Friday, September 25, 2009

Really, Really Big Green For All: Why I'll Be Watching Ken Burns Series on National Parks

How cute was Ken Burns the other night on "The Rachel Maddow Show?"

Okay, maybe "cute" isn't the best adjective. I mean, Burns is kind of creepily perpetually youthful, what with that John Denver-circa-1975 haircut and those twinkly eyes. I'm not quite saying he's the Dorian Gray of the highbrow filmmaker crowd but it is impossible not to notice that he has been making these lovely docs and giving promotional interviews for thirty-some years....and yet, mysteriously, he can pass for a grad student at USC's School of Cinematic Arts.

But watching him on Maddow Thursday night, I was quite taken with his impassioned comments describing "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," his 12 hour-long series that debuts this Sunday night on PBS television stations nationwide.

There were many highlights during Burns' nearly nine minute-long interview, including these, which commence at 3:36, following Maddow's intro and a short clip:

-- "Building human happiness, that's what government's supposed to do."

-- "There was a time when government stepped in and made things better in every single way....that we could bring jobs, and money, and a sense of cohesion and that's what the parks are about, that's why they thrived during the Depression, and not just because they got the first shovel-ready stimulus dollars from Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal but because they brought Americans together."

-- "We started out by saving natural scenery but now we save alot more....Shanksville, Manzanar, all these places that reflect our complicated past."

That last reference alludes to portions of the series dubbed, 'Untold stories." Clearly Burns learned an important lesson after the minor racial kerfluffle he experienced as his last mega-series, "The War" prepared to air in 2007. Back then, a handful of ethnic historians raised a ruckus because Burns had ignored stories from the heroic contributions of Asian American, black, and Latino enlisted men and women who had fought in World War II. He eventually admitted to having dropped that ball, and it seems from this National Parks series, that he has avoided making the same mistake.

In "National Parks: America's Best Idea" there are apparently several segments that focus on histories of the more recent inclusions into the nation's Federal parks system, including slave cabins in the South and Mid-Atlantic, and the infamous former Japanese internment camp, Manazanar, in Northern California. (I say "apparently" because I have not viewed the entire series, only trailers available online.)

The "complicated past" Burns was getting at in his comments to Maddow may already be known to many ethnic minorities in the U.S., though, truth be told, its presentation in the series will likely be illuminating to all viewers, including some people of color. The sad fact is that few Americans are aware of how deeply our identities -- personal and tribal -- are tied to our landscape, and to the social and political historic narratives that are bound up in our physical surroundings.

For instance, I lived in California's Central Valley for three years during the early 1990s, and only learned in my final few months there that a dusty, barren section of Tulare County had been designated the Col. Allen Allensworth Historic State Park. Named after a black Civil War veteran who had been born a slave in Louisiana, Allensworth State Park is anchored by a small village that was once the center of a nascent blacks-only township. It is located near what is now the tiny city of Earlimart. Allensworth had fled the racist terrorism of the Deep South in the 1880s, and settled on the west side of the great San Joaquin Valley; back then, fed in part by an immense fresh-water lake called Tulare, that section of the Central Valley was verdant and prime for farming.

Allensworth and a consortium of other black veterans and businessmen first bought 20 acres of land beginning in 1908, soon expanded to 80 acres of land, and by 1914, drew some 200 black residents to the area. The town was self-sufficient, with its own stores, a post office and a school. But -- insert sigh, head-shake, and You-Guessed-It here -- state officials and the surrounding (white) ag-barons colluded to divert a crucial railroad line and water systems away from Allensworth. By the 1930s, the little town with big ambitions literally died on the vine.

Granted, Allensworth is not a national park, and you don't learn his story from Burns' PBS series, but you get the idea. What "National Parks" endeavors to accomplish -- along with the surface message that our Great Outdoors are sacred spaces that require our eternal vigilance and respect -- is that brown and black people in America have terra firma ownership rights that are quite as valuable (if not more, in the case of native Indians) than those of whites. Our investment in our National Parks should not be merely symbolic or distant but genuine, spiritual, and worthy of our constant attention.

I am a native Northern Californian, so maybe I'm too inclined to rhapsodize about the Wide Open Spaces. But the "green movement" is really quite old, and I wish our current political discourse reflected its historic ethnic diversity. Long before Van Jones and Majora Carter hipped white progressives to the idea that black and brown people care about the environment, too, my City Girl's mind was blown (in the best possible way!) by my early exposure to the grand vistas of my home state.

If you have never felt the chilly mist from Bridal Veil Falls in Yosemite, or stood at the amber-colored rim of the Grand Canyon, or craned your neck trying to see the tip-top of a towering Redwood, you are missing out a chance to see yourself as a different kind of American. I'm going to watch at least some of "The National Parks" with my two children, so they will be prepared for the grand treasures I will introduce them to the next time we go West.