest at Big Sur, I pitched my own tent and found my own sense of peace and solitude in our mutual wilderness. You can't not, and still think of yourself as American.

Burns's project, and the people featured in it, are too dogmatic, like those brown Park Service signs pointing you in the "right" direction. They come across with the same scoutmaster zeal of enforced, hearty reverence that -- depending on your worldview -- will either make your heart soar or your eyes roll. Burns is relentless, walking us through the 19th-century emergence of the idea of national parkland, which he locates with the arrival of the Mariposa Battalion of soldiers in the Yosemite valley in 1851. Ostensibly there to eradicate native populations, the battalion members stopped, looked around, and thought gawrsh, it's pretty here.

Perhaps chastened somewhat by the "what-about-us" demands from minority groups who hounded him on his 2007 project "The War," Burns has included the helpful observations of the park system's current highest-ranking Native American, Gerard Baker, who imagines the reactions of Indians watching the white man "discover" the national parks: "Wow, what are these guys doing up here? For us it was almost kind of humorous, because we had been here for thousands upon thousands of years. [Yosemite and the national parks] didn't need to be discovered."

But discovered it all was, and discover it viewers shall -- in the straight, unobjectionable storytelling conventions of Burns and co-producer Dayton Duncan, who wrote the script. An undercurrent of environmentalism's core beliefs runs throughout "The National Parks," from pioneer naturalist John Muir to Teddy Roosevelt to the more recent bureaucratic heroics of Stephen Mather (the Borax millionaire who became the first director of the National Park Service) and biologist Adolph Murie, the first advocate for America's near-extinct wolves.

As usual, Burns is best with history and certain feeling for the past. Segments on the creation of the "park ranger" are suffused with nostalgic stoutheartedness -- the invention of a magnetic, enduring icon.

Also as usual, Burns is worst at relating the then to the now. "The National Parks" lets its story peter out in the late 20th century, relying on home movies to get across what it's like for tens of millions of present-day visitors.

Underneath its wonder, "The National Parks" is really about how Americans learned (or failed to learn) proper stewardship of nature. Here, the acoustic guitar is really cranked up. Burns does that when he wants to indicate despair, guilt, importance.

Visitors of the 19th century were wild about leaving their names (and addresses!) scrawled on everything, and the cavalry had to come in and force them to scrub them off. We left empty bottles and tin cans on trails. We made fun of Indians. We killed almost all the bison, the cougars, the wolves, and mistreated the bears who came to our Buicks and Fords begging for candy bars.

That Burns can require me to watch all six episodes of "The National Parks" and not include a clip of Yogi Bear in Jellystone National Park -- as a representation of the parks' place in popular culture -- is a good example of why I've never fully trusted Burns to tell all of America's story. I watch and listen to 12 hours of John Muir this and John Muir that, but Burns can't give me 20 seconds of Hanna-Barbera?

The National Parks: America's Best Idea (six parts, two-hour episodes) begins Sunday at 8 p.m. on PBS.

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