Monday, September 28, 2009

Ken Burns's National Parks and John Muir

Randall Stephens

Ken Burns's new, epic documentary The National Parks runs a whopping 12 hours. Reviews have been largely positive. Hank Stuever weighs in at the Washington Post:

As usual, Burns is best with history and certain feeling for the past. Segments on the creation of the "park ranger" are suffused with nostalgic stoutheartedness -- the invention of a magnetic, enduring icon. Also as usual, Burns is worst at relating the then to the now. "The National Parks" lets its story peter out in the late 20th century, relying on home movies to get across what it's like for tens of millions of present-day visitors. Underneath its wonder, 'The National Parks' is really about how Americans learned (or failed to learn) proper stewardship of nature. Here, the acoustic guitar is really cranked up. Burns does that when he wants to indicate despair, guilt, importance.

John Muir features heavily in the first installment, which aired on Sunday. Muir's eccentric, novel life, and his significant impact on later environmentalists gets the full Burns treatment.

Donald Worster's essay "John Muir and the Religion of Nature" appeared in the the April 2009 issue of Historically Speaking (available on Project Muse here). "Muir did more than find a home in the mountains," writes Worster. "He also found there a new religion: the religion of nature. If he didn’t single-handedly invent it, he, more than anyone else, was responsible for propagating its message far and wide. Like Moses or Buddha, Martin Luther or Mary Baker Eddy, he was a prophet, a creative spiritual leader responding to his times with a vision of ultimate meaning and purpose."

In the same issue Donald Yerxa interviewed Worster on his Muir biography and spoke to Worster about some of the broader historical themes related to this fascinating American naturalist.

Donald A. Yerxa: What drew you to write a biography of John Muir? Donald

There was a mix of reasons, some personal, some scholarly. The scholarly side is that there has not been a full-blown comprehensive study of the man’s life since the 1940s. There have been a number of books on Muir, but their authors didn’t draw extensively on archives and letters, or they haven’t told the full scope of Muir’s life or tried to put it into the context of his times. For all of us in environmental history, John Muir is such a crucial figure. To know him and understand him better seemed to be an important contribution to that part of our history. On the personal side—and this does get personal—I suppose as one gets older, you start looking back on your life and thinking about where you’ve been and the turns in the road your life has taken and how you got to where you are, for good or bad. In other words, you get into a biographical mood. I had been drawn to a couple of people in recent years, John Wesley Powell and John Muir. Both of them grew up, as I did, in evangelical, Protestant, midwestern American families. Muir was even closer to my roots. I had a Scottish grandmother who was a Campbellite, part of the same religious tradition Muir grew up in. So I’ve always felt an affinity for him, and I wanted to understand his life along with my own life a little better.

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