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Ken Burns Talks About His Beloved National Parks

Documentarian Celebrates the 100th Birthday of America’s Open-Air Cathedrals


The summer of 2016 has seen lines of division and walls of judgment drawn all over the United States of America. The cultural pressure cooker is full with the worst parts of us: racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, angst, oppression, and disenfranchisement. There has been blood in the streets and pure vitriol virtually everywhere else. Indeed, it seems our nation is having a critical — and potentially dangerous — meltdown as it looks into the mirror of a world in transition.

Enter Ken Burns.

The celebrated documentary filmmaker is returning to Santa Barbara on Sunday, October 2, to throw a birthday party for one of his most beloved and famed subject matters: national parks. From the valley floor of Yosemite to the forever wilderness of Denali to the forgotten California of our own Channel Islands, the nationwide network of 59 soul-stirring, open-air cathedrals of nature has hit the century mark, and, to hear Burns tell it, the timing could not be more important. “We are a country that is frayed at the edges right now,” offered Burns in a recent interview with The Santa Barbara Independent after just getting back to his New Hampshire home from a trip to Alaska. “We are accentuating the differences between people based on geography, based on race, based on wealth or lack of it, based on gender — whatever it may be. Red state, blue state … There is very little that suggests the United States’ motto, e pluribus unum, which means roughly ‘out of many, one.’ There are very few things today that suggest the one … but when you have something to bring you together like the parks, that is a wonderfully good thing.”

Big doses of big nature, like those found in our parks, is one of this world’s greatest equalizers, no matter your notions of division. As Burns was quick to remind me, it was Robert Sterling Yard, one of the National Park Service’s (NPS) greatest champions during its first 30 years, who said, “Those who go in there [national parks] are all reduced to just being Americans.” And there — perfectly within the borders of places such as Glacier National Park in Montana or Acadia National Park in Maine — is the “one” that Burns is looking for. There, in nature, is an indivisible America, a fundamentally patriotic playground for all of us to feel the unifying embrace of Mother Nature. “They are one of our greatest reminders of the thing that ties us together,” said Burns.

It was seven years ago that the Emmy-winning filmmaker released his series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. The six-episode premiere on PBS had tens of millions of viewers during its first run alone and has been a monster on the Internet since. Now, with the August 25 birthday of the NPS as his motivation, he is revisiting them, a circling back he feels is of a timeless importance for all of us. “It is our inheritance and our obligation as co-owners to go and visit these parks every once in a while,” explained Burns. “We have to go kick the tires and make sure we are taking care of them and, more importantly, make sure we are leaving them intact and unimpaired for future generations.”

Click to enlarge photo

Now, with a general angst threatening to boil over between our borders, that mandate has taken on even more importance. There is an unfailing and timeless power to be found within all the parks and a certain poetry in its 100th birthday coming at this exact moment in history. Perhaps there is even a medicine in it. Ken Burns thinks so. “When you stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon, you can feel your insignificance,” he said with a tone of careful urgency. “But it feels good. It actually makes you feel better … The parks remind us of this bigger thing. The egotist in our midst is diminished by his or her self-regard.”

Things to Do and See

UCSB’s Arts & Lectures is celebrating the National Parks centennial with myriad related events listed below. For more information, call 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.

The National Parks: America’s Best Idea: Ken Burns’s six-episode documentary series will screen for free over two days at the Granada Theatre. Get there early for a chance to win prizes and check out some special attractions.

• Saturday, September 24

The Scripture of Nature (1851-1890), noon

The Last Refuge (1890-1915), 2 p.m.

The Empire of Grandeur (1915-1919), 4 p.m.

• Sunday, September 25

Going Home (1920-1933), noon

Great Nature (1933-1945), 2 p.m.

The Morning of Creation (1946-1980), 4 p.m.

Ken Burns: The documentarian will give a special presentation titled The National Parks: A Treasure House of Nature’s Superlatives.

• Sunday, October 2, noon, at the Granada Theatre

Q.T. Luong: Over the past 20 years, the photographer made more than 300 trips to National Parks to capture all 59 in large-format pictures, which he has compiled into a book called Treasured Lands.

• Wednesday, November 2, 7:30 p.m., at Campbell Hall

Dayton Duncan: Writer/producer of the Emmy Award–winning documentary series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea will give a talk titled Lands for the Public: The Evolution of the Nation Park Idea.

• Tuesday, November 15, 7:30 p.m., at Campbell Hall

Douglas Brinkley: The CNN News history commentator, professor at Rice University, and conservation spokesperson will give a talk on Presidents and the National Parks: From Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

• Thursday, January 26, 2017, 7:30 p.m., at Campbell Hall

Terry Tempest Williams: The conservationist and author will discuss her 2015 book, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks.

• Wednesday, April 12, 2017, 7:30 p.m., at Campbell Hall

Ken Burns will give a lecture titled The National Parks: A Treasure House of Nature’s Superlatives at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Sunday, October 2, at noon. Call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.



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