26 February 2010

American Pastoral

  • Ken Burns. The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. PBS. October 2009.
  • Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan. The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, An Illustrated History. Knopf. October 2009.

The first thing that struck me when opening the massive coffee table book that Ken Burns compiled to accompany his most recent documentary—this one about the national parks, the latest entry in America’s Greatest Hits—was not the sheer size but rather the comparative puniness of the park system. The expectation in the American West, when looking at a map of public and private lands, is one of apparent socialism: the closest this country gets, at least on paper, to the appropriation of property by the people. The numbers are well known: 85 percent of Nevada is owned by the federal government, 57 percent of Utah, 50 percent of Idaho, even 45 percent of California. The national parks, outside of Alaska, where they play a fundamentally different role, comprise only six percent of federal lands. This seems to make sense: the parks are supposed to be “exceptional.” But for a system that Burns considers an extension of the claim that “all men are created equal,” the question remains—an exception to what?

Burns (and when I use the name here, I do so in the corporate sense of the term, because ‘Ken Burns’ has long since assumed the role of trademark) points to private property. “We were principally drawn to the fact that, for the first time in human history, land—great sections of our natural landscape—was set aside, not for kings or noblemen or the very rich, but for everyone, for all time.” This is not quite true. Long before the first American national park, the French Revolution placed all royal, ecclesiastic, and émigré lands in the hands of the people. These lands included the Forest of Fontainebleau, the king’s old hunting grounds, later the favorite escape of the French romantics; the forest would be declared a “réserve artistique” in 1861, three years before America’s first park, Yosemite, was set aside for equally ambiguous reasons. The bulk of American public lands, more importantly, are today administered by the National Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. If Burns were really interested in land set aside for the people, it’s hard to see why he would make a documentary about the national parks.

The US, nonetheless, certainly deserves some responsibility for the system of parks that now dot North America and most of the globe. But these parks have a history, one largely neglected by Burns. The first dream of public wilderness, sometimes attributed to George Catlin, the genteel chronicler of the Plains Indians, who in 1832 proposed a park “containing man and beast,” meaning indians and buffalo, goes back at least as far as William Wordsworth, who in 1810 described the Lake District as a “sort of national property in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy.” Thus, like almost every other nature movement of the nineteenth century, the parks, with their background in Wordsworth and the Revolution, trace their history to romanticism, a politically radical aesthetic, in some ways democratic, but largely an aesthetic of the exceptional, where only those with “an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy” can claim ownership.

It’s no surprise that Burns would ignore this prehistory of the parks: wilderness, the designation of an area as exclusively natural, where people visit but do not belong, owes its existence to the erasure of history. But in the long shadow of romanticism, the alpenglow rhetoric of the parks takes on a different shade. Dayton Duncan, Burns’ primary collaborator, breaks out the parks’ earliest metaphor to describe his experience: “Here, in what [was once] called the ‘Crown of the Continent,’ the diadems were freshly polished.” Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier—these, we are told again and again, are the “crown jewels” of America. But if the parks constitute a crown, then it is a crown that can be soiled.

When John Muir returned to his beloved Yosemite in 1889, after eight years spent popularizing the park, he found it overrun with plebeians snapping pictures. “His cathedral,” Burns tells us, “had been turned into a carnival.” Muir’s disgust is best elaborated by Clay Jenkinson, a favorite of Burns, whose credentials include a popular radio show, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” where he impersonates the founding father: “American nature is the guarantor of American constitutional freedom. That if you don’t have a genuine link to nature in a serious, even profound way, you can’t be an American.” This is not the language of the man who declared all men equal. It is, however, the language of a country where some public lands have been declared more equal than others.


When not busy passing off his favorite impersonators as historical experts, Burns shows a special talent for making real scholars say dumb things. Thus we have William Cronon, perhaps the best environmental historian working today, tell us: “What emerges in the middle of the nineteenth century is this idea that going back to wild nature is restorative.” It’s a very useful slip for Cronon to make—the romantic worship of nature, of course, originated a century earlier, with Goethe and Rousseau—because dropping a century allows Burns to elevate his favorite American romantics: Emerson, Thoreau, and, most importantly, Muir. Viewed in the grand tradition of romanticism, Muir appears as a farcical final stage. But if the worship of nature dates to Emerson and Thoreau, then Muir can assume the position of a culminating figure, riding the crest of Manifest Destiny—the man who took romanticism from the backwoods of New England to the peaks of the Sierras. Both high priest of American nature and personal founder of several parks, Muir easily becomes the avatar for Burns’ entire project.

William Cronon, in his own books, expressed great skepticism about Muir, referring to him as the writer who “best captures [the] late romantic sense of a domesticated sublime.” Romanticism, according to Cronon’s argument, had lost its edge by the time Muir came upon the scene. The sublime originated in beauty and terror—the fall of the tragic hero, the fearful sheen of Mont Blanc. For Muir the mountains inspired none of the fear found in writers like Goethe, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Thoreau. Rather, “the wilderness was still sacred, but the religious sentiments it evoked were more those of a pleasant parish church than those of a grand cathedral or a harsh desert realm.” The sublime, for Muir, had lost its essential terror and become merely beautiful, a version of the pre-romantic pastoral elegy, as seen in this sketch from My First Summer in the Sierras:

No pain here, no dull empty hours, no fear of the past, no fear of the future. These blessed mountains are so compactly filled with God’s beauty, no petty personal hope or experience has room to be. Drinking this champagne water is pure pleasure, so is breathing the living air, and every movement of limbs is pleasure, while the body seems to feel beauty when exposed to it as it feels the campfire or sunshine.

But Cronon’s critique misses part of the danger in Muir’s rhetoric. Muir didn’t simply turn nature into a domesticated parish church; for him nature became more like a mountain abbey, or as Burns puts it a “temple-home,” staffed by dedicated priests, those few called to commune with the clean air and to welcome the penitents and pilgrims. The doors to Muir’s temple remain open, but unlike a parish church this refuge can only be found in a few exceptional places.

The strong case against Muir is not that he domesticated romanticism, removing the element of fear, but that he missed the essential lesson at the heart of his American forebearers, Emerson and Thoreau, who worked so hard to democratize the romantic spirit. Instead, Muir imported the worst part of romanticism—its weakness for aristocracy, which led to an aesthetic of the clean and picturesque (think of the carefully constructed “wild” English gardens of the 18th century, rather than the Lake District). Jonathan Raban, in a recent essay titled “The Curse of the Sublime” (published in Playboy of all places—what can I say, I’m a Raban fan), makes this case against Muir better than anyone:

In My First Summer in the Sierra, [Muir] complained of how the Mono Indians polluted the purity of the Yosemite with their “dirty and irregular life” in “this clean wilderness,” and went on to remark, “The worst thing about them is their uncleanliness. Nothing truly wild is unclean.” …  In A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, he sang the praises of Athens, Georgia, “a remarkably beautiful and aristocratic town.” … What impressed him most was the deferential behavior of the blacks he encountered. … There’s a connection here between Muir’s infatuation with a hierarchical, aristocratic society … and his rapturous exultation in the nobility and grandeur of the mountains. … Visit the high places of the West, he promised, and vacation like a king.

Burns notably praises the parks for “the evolution of their clean and stunningly influential ideal” (my italics). Dayton Duncan, Burns’ collaborator, suggests that in the Sierras, “where the air is more rarefied and the scale more magnified, [Muir] found unity with a Creator for whom Walden Pond would have been a muddy street puddle.” Muir “upped the ante of American Transcendentalism,” as Duncan puts it, by turning our greatest symbol of everyday nature into a mud puddle. Muir would never have used those words, but his disciples didn’t have to stray far from the path he beat through the rhetoric of wilderness to find them.


Perhaps, however, the way we approach the parks has changed—and the rhetoric of Burns and Duncan only reveals the last remnants of the parks’ early roots in the picturesque. Early on, after all, the parks were run almost as fiefdoms of the railroad companies. The Santa Fe Railway had the Grand Canyon; the Northern Pacific ran past Yellowstone’s gate; Glacier was set aside at the behest of the Great Northern, whose lobbyists made sure the park was big enough to include part of the railroad itself. Early visitors had to be relatively well-off, with enough money to purchase transcontinental rail tickets, hire guides and horses to get around, and pay for the few accommodations available. The Grand Hotel–style lodges of Yellowstone, Glacier, and Yosemite date from this era. Later the automobile changed the parks, just as it changed the rest of America. Cars, along with interstates and new mountain roads, ushered in the era of the roadside campsite, where, as the first director of the Park Service put it, “people turned to the national parks as places to live during their vacations.” These vacations were accordingly inexpensive, a fact many parents must have been conscious of as they packed their baby-boomer families away for two-week-long tours.

Burns is at his best when he cuts back on the philosophy and simply recounts these stories of how the parks have been used over time. But the larger claim he advances about the way the parks have changed is less tenable. Paul Schullery, a nature writer and former ranger, states Burns’ thesis plainly: “The national parks have been managed pretty much by the values of their time.” The implicit argument then goes: the aesthetics of the railroad barons and the gilded age were aristocratic—with Muir as their hapless rustic prophet—so the aesthetics of the parks were aristocratic; the aesthetics of the auto-age were democratic, so the aesthetics of the parks, the brute nature upon which we impose both our roads and our ideas of the beautiful, became democratic.

In the last episodes of the documentary, after the parks become overrun with people, we reach the most recent development, what Burns calls the “paradox of preservation versus use,” where science and democracy compromise on how best to conserve the parks while making them available to the public. Schullery explains how the aesthetics of the parks subsequently changed:

Even in the early 1900s, it was still spectacle. It was still the simplest version of prettiness. Wild beauty was defined on superficial levels that had very little to do with wildness and how wildness actually works. It was the scientists who helped us see past those superficialities. It’s the scientists who had the most to do with redefining beauty. When they discovered the underlying sense of wild landscapes—predation, and fire, and all the dramatic forces that shaped the landscape in the first place—they exposed us to far deeper and more challenging beauties than most people even imagined when we started creating parks.

By this logic the signal events in the recent history of the parks are the 1947 admission of the Everglades, a swamp, rich in wildlife but lacking in views; the cancellation of a plan to pave the only road through Denali National Park in the late 1950s; the 1968 suspension of the nightly Yosemite “firefall,” where a bonfire was cascaded off a cliff; the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone in 1995; and the steady discouragement of the feeding of bears over this entire period. The aesthetics of science, by this account, triumphed over the aesthetics of the picturesque, which had been retained even as the parks went from the province of the lucky few to the destination of the democratic masses.

Science, of course, doesn’t have an aesthetic—it can only be made to serve an aesthetic that comes from outside. In the national parks, as Schullery makes clear, science serves the aesthetic of “wildness.” More specifically, according to the 1963 Leopold Report, which ushered in the age of scientific management, the parks were to produce “a vignette of primitive America.” Scientists would help by returning the landscape and ecosystem to that which “prevailed when the area was first visited by the white man.” Together with the establishment of designated “primitive” areas on other public lands in 1964, this marked the beginning of wilderness science. Meanwhile, the National Forest Service developed forest science, the study of how to increase timber production; the Bureau of Reclamation pushed forward with its interest in hydrology; and the Bureau of Land Management focused on grazing management. Each agency produced different results, some more sustainable than others—the BLM allowed ranchers to overgraze its land, the National Forest Service lost money on logging permits, some national parks attracted too many visitors to look wild—but none was more “scientific” than the others.

A national park with a scientific aesthetic, if such a thing were possible, would likely resemble a laboratory, an extension of the experimental forests managed by many universities. Instead, science serves “wildness” and “primitivism,” concepts that remain romantic (shading into picturesque) no matter how we refine their particulars. This is the deeper paradox inherent in the “paradox of preservation versus use”: the difficulty of defining “preservation.” Yosemite Valley was first discovered by a band of forty-niners intent on driving out indians; when one of those indians returned decades later, in 1929, at 90, she noted that the valley was much more densely wooded than she remembered—her people, like most natives, had set regular fires to open up meadows and encourage game. When the Blackfoot tribe ceded what now constitutes Glacier National Park, they stipulated that they would retain the right to hunt on their historic sacred lands. This right has been denied since the inception of the park. The only continuously wild herd of bison in the US make their home in Yellowstone National Park; along with local elk, these bison also carry the only remaining concentration of brucellosis in North America, a parasite brought to this continent by European cattle. The bison herd has grown so large, and brucellosis so feared by ranchers, that many bison are slaughtered when they leave the park to graze—a completely natural behavior, since the last place you would expect to find a plains animal like the bison is in the mountains and hot springs of Yellowstone. Meanwhile, invasive plant species such as bluegrass and leafy spurge have become ever more common throughout the parks.

These are the facts to keep in mind as expert after expert, interviewee after interviewee, recites the enchanted words of the American wilderness myth: “pristine,” “natural,” “changeless.” But there can be nothing pristine, in the wilderness sense of a place “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” about areas inhabited by natives who actively changed the landscape over thousands of years. There can be nothing natural about areas that are managed only as exceptions to the land around them, and in any case breathe the same air and bathe in the same weather patterns as the rest of the world. The claim of changelessness is particularly hard to take, as Burns shows shot after shot of glaciers, alternating between black and white photos and contemporary color footage, while actors read quotes about the “timelessness” of the parks.


We see the effects of Muir’s originary romanticism in the metaphor that runs through Burns’ project from beginning to end: the national parks as America’s “home.” For the fourth installment, in which Congress establishes the parks as a national system, Burns chose the title “Going Home.” He means this not in the sense of the return after a restorative vacation, but the trip itself. Shelton Johnson, a particularly voluble ranger, elaborates:

Whenever someone enters a national park, it’s like going to another world. It is going to a wonderland. … They feel that sense that they’ve gone to some place better than what they’ve left behind. But the irony is that where they’ve gone is the place where they’ve always been. It’s just now they understand it. Now they see it. Now they feel it. Because parks are like going home.

Johnson gives the positive gloss on an aristocratic version of nature within a democratic world: we go to exceptional places and search out exceptional experiences to reveal what’s already present in our everyday, mundane life. It’s a neat idea—influenced as much by the literature of self-help retreats as that of romanticism—but it doesn’t correspond with how people experience the parks even within Burns’ own film.

As with all of his documentaries, Burns introduces a pair of representative Americans, Margaret and Edward Gehrke, whose main qualifications appear to be a collection of family albums and journals detailed enough to fully Burns-ify their lives. Nebraska natives, the Gehrkes spend almost every summer visiting park after park. On one of the Gehrke’s early trips, Margaret is exhilarated to find, as she writes in her journal, the “spirit of the woods” in Glacier National Park. But when the couple returns to Nebraska, Margaret sighs: “To come home on Edward’s birthday was nice, if returning home can ever be said to be pleasant.” Burns himself admits to a similar sentiment: “It was hard to leave these protected places and the grief that fell over some of us, as the built world reclaimed its supremacy, was palpable and long lasting.”

The most touching expression of the disappointment the parks can engender comes on the return from Margaret’s final visit. After a lifetime awaiting each new summer trip, she writes:

Here I am this mid-July afternoon going home. And glad to be going home. Surely I care little about home and never have. Back to Nebraska to the hateful heat of summer, to work day after day, to monotony most would say. But glad! … (Why should I be so near to tears?) The whole trip to Colorado like a dream now. The whole thing drops from my shoulders now like a jeweled coat, and I lay it aside feeling I’ve never worn it at all.

Amid the tangle of emotions one thread teases itself out—the feeling that the park, the “jeweled coat,” lies above Margaret’s station. This metaphor can only remind us of George Grinnell’s famous line about the “Crown of the Continent.” To vacation like a king, in a land no king can own, is nonetheless to expose the poverty of everyday democratic life. A trip to the parks is a Cinderella tale with no prince at the end but rather a long drive home. Shelton Johnson, the ranger who defended the riches of the parks as a way to reveal hidden riches back home, inadvertently admits to the more typical emotion encountered by Margaret and others upon departure: “Transcendent experience is commonplace in Yosemite … And where else can you get an experience like that?”

Nevada Barr, a former ranger and popular writer, well known for a series of mystery novels set in the parks, tells Burns:

I think we require national parks for our psychic stability and sanity. We need national parks because we psychologically need to have a place to go when we can’t be “here” anymore. … I want to be able to say, “Go see the falls,” and the falls will still be there. The parks are always where I can go home again. I go back to my hometown, and there is a Safeway where I used to play with Silvia Gonzales, and they have turned my old school into a junk shop. But the parks don’t do that. So these are places we can always go home.

It would be difficult to invent a better example of how the parks continue to function in contemporary America. Barr can return home to the parks only because they are nothing like her real home—a home so overrun that the parks have taken on the role of a government prescribed antidepressant. Her old school may now be a junk shop, but no matter—Walden was just a muddy street pool anyway, and you can always return to the Sierras. As William Cronon writes, “By imagining that our true home is in the wilderness, we forgive ourselves the homes we actually inhabit.”


Perhaps the greatest promise made by the supporters of the parks is the opportunity to heal the wounds of the outside world. Burns writes:

Rarely does the momentum of things permit repair or reconciliation. But I have found, in places where the narrative of human lives and those of their “brotherly” rocks seem just as important, that some inexpressible something is retained, repairs are made, and we are all, as John Muir so fervently wished, kindred spirits.

Nature has no special ability to reconcile, particularly when burdened with all the weight of the exceptional. Thoreau famously said that we find in the wild only what we bring there ourselves. In my experience, it’s much easier to leave behind unreasonable expectations, and bring along only the essentials, when you venture outside of the national parks, whether on the 564 million acres of public lands that dominate the West, or in the state parks that dot the country, or in the parks and gardens of our cities, or along those other great public lands—the sidewalk of the street. There, in the everyday landscapes that surround us, lies the true path of democratic experience, where reconciliation can be found precisely because it is not guaranteed by any higher force than yourself and those who walk beside you.

Image: Justine Kurland, Keddie Wye, This Train is Bound for Glory, 2007. C-print, 24 x 31 1/2". Courtesy Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY.

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