Q&A: The Ken Burns Effect
National Parks: Following Muir’s Footsteps
The Ken Burns Effect
An interview with the famed filmmaker about his new documentary on the national parks.
| Ken Burns filming at Montana’s Glacier National Park in July 2008.
Filmmaker Ken Burns, a name synonymous with documentaries on such wide-ranging topics as baseball, jazz, and the Civil War, just wants to tell a good story—what he calls the essential building block of human communication. His latest project, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” is 12 hours of amazing tales about more than four dozen individuals who envisioned, sculpted, and fought for our national parks. Burns spent a decade making the film, which airs in six parts on PBS from September 27 through October 2, 2009. Audubon spoke with Burns to discuss America’s best idea and what’s next for the filmmaker.
Audubon: How do you choose your topics?
Burns: In so many cases they choose me. I’ve spent the past 30-plus years trying to ask one deceptively simple question: Who are we? Who are those strange and complicated people who like to call themselves Americans?
How did “National Parks” come about?
It seemed like an utterly perfect, logical idea. This is an American invention. For the first time in human history, land was set aside not for kings or noblemen or the very rich, but for everybody and for all time. We invented it. The film we have made is not a travel log or a nature film, but instead an investigation of the ideas and the individuals who made this uniquely American thing happen.
When you spend a decade on a project, how do you decide what makes the final cut?
It’s very simple. It’s what works. You collect as many stories as you can. You tell them as fully and as richly as you can. And then you begin to whittle away, carve away, sculpt these things into scenes and episodes and a whole series. People honor me by giving me their attention for, in this case, 12 hours. It is my responsibility not to disappoint, to make sure that their attention is rewarded.
After 10 years, are you tired of this project?
You don’t tire of it. It only gets more interesting. There was a moment in Yellowstone in January. We’d gone by snow coach to the lodge next to Old Faithful. I’d gotten up early one morning, taken a route back that took us into the beautiful Hayden Valley. It must’ve been 10 or 20 below zero. We rounded the corner, the sun was up, and there, catching the first light of day, were 300 or 400 buffalo. You really felt like that was still the morning of creation. We were there at the beginning. And we looked at each other and just cursed because we didn’t have our cameras. The film was done and locked and in the can and all we wanted to do was keep filming.
What do you hope viewers take away from the film?
There’s something so wonderfully paradoxical at the heart of the national parks story. For example, we stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon. We sort of feel our insignificance as we look at the patient work of the Colorado River exposing rock that’s 1.7 billion years old, half the age of the planet itself. Yet it’s equally important whose hand we are holding. I think it was that combination, as the historian William Cronin says, of the immensity of time and the intimacy of time, that our series tried to encapsulate. The immensity is obvious, these great natural works. But the intimacy is who we share them with.
| Ken Burns at Montana’s Glacier National Park in July 2008.
How has this project compared to others?
In some ways, the parks are the Declaration of Independence applied to the landscape. Just as the Declaration of Independence initially conceived was a rather narrow document—if you’d asked Thomas Jefferson what he meant by ‘All men are created equal’ he would’ve said, ‘All white men of property, free of debt’—the rest of American history can be considered the continuing enlargement of that narrowing Jeffersonian definition.
So, too, the national parks could have only been created coming out of a democratic spirit. The national parks idea also began to evolve—from saving just spectacular scenery, wildlife habitat and historical sites, to now even places of shame. We have set aside sites of Indian massacres, sites where we imprisoned Japanese Americans shamefully during the Second World War. We’ve set aside bloody prison camps from the Civil War and Oklahoma City, the site of greatest domestic terrorism in the United States, as well as Shanksville, Pennsylvania, immortalizing the heroic actions of the people on Flight 93 on September 11, 2001. The story of the national parks has come to embrace not just spectacular places, but the story of America itself. We were keenly interested in following that evolution.
What was the best moment making this documentary?
The last night at Yosemite, when I should’ve been exhausted and falling asleep, I was really strangely abuzz and alive. I suddenly realized that in 1959, when I was six years old—when my mother was dying of cancer and our household was a demoralized place and my father was distracted, beset by his own demons—suddenly my father took me for a weekend to Shenandoah National Park just the two of us.
I’ll always remember the time where the majesty and spectacular beauty of Yosemite helped reawaken a memory that had lain dormant for so long that I had literally forgotten I had ever been there. It was a gift. I can now remember what his hand felt like in mine, everything we did, the whole trip that we took. He sang songs to me on that trip that have forever been on my hard drive that I’ve sung to my daughters, not realizing where they’d come from.
Was there a particularly eye-opening moment during production?
There were many times where each of us working on the film had the experience of being utterly alone, not necessarily being lonely in the kind of sentimental, contemporary sense, but experiencing a profound solitude that woke us up, made us more present. I think that made us rededicate our own commitment to preserving these natural places. You do that with very simple actions. If it is a democratic idea and we are all co-owners of these places, all we have to do is go and visit our property every once in awhile and make sure it’s being taken care of. That will save it for posterity.
You say the film isn’t political, but it certainly has an environmental bent to it.
It’s basically a history. It doesn’t try to engage some of the contemporary arguments that we talk about today. But you can’t help but feel all of the questions that face us today replicated in all of these other earlier stories. Human nature never changes. The same worries about pollution and automobiles that are argued and debated today are reflected in the whole story of the national parks. The film is not overtly political or advocating a particular stance. But you almost can’t help but come away from a project like this with a renewed sense of commitment, not just to preserving these places, but to fighting for what clearly is an increasingly fragile global environment.
So what’s next?
We’re updating our 1994 baseball series. There’s been a lot of water—good and bad—under the baseball bridge in the last 15 or 18 years since we stopped recording the baseball story. We’re going to update that. We’re also working on a three-part, six-hour history of Prohibition, the first time the government got in the business of regulating human behavior, which was an utter, catastrophic failure. There are lots of other projects—a history of the Roosevelts, the Central Park jogger case, the Dust Bowl. All of those are in the works. We’ve very excited about what lies ahead.
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Read Audubon’s review of Ken Burn’s latest documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.
Following Muir’s Footsteps
A graduate student traces the legendary naturalist’s path in search of new approaches to conservation.
|El Capitan (left) and Half Dome (in far background), Yosemite National Park. The largest single chunk of granite in the world, El Capitan rises more than 3,000 feet. Half dome soars nearly 5,000 feet.
Two years ago, Alex McInturff, an Alabama native, was an undergraduate student at Stanford University with limited outdoor experience. But a chance introduction to the writings of John Muir steered his interests toward conservation research, culminating in a solo, month-long adventure that he took this past spring to retrace the famed naturalist’s 1868 trek from San Francisco to Yosemite. Audubon spoke to McInturff, now 23 and a graduate student at Stanford, shortly after his trip about the need for new conservation tactics within sprawling cities, running from gunfire, and how a nature newbie goes about hiking 300-plus miles.
Audubon: This trip was a massive undertaking. What inspired you to make it?
McInturff: I was living with a good friend of mine when he took a class about the environmental history of Stanford’s campus. For the class, they had to read John Muir’s essay “Rambles of a Botanist.” At the time I wasn’t a Muir enthusiast, but it sounded like such an exciting transect to do, crossing from one of California’s chief urban landmarks, San Francisco, to one of its chief natural landmarks, Yosemite.
I found out a little more about Muir—his role in shaping some of the early conservation efforts in the U.S. and his legacy in terms of the parks, particularly Yosemite, for protection. My interest academically has been in conservation biology, but more specifically, how to look outside of park boundaries to protect land. In thinking about this, the idea developed that retracing his San Francisco-Yosemite trip would be a great way to look backwards at some of the protected land and legacy of Muir across the landscape, but also to look forward at how private land might be incorporated into our thinking of landscape protection.
It wasn’t until I walked out the door that first morning that I was sure I was actually going to be walking across the state.
Are you an avid a hiker?
Well, this was certainly the longest and planning-intensive trip I’ve been on. I am not sure it is something I would have been entirely driven to do just as a hike. For me, a major part of it was having these other things to think about and investigate.
How did you map your route?
Muir only wrote ten pages about this trip in his entire cannon, so there was not much to go on. Using some of the major landmarks he mentioned, but also trying to infer based on what roads, what routes people would have been taking at the time, I mapped how he might have walked. Donna and Peter Thomas, a couple from Santa Cruz who had done a version of this same journey in 2006, were a big help. Their focus was more on trying to figure out exactly where Muir would have gone. I wanted to use Muir as a historical starting point and his route as an approximate transect, but there were a lot of things I was interested in seeing that are present now that took me a little bit off course. I was probably within ten miles of where he was at most points during the trip.
What were some of the most challenging parts of planning the walk?
There was a little bit of a balancing act figuring out where it was possible to walk, what exactly I wanted to see and where I could safely and legally sleep at night. I was fortunate enough to get a lot of help along the way. East Bay Regional Parks, Santa Clara County Parks, and others offered me free lodging. But a lot of those parks, especially in the Bay Area, typically don’t allow overnight guests. And if they do, it is usually groups of 75 or more for Boy Scouts. I would find myself sleeping in these expansive campsites with no one else there. It was kind of bizarre.
What did you find? How has the landscape changed?
There are numerous differences between Muir’s California in Rambles and California today. He described the fresh air of the east bay; today streets like Mission Boulevard are crowded with cars, fast food restaurants, auto body shops, and paved surfaces. The valleys and canyons Muir described are cordoned off by gates and fences with threatening warnings to trespassers. There is no other route to travel through the Central Valley but the shoulder of the Highway 152. While Muir tarried and explored this region, I walked as fast as possible. He described the region as a “botanist’s better land” and something of a paradise. Today, his paradise has become a more conventional and productive garden, highly privatized and highly modified to maximize crop outputs.
All of these changes are quite predictable, however. California has exploded in population and development since Muir’s time. The Central Valley is now America’s most productive soil, San Francisco is one of its premier cities, and Yosemite its most famed park. What was of interest to me was how people’s relationship to nature has shifted over time, and how this is expressed in conservation efforts. Muir’s sense of “natural” was related to the pristine, the untouched. Few today (and truly no one, when climate change and global pollutants are considered) have a chance to experience “pristine” nature; so our sense of what is natural and what deserves protection has changed considerably as a result.
What does this change mean for the future of conservation?
Muir was a man of the senses, drawn to scenes of awe and wonder, and his efforts toward preservation were often driven by this attitude. What I hope for in the future is a broader sense of a landscape’s worthiness of protection. … As I’m sure you can imagine, not all the parks we have now were necessarily developed as parks because they are the most productive or unique ecosystems. Sometimes it is land leftover that is too remote, too unproductive, or too rough to develop. This is the reason I am interested in private conservation—private land can really be productive and important as habitat.
What were some of the most memorable moments from the trail?
Some of the funniest moments turned out to be when I thought my life was in danger. Once I was in Hayward trying to go to Garin Regional Park. I was on the road that was supposed to go to the back entrance and it looked exactly like how I would imagine a shanty town looking: all these really small ranch houses that seemed to be made out of plywood and tin sheeting, dogs, chickens running around, horses and goats. All in all, it had an unfamiliar feel to it. I got to the top of this huge hill, which looked like the entrance to the park, and there was this little shed in the parking lot with some cars around it. One of the cars was a cop car. All around it were “No Trespassing” signs, but I thought I saw the trail that I wanted. I took a deep breath and put my foot over the “No Trespassing” sign and heard ten gunshots in a row. I streaked back behind a hill, got my bearings for a second, and then heard six more gunshots. At that point I just started sprinting down the hill, my backpack on. I got back to the bottom, the whole time I’m huffing and puffing, looking over my shoulder. Teenage girls who have just gotten out of school are giving me funny looks. I go to the main entrance of the park, meet up with the ranger, and tell him my story and he kind of laughs—and tells me it was the parking lot for the police firing range.
Congratulations on making it back alive!
(Laughing) Thank you, I really appreciate it.
McInturff is currently comparing his visual observations from the trip, as well as interviews with community groups that he did along the way, with historical land maps to develop conservation strategies for private land. He plans to graduate from his master’s program in December and hopes to wrap up this project soon thereafter. You can read more about McInturff’s trip on his blog.
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