Ah, wilderness! Ken Burns wants you to feel the power of the parks
by Mark Hinson, Tallahassee Democrat
When art collector and future Xerox vice president Bernard Kinsey was a 21-year-old college student at Florida A&M University in 1965, he landed a summer job that changed his life.
“The Department of the Interior was trying to integrate, and a recruiter came to campus,” Kinsey said. “My friend Nick Walker and I signed up to become the first black rangers in the Grand Canyon.”
Kinsey, who was born in South Florida and had never seen a hill higher than the ones around FAMU, woke up one morning on a train north of Flagstaff, Ariz., and couldn’t believe what he saw out the window.
“I’d never seen a mountain before,” Kinsey said. “And then I saw the Grand Canyon. I was knocked out.”
Kinsey and Walker’s supervisor was from Natchez, Miss., and wasn’t thrilled about having two black rangers. The boss thought he was doing them a disfavor by putting them on the night shift as guards at the gate of the park.
“He actually did us a big favor,” said Kinsey, whose extensive art-and-artifact collection is now on view at The Mary Brogan Museum of Art & Science. “We had all day to explore the canyon. We started learning about the park and the people who had lived there. That’s when I became a collector. And that’s also when I realized that the world was much bigger than Florida. It opened my eyes to the world.”
Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (“The Civil War,” “Jazz,” “Baseball,” “The War”) is hoping viewers will have a mind-expanding experience similar to Kinsey’s when his six-part, 12-hour, PBS series “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” begins airing today. The project took nearly 10 years to make and is an elegant hymn to some of America’s last, unspoiled wilderness sanctuaries.
“I think this film is going to be a huge boost to the parks,” Yosemite National Park ranger Scott Gediman said. Gediman helped out when Burns and his crews started filming in Yosemite in 2003.
“This is the definitive film on the Park Service,” Gediman said. “It’s really the history of the parks — not just what hotels to stay in when you visit.”
“Something like ‘The National Parks,’ I hope, will surprise. It’s got every bit the amount of emotion as anything (else),” Burns said recently while addressing the Television Critics Association in California. “And because it isn’t just beauty shot after beauty shot, but complicated narrative stories about very interesting and diverse people, I think it fits in utterly with everything else that we’ve done.”
The high priest of Yosemite
One of the most important people viewers will meet in the first episode of “The National Parks” is writer and naturalist John Muir. Muir grew up with a puritanical Scottish father who beat him and made him memorize the Bible. As a young man in 1867, Muir walked from Indiana to Florida but, when he contracted malaria in Cedar Key, he decided to scratch plans to hop a tramp steamer to South America.
Florida’s loss was California’s gain. Muir headed for San Francisco in 1868 and walked from the city to the interior of Yosemite Valley, where, ironically, the ardent conservationist found work in a saw mill that was run by a hotelier who wanted to exploit the natural resources.
Abraham Lincoln, who never set foot in Yosemite, had first signed a bill in 1864 that gave the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to the state of California. More than 25 years later, Muir pushed the federal government hard for the creation of Yosemite National Park in 1890.
“If Yosemite was a temple, (Muir) was the high priest,” as the documentary points out.
Ansel Adams, the famed photographer whose iconic black-and-white photos of Yosemite and the West enter the realm of fine art, is quoted in the Burns film describing Yosemite as “the very heart of the Earth speaking to us.”
Yellowstone National Park also gets a starring role. When one early visitor to the geysers and bubbling “paint pots” of Yellowstone wrote an account of his visit and sent it to a national magazine, the editors sent the story back with a note that read: “Thank you, but we don’t publish fiction.”
English author Rudyard Kipling wrote a cranky, pithy travelogue about his tourist adventures in Yellowstone in 1889, but American President Theodore Roosevelt was like a jubilant Boy Scout at a jamboree when he visited the surreal Wyoming wonderland in the early 20th century.
According to Burns’ film, Roosevelt, an avid hunter and amateur taxidermist, was so frustrated by not being allowed to shoot an elk or a buffalo on park property that he captured, killed, skinned and stuffed a mouse in his bunk house.
Before park rangers became the caretakers of Yellowstone, the U.S. Army patrolled the place for poachers and vandals. One of the earliest officers in charge was Charles Young, who was one of the original members of the all-black Buffalo Soldiers.
Conservation and crazy questions
The fourth episode in the series, titled “Going Home,” turns its attention to the Grand Canyon and the park’s continuous battles to keep the wild Colorado River from being dammed up. A recurring theme throughout “The National Parks” is how the federally preserved lands are constantly threatened by loggers, developers, corporations, greedy politicians and others.
“The continual threats are always there,” said Gediman, who also worked in Grand Canyon National Park. “People think Yosemite has always been a park, but that’s not true. It took a lot of work and passion (to keep the land pristine). I think Ken Burns’ film will bring a greater awareness of what really went into creating it. And keeping it.”
Before Florida writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas and others led the fight to establish the Everglades National Park in 1947, Florida Gov. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward ran on a platform in 1904 that proudly supported draining the ecologically fragile wetlands.
Ironically, Douglas did not spend much time in the “river of grass” she fought so hard to protect.
“She wasn’t much of an outdoors person,” friend and former Miami Herald reporter Juanita Greene tells Burns’ cameras.
Burns also includes numerous black-and-white photos from the Everglades taken by famed Florida photographer Clyde Butcher, who is often compared to Ansel Adams.
“It’s a great honor to be included in a film by Ken Burns,” Butcher said via e-mail. “His documentary on the national parks will help Americans understand the importance to keeping our parks healthy.”
Potential viewers should not get the idea that “The National Parks” is just a 12-hour ecological sermon about conservation. Burns includes some humorous bits, such as a montage of park rangers rattling off the dumbest questions they’ve ever been asked. They include:
“What time does the moose come out for the pictures?”
“How much does this cave weigh?”
“Why did the Indians build their ruins so close to the road?”
Regardless of whether park visitors are going to ask ridiculous questions, art collector Kinsey said, it’s important for Americans to go explore in their own backyards.
“Shame on them if they don’t go out and see the parks,” Kinsey said. “The parks system is unique to this country, and every other country — from Europe to Canada — has copied it. But it was our idea in the first place.”