Filmmaker Ken Burns' new PBS documentary series starts in 19th century America. The natural wonder of Niagara Falls was so commercialized and overdeveloped that the great French traveler and writer Alexis de Tocqueville urged his readers to come see it soon, before it was too late.
The new series, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, which Burns made with writer Dayton Duncan, is about what rose up in opposition to that commercialization — the uniquely American idea of the national parks.
Burns' six-part series spans 12 hours. The first episode premiers Sunday night on PBS.
A Spiritual Experience
More than six years of work on this series led Burns to some interesting discoveries, like the true motivation that inspired the preservation of vast swaths of territory to create the national park system.
"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, [people] go 'Oh, Theodore Roosevelt, conservation.' I say, 'Yeah, that was the second impulse; the first impulse is spiritual," Burns tells NPR's Robert Siegel.
Many of the early supporters of the creation of a national park system had experienced revelatory moments out in nature and wanted to salvage wild land so future generations could have similar experiences.
"Let us set them aside," says Burns about the thinking of the early park proponents. "Wouldn't it be possible for a democratic people to own in common these things?"
It was only later on that President Theodore Roosevelt would come to underscore the conservation component of the endeavor.
An Ecstatic Holy Man
Naturalist John Muir was a central figure in the creation of the national park system and a major character in Burns' documentary. He played an influential role in persuading Roosevelt to salvage wild land, after the naturalist and the president camped together for three days in Yosemite in 1903.
Burns describes Muir as an "ecstatic holy man" who spent much of his life in the Sierra and devised a new faith, based in nature.
"We didn't yet know why we needed these places and he reminded us, for both scientific and but also sort of spiritual reasons, why saving these places would be good for our souls," Burns says. "The parks represent in the early years almost a spiritual advancement for the United States, and only later does the conservation ethic come in."
Muir was a holy man, but also an astute student of nature.
"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," Burns says.
Mysterious Boiling Pools
Before Yellowstone became the first official national park, "crazy" stories circulated about remote places where mud boiled and huge pillars of steam rose from the ground.
"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," Burns says. "People wouldn't believe it."
Finally an expedition went out in 1871 to definitively prove the existence of the hot pools and geysers.
Clash Of Preservation And Exploitation
Historic photographs play an important role in this and all Ken Burns documentaries. Ansel Adams, the famed nature and landscape photographer, and his work, are part of Burns' documentary.
"Franklin Delano Roosevelt created Kings Canyon, a wilderness park in California, based on the photographs of Ansel Adams," Burns says. "He would never be able to get there ... confined to a wheelchair."
The works of Adams helped inspire the preservation of land that many people — builders, miners and other industrialists — wanted to exploit.
"Americans are an inquisitive and extractive people; some would say rapacious. We look at a river and we think dam ... we look at a canyon and we wonder what minerals we can extract," Burns says. "So the national parks become a story not just of beauty and birds and 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."
'The Best Idea We've Ever Had'
Despite the American inclination to exploit, Burns also says the urge to preserve was also uniquely 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 all time," Burns says. "Like the idea of freedom, it's a pretty good export; more than 200 countries ... have copied us."
And people from around the world also come to witness America's national parks:
"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," Burns says. "That's thrilling to understand that the world beats a path to our door for this very simple idea, what [American historian] Wallace Stegner said was the best idea we've ever had."