Ken Burns visited Yosemite National Park for the first time six years ago.
It was his initiation to wilderness, a journey of benediction, the essential starting point in his quest to document, on film, the definitive story of America's national parks.
"The sheer beauty of the place knocked me to the ground," says Burns, recalling his first glimpse of Yosemite Valley. "It was like becoming a parent the first time, a transforming experience."
For the next several days, Burns walked and filmed in Yosemite with "a goofy look on my face," awed by the falling water and the sculpted rock. But more than that, he began to feel a vivid sense of connection - to wonder, to the wind, to memory, to his family, to American heritage, to God.
"The national parks are like open-heart surgery. They take you to higher places," says Burns, renowned as America's pre-eminent TV documentarian since the release of "The Civil War" 20 years ago.
"As (writer) Terry Tempest Williams reminds us, it's not so much that we save the parks. They save us."
Burns' unabashed sense of wonder infuses every minute of "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," the six-part, 12-hour documentary that debuts Sunday on PBS. Like the parks themselves, Burns' series is a thing of beauty - a delight to behold, an open door to reflection, rich in subtlety and surprise, bracing and vital in its moment of telling.
"The National Parks" is richly poetic, the most lyrical documentary Burns has ever produced. At the same time, it tells a story of surprising breadth and depth. "The National Parks" is very often a nuanced story about conservation - exploring what's worth preserving, and under what conditions, and for whom, and why. Burns makes a strong case that the parks are also a story about people and democracy.
Most of all, Burns sees the national parks story in a spiritual realm. Starting with Episode 1 - "The Scripture of Nature" - Burns presents the parks, the American wild spaces, as cathedrals. He explains the distinctly American notion, espoused by Emerson and Thoreau, of seeking and discovering God in nature. He conveys, poetically, the sense of visiting the park as a transcendent experience.
"What could be more cathedral in feel than the Grand Canyon or Yosemite Valley?" an ebullient young park ranger named Shelton Johnson observes early in the series. "When I think of Sequoia National Park, I think of a cathedral or a mosque or a church, a place where you're not necessarily worshipping the name of something, but the presence of something else. When you're in a grove of giant sequoia, there's no need for someone to remind you that there is something in this world that is larger than you are, because you can see it.
"There's no need to stand on airs and think that you're better than this person or not as good as that person, because we're all diminished and at the same time amplified by being in their presence."
John Muir - wanderer, philosopher, botanist, scientist, iconoclast - is the moral conscience of "The National Parks." Though he lived and died more than a century ago, Muir's spirit infuses the entire series. Through the voice of actor Lee Stetson, Muir utters the very first words of the documentary. Twelve hours later, Muir gets the last word, too.
"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe," Muir once wrote. As co-founder of the Sierra Club in the 19th century, Muir was the guardian of Yosemite who was also wowed by the glaciers of Alaska and the gardens of Mount Rainier in Washington. He thought of nature as holy, a place to ramble and commune and celebrate. He worried it was vulnerable to human exploitation.
"I think of Muir as a great writer in the tradition of Emerson and Lincoln and Twain, in that he understands the soul of the country," Burns says. "He's one of the super Americans. He's as contemporary as today. He speaks to us now."
Like many of the "heroes" in Burns' series, Muir was a lone wolf (the wolf is a key metaphor in the series) - a man whose passion and vision were so focused that he struck many people as eccentric. Born in Scotland, educated at the University of Wisconsin, Muir was motivated, industrious. He rose fast in the world of industry and factories. But he found himself suffocating in the orthodoxy of the workaday world.
Muir needed the nourishment of the wild and headed west in search of it. Once found, he wanted to share it with others, preserve it for others. In Burns' series, this storyline occurs again and again - as people of wealth, people of means, people of industry realize the restorative, life-saving sanctuary of nature.
Consider George Melendez Wright. Have you ever heard that name? Yet he's one of the most striking heroes of Burns' story. Wright was a young park naturalist, educated in forestry and zoology at the University of California, who helped redefine the notion of conservation in the national parks in the early 1930s.
Wright championed the idea that preserving national park land wasn't enough, that the wildlife within those spaces needed to be protected in their natural state. He was worried that the balance of nature was out of whack in the parks - evidence the domesticated bears of Yellowstone - and urged the parks to address the issue. In the face of disinterest, Wright offered to conduct a cross-country biological study at his own expense. Though it ran against the grain of his times, Wright's conviction changed the course of park history.
Ken Burns sees paradox as essential to the American story, and it is a vital ingredient in every one of his documentaries. Thomas Jefferson, the godfather of our notion of freedom and democracy, was also a slaveholder. Baseball, our national game, for generations reflected a national shame, in that it barred African Americans from the Major Leagues.
"The National Parks" addresses this question of paradox as well. Theodore Roosevelt, one of the prime figures in the documentary, embodies a big one. That is: The national urge to celebrate and preserve wild spaces, set against the urge to kill the wild things that make these spaces so remarkable.
Burns makes the case, implicitly, that the parks reflect our national character, our national values. But at the same time: They are strikingly vulnerable to changing values within the culture. Throughout the series, Burns uses the parks as a symbol in stories that reflect the best and worst of America.
At a time of heightened environmental consciousness, Burns' documentary tells stories that have striking relevance to today.
"Wallace Stegner says in the last episode that we're the most dangerous species alive," Burns says. "And yet, we're also the species capable, when we wish to, of saving other species, of preventing this loss. ... Here we begin to realize, I think, that our parks are bellwethers of our planetary health. They can be harbringers of a positive future, or a dismal, tragic one."