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Speaking History

A Talk by Ken Burns

by Steve Jones

Listening to Ken Burns speak is like being in the high school history class you always dreamed of.

Promoting Dayton Duncan's, The National Parks, America's Best Idea, companion book to his National Parks PBS series, film maker Ken Burns recently appeared at Joseph-Beth Bookstore in Charlotte. The title of the book/series is taken from author and Pulitzer Prize winner William Stegner's quote, "Parks are the best idea we ever had".

Dapperly dressed in a black sports coat, black with white polka dot tie, white shirt and blue jeans, Burns, at age 56, still presents a boyish appearance. Winner of a Peabody award, Emmy, Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award and two Academy Award nominations, Ken Burns' films include The Civil War, Baseball and most recently, The War. Speaking sans notes before a crowd of 70 for 45 minutes, the depth of his knowledge was clear. From Yellowstone's founding in 1872 as the first national park to the creation of the Park Service in 1916 and on through his recent national parks visits, the passion for our nation's "crown jewels" shines through.

"The parks are a history of ideas and individuals" and "mirror the history of the United States". They are "radical as the Declaration of Independence" in that the establishment of our national parks was the first time land had been set aside for the public. The parks were created "purely for spiritual impulses". Burns likens them to the manmade palaces and cathedrals of Europe. He took on a familial tone as he said, "We are all co-owners" of the Parks System and "ought to visit and put in our will and posterity".

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Speaking of the parks from an environmental aspect, Burns noted that they are "canaries in the mine. They speak back and reflect back to us what's going on in the world", i.e. the decline in habitats and eco-systems.

Kids today have "nature deficit disorder" and should take advantage of the "restorative and spiritual values" the 84 million acres that parks offer.

He was questioned on what would America be like without the national parks? Burns mused that Florida's Everglades would be drained and developed. Zion National Park and Yellowstone would be gated communities or possibly Yellowstone could have become "Geyser World".

What of the disagreements on the parks' usage, snow mobile access for example? "Instead of shouting matches we should go back and show the facts of history". Burns cited conservationist John Muir who in the early twentieth century worried of the effect of "the horseless carriage" on parks. "The paradox of the parks is they are for the people, but must be left unimpaired for future generations".

Asked how many years should pass before history should be looked at, Burns recommended 20 - 25 years to gain historical perspective, 25 - 50 years for Presidents and "he couldn't have done The Civil War until 100 years had passed".

Burns is updating his Baseball series beginning with the Atlanta Braves vs. the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1992 NLCS and has another project in the works on Prohibition and the consequences it wrought on the country in terms of organized crime.

For more on The National Parks: America's Best Idea
For more on Ken Burns: Filmmaker