Ken Burns: Our Great National Parks

From Yellowstone to Yosemite, Zion to Shenandoah, our national parks were founded on one principle: They belong to all of us. Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns explores the parks’ hidden history.

Yosemite Valley, with El Capitan at left.
Yosemite Valley, with El Capitan at left. The story of the parks is the story of people, says Ken Burns.

You and I, and everyone else in America, own the most stunning oceanfront property, the most amazing mountain ranges, the highest free-falling waterfall on the continent, and the most spectacular collection of geothermal features on the planet. I knew the national parks were beautiful and that there must be interesting human stories behind their creation. But I was unprepared for how they touched some of the deepest emotions I’ve ever felt.

The parks can be simultaneously humbling and ennobling. We’re aware of our insignificance, yet we feel part of the larger order of things. It’s a spiritual, transcendental experience—give it whatever name you want. It’s why people sometimes use biblical references to describe Yosemite, first set aside in 1864, or Yellowstone, our first truly “national” park, or the Grand Canyon, essentially a geological library and the greatest canyon on the face of the earth. My crew and I have been literally brought to tears as we worked on this project, as have many other people over the years. As one man encountering Yosemite Falls for the first time said to his companions, “Now let me die, for I am happy.”

The historical figures we studied, the consultants who helped us understand those men and women, and the people we’ve been sharing the parks with today have all had that moment when suddenly they felt connected to everything else in the universe. That ain’t bad for a day’s work.

The real secrets of the parks are their little-known places and unseen wonders. When we were floating down the Colorado River during filming and going over those dramatic rapids, every little side canyon that we didn’t have the benefit of seeing from the rim of the Grand Canyon had its own wonders. The way the light struck in the back, the way the water fell, the way new waterfalls sprouted up in the spring because the melting snow needed a place to go—for me, the most marvelous point about the parks is their hidden and beautiful layers.

Every park is like an onion. The layers are sometimes very subtle, and each layer takes time to explore. A very nice old ranger at Zion told us, “You could be a ranger here if you knew the answer to three questions: Where’s the bathroom? How far is it to Las Vegas? And what’s the fastest way out of here?” But the tourist who has the casual “windshield experience” by driving to Yosemite’s Inspiration Point can still take a picture that looks awfully like an Ansel Adams shot. The person who parks the car and hikes half a mile in has a better experience than the person who drives through. The person who hikes two miles in gets an even better experience. And the person who backpacks in and spends two weeks immersed in the high country is, of course, delivered an ecstatic religious experience on the par of naturalist John Muir’s.

Muir was, to me, the most colorful character in the history of the parks. A Scottish-born wanderer, he fell in love with Yosemite when he first walked into it, and for a while he worked there at a sawmill. Muir could have become a titan of industry, but the backpack of civilization slipped off him, to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson. He became an apostle, a prophet, of a new kind of Americanism. Muir woke us up to the fact that all this beauty would be lost to development unless it was championed.

The man did unbelievably bizarre and rapturous things in California’s High Sierra in the name of the national parks. He would claw his way up into a big pine tree in the middle of a raging thunderstorm to find out what a tree felt like during a storm. He would soak sequoia cones in water and drink the purple liquid that seeped out so he could become tree-wise and “sequoical,” as he put it. He would watch a lichen on a rock for an entire day; he would contemplate the life of a raindrop. He would climb mountains with very little equipment to speak of, except perhaps for nails hammered into the soles of his shoes, and he would think nothing of covering 50 miles in a two-day excursion with just crackers, oatmeal, and tea for nourishment. Everywhere he turned, Muir believed he was witnessing the work and presence of God. So enspirited was he that I think he must have struck people, as William Cronon, the historian, says in our film, as “an ecstatic holy man.”

History is a funny animal. People can get lost in the mists of time. We’ve tried to rescue the diverse and untold stories of the people who have been central to the parks’ salvation. While presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and tycoon John D. Rockefeller Jr. were powerful supporters, the parks’ authentic story is really a bottom-up one of those from every conceivable background—race, creed, and color; male and female—who fell in love with a place and heroically dedicated their lives to save it.

There was Lucy Peabody of Denver, who, as the quietly determined vice regent of the Colorado Cliff Dwellings Association, broke away from a publicity-hungry group led by the charismatic and complicated Virginia McClurg. The group wanted to make the prehistoric ruins of Mesa Verde “their” park—a women’s park—rather than “our” national park. But Peabody wholeheartedly believed that only as a national park could Mesa Verde be saved for future generations, and for those efforts, we salute her.

There was Capt. Charles Young, who was born to former slaves in Kentucky. His father had escaped bondage during the Civil War to enlist in the Union army, and Young followed his father’s example of military service, becoming only the third black man to graduate from West Point—and the first to be put in charge of a national park. He commanded the African American Buffalo Soldiers, who guarded Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant parks from vandals and illegal sheepherders in the 1900s. Young served with distinction, and his troops loved him.

There was also George Melendez Wright, the brilliant biologist whose field notes on Yosemite brought greater awareness of its wildlife, and Lancelot Jones, who opted to sell his personal property to the government rather than to developers, to help create Biscayne National Park in Florida. To this day, we’re enjoying the fruits of all these labors.

Naming my favorite national park would be like discussing a favorite piece of music. So many different pieces work on me in so many different ways. Ultimately, though, it would have to be a combination of Yosemite and Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. It was my experience as a filmmaker at Yosemite that awakened my then-45-year-old dormant memory of the time my father took me to Shenandoah when I was just six, the first and only trip we ever took together as father and son.

My mother was slowly dying of cancer, and our household had become a grim and demoralized place. The trip was a two-day oasis in my childhood. We saw a bear, I think. We turned over rotting logs and caught a bright-red salamander, and my father named every butterfly and tree we came across. I remember lying awake at night during that trip to Shenandoah, as I would do many years later in Yosemite, thinking how great it was to be in this magical place, just my dad and me.

I, in turn, eventually took one of my daughters, Lilly, to Shenandoah when she was about 13. This time, I most definitely saw bears. And I’ve taken my two other daughters, Sarah and Olivia, to national parks as well. Each time I go, I have a new experience.

During the Depression, the parks thrived. They not only enjoyed the first stimulus money from FDR’s New Deal—shovel-ready projects, to use the current terminology—but they brought more than a paycheck to the workers. They brought Americans closer together. Attendance at the parks actually went up; they enjoyed a heyday.

Even after working on a film and a book for the better part of ten years, the most pressing questions I ask myself are: How soon can I see the Grand Canyon again? How quickly can I travel to Alaska? When will I get back to Yosemite? I am so passionate about the parks that when I was at Yosemite just recently, it transformed me once more. It rearranged the molecules, so to speak. The parks have done this for others as well. Just last week, a woman who had seen a short clip of our film came up to me and said, “You need to get this out to all the churches in America.” She had felt that spiritual dimension. This is the power our parks have.

Assuming we’re still counting our pennies this year and next, there would be no more cost-effective way to spend our money than a) here in the United States and b) at these magnificent lands. I can only hope to share the gift that’s at our disposal, and that Americans put down their video games, log off Facebook and the Internet, and go out and see the real world we live in.

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