Before Ken Burns’ 6-part, 12-hour series on the national parks was aired, a perceptive article by the LA Times’ Scott Timberg warned that it might be greeted by “sharp knives.” Ten years in the making, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, finally came to our television screens last week, and so far no sharp knives seem to have been drawn. But there have been blunt forks poking into the meat and leaving large parts of the six-course meal undigested on the plate, its servings a bit too super-sized for easy consumption. (There are, of course, the stealth knives and box-cutters of right-wing bloggers, who criticize the series for its NPR liberalism, communism, paganism, and whatever else, but so far the jabs have been mostly off the mark, and few and far between.)
The US national park system would seem to make for an ideal subject for the Burns treatment — a treatment Apple has captured, at least in part, on its iPhoto program as the “Ken Burns Effect.” Timberg describes the Burns style as a “combination of a deep, authoritative male voice, pan-and-zoom camera work over sepia-toned photographs, period music and extravagant claims about American exceptionalism.” The Washington Post’s Tim Page has less charitably called Burns’ style an “unreflected populist Hallmark-ese,” a “strange mixture of New Deal and New Age.” The latter was said in reference to Burns’ “Jazz” series, with its idea that improvisation was an integral element of the American spirit, but it could easily also be said about National Parks.
But there’s something to Burns’ claim about improvisation: one finds that improvisational spirit in the pragmatism of the country’s best philosophers (John Dewey, William James, et al) and in the poetry of Whitman, the Beats, and the nature romanticism of Thoreau and Muir. All of which is another way of saying that progressivism, the very backbone of the American conservation movement (the national parks being one wing of that, the national forests being another), is very American, and those who forget that — like today’s rabid Republican right — are not nearly as American as they would like to think.