Ken Burns. That name conjures up a lot of different images in my head, anything from jazz musicians to Mark Twain. His latest offering is one very close to my heart: America’s National Parks. I just watched all 6 episodes of The National Parks: America’s Best Idea and I was spellbound throughout the entire thing. It is a fascinating story and one I think every American should have at least a passing acquaintance with.
Between Burns’ cinematography and commentary from Dayton Duncan and other eminent historians, the history of the parks comes to life. You are there for the creation of the first wilderness preserve at Yosemite, a witness to John Muir’s idealism and dedication. From there, you move on to the first true National Park at Yellowstone, descend the Grand Canyon, experience the wonder of Mesa Verde and Death Valley and the beauty and grandeur of our own Great Smoky Mountains. We are the beneficiaries of the foresight of some very remarkable people, men and women who understood that when the wilderness and its many life forms go, we will follow soon after. In this set of DVDs, America’s frontier spirit is unmistakable and you begin to understand the seemingly insurmountable hurdles that littered the path to the creation of, at last count, 392 national parks, national monuments, battlefield parks, memorials, and recreation areas.
Though much of the history of the parks belongs to the Western states, where the lion’s share of the parks are located, I was eager to learn more about the Great Smokies, a place I have visited and loved all my life. The fourth installment of the series, entitled “Going Home,” shared the history of that park. From its inception in 1923 until its dedication in 1940, the park was championed by many residents in both North Carolina and Tennessee. Two particular champions were Horace Kephart, the author of Our Southern Highlanders, and George Masa, a Japanese immigrant who became one of America’s finest professional outdoor photographers. Their story alone is worth knowing. I won’t recount the history; I’ll let you discover that for yourself.
For those who would rather browse leisurely through a book, we have that, too. The companion to the PBS series is available for checkout at three of our member libraries. I hope you get to enjoy it soon. It’s the next best thing to being there.