Saturday, October 3, 2009

National Parks

My mom and I have been watching Ken Burns’ newest documentary series, about the National Parks, on PBS this week. When I saw the first episode I was underwhelmed -- but as the week wore on I got more interested. It’s been fascinating to learn the origins of some of our National Parks.

Crater Lake National Park, for example, apparently began largely because of the vision of one man, William Gladstone Steel, who was obsessed with preserving the magnificent lake he’d visited in the Oregon wilderness. Other parks began the same way, with a single individual surfacing as their primary champion, enlisting lawmakers and environmental activists in their cause. Some of these individuals are quite famous, like John Muir, while others are less prominent.

It’s also been interesting to see how the same forces that frustrate me so much in modern politics -- the folks who are against conservation, who believe our human mandate is to use the land and its resources as we see fit -- have been present throughout our history. When Teddy Roosevelt made the Grand Canyon a National Monument in the early 1900s, Arizona politicians were outraged. Can you imagine?

I’ve been to several of the National Parks. In 1983, my dad flew my brother and me to California to visit his family, and we drove back across the country. On that trip we stopped at the Grand Canyon, Zion and the Smoky Mountains. In 1990, I visited Glacier National Park with my mom and brother. And I’ve been to the Everglades a couple of times, though surprisingly I’ve never visited the southern part of the park -- I’ve only biked on the northern loop road off U.S. 41, which is not as scenic or diverse in terms of wilderness.

I love to travel internationally. I’ve visited many countries in Africa and Europe, and I’ve been to New Zealand. But as I get older I’m thinking more and more about traveling closer to home -- there are huge swaths of this country I’ve never seen. (Plus, Dave and I could take the dogs!)

I wouldn’t say this has been a riveting documentary. I don’t think it’s as good as the Civil War series that Burns produced long ago (and boy, I bet he gets sick of hearing that). But it’s been interesting, and it does have me thinking more about discovering the rest of America.

(Photo: A gopher tortoise -- not in a National Park, but in the yard of a neighbor in Florida.)


  1. In recently reading the book about my friend Deborah's grandmother Rosalie Edge, an early conservationist, I learned a lot about the origins of the national parks and what battles had to be waged on their behalf. There continue to be some really stupid people in this country who care little for nature.

    I, too, am almost ashamed at how little of this country I have actually seen. I want to get there while I can still walk around and enjoy the big expanses of the West!

  2. Ken Burns is such a cool and interesting person full of great ideas. But his documentaries? They're all exactly the same: talking heads, a mantage of images and the same music played over and over.

    There's lots of great information in his docus, but I wish the films were more interesting.

    Even the Civil War series got on my last nerve, though I watched because I am so interested in that history. I'm certain "Lorena" was not the only popular song of that era.

  3. I've so far missed seeing any of the National Parks series: I guess I'll catch it when it comes out on DVD, which is how I usually see Ken Burns.

    I'm a big fan of domestic travel, given all the wonderful places to explore here in the US. I will say from personal experience, though: many of the National Parks are NOT dog-friendly. You can bring your dog into the parks, but in many of the more popular parks, you can't take dogs on the trails. So if you're traveling with dogs & don't want to board them, you're limited to sight-seeing from your car.

  4. I really enjoys Ken Burns' work. I enjoy the format.

    Isn't it interesting that time makes visionaries like T. Roosevelt look smarter and their detractors more boorish?