This was an interview with Ken Burns I did for print, in case you missed it. He’s passionate and erudite. Expect to learn a lot about American history watching this:
In this day of instant analysis, lightning-quick news cycles and Tweets, Ken Burns is refreshingly old school.
He spent six years working on his latest PBS documentary series, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” and a leisurely 17 months promoting it. His crews visited 53 of the 58 designated national parks. His six-part, 12-hour series finally starts airing Sunday on PBS stations (including GPB locally).
Burns has earned the luxury of time thanks to his groundbreaking work over the past 30 years exploring topics ranging from the Civil War to jazz to baseball.
The parks series follows a chronological history of American national parks from 1851 to 1980, from Yosemite to the Grand Canyon, from Yellowstone to the Everglades. It uses Burns’ signature blend of archival music, footage, historian analysis and in this case, extraordinary visuals from the parks themselves.
Although Georgia does not have any top-designated national parks, the National Park Service oversees plenty of historic units in the state, including the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park and Cumberland Island National Seashore.
Burns said many municipalities over the years have resisted ceding land to the park service. “Even turning the Grand Canyon into a park faced opponents. Many in Arizona went ballistic. Now the canyon is on the state driver’s license.”
Here are excerpts from a talk we had with the filmmaker at the Georgian Terrace earlier this year.
Q: How are you approaching the subject of national parks?
A: I want to make this clear that this is not a travelogue. This is not a nature film. We don’t recommend the best lodging options. It’s the history of the individuals and ideas that made this uniquely American thing happen.
Q: Most people really have no clue how the parks even came about, do they?
A: When you tell people you’re doing something on the national parks, they might bring up Teddy Roosevelt. And he’s in the documentary. But [in the series] most are people you never heard of. And it’s not just benevolent white males, but black and brown and yellow, male and female.
Q: Did you go out of your way to promote diversity in this special?
A: This was not some sort of politically correct exercise. The National Park Service has been friendly to minorities. In California’s Yosemite National Park, the protectors were the celebrated African-American, buffalo soldiers cavalry early in the 20th century. While blacks were being lynched in other parts of the country, African-American soldiers were telling people what they could or could not do in a national park.
Q: Why so much promotion before the series even airs?
A: Most broadcasts are like skywriting. They disappear quickly. We want to stick around awhile. We have also been challenged by the fact there is a large segment of the population that does not feel ownership of the national parks.
Q: You subtitle the series “America’s Best Idea.” That seems rather bold.
A: The park system is a uniquely American idea. It parallels our liberty, our concept that all men are created equal. It encompasses and parallels the American narrative. Parks are open to everybody. In other countries in the 19th century, parks were not open to the common folks.
Q: What impact do you think the series will have on the parks?
A: After the Civil War series, attendance at Gettysburg and other places went up 300 percent and stayed up for years. We hope this will have the same impact. We are at this existential moment that virtual reality is reality. Video games. Blogging. Twittering. All this occupies more of our time. We want people to go to parks, have this transformational experience in person. Human existence requires real experience in nature.
Q: Ironically, you’re using a medium that keeps people on their couches to get them off their couches.
A: TV is one of the culprits. … We don’t think in any way that this is a substitute for actually visiting the parks. But it’s important to know the history of the parks. We’ve been showing clip reels of the series to people. The reaction has been amazing.
Q: What’s your take on Ted Turner and all the land he has purchased?
A: He wouldn’t have a buffalo to herd without the park system. He’s fantastic, doing an amazing job with preservation. I’ve met him several times, though not in the course of this production. He understands the transformative power of the land.
Q: For many of us who grew up in cities and suburbs, it’s easy to forget that.
A: We have this Garden of Eden. Had we not saved them, we’d have mansions on the rims of canyons. Yosemite could be a gated community. The Everglades would be drained and paved!
“The National Parks: America’s Best Idea”
A six-part, 12-hour film by Ken Burns. 8 p.m. Sept. 27 through Oct. 2. GPB.