My previous two posts reviewed the extraordinary lure of Europe to members of the Baby Boomer generation. Whereas Boomers are positively predisposed to travel to Europe, this generation is also today confronting enormous economic hurdles, making European travel less accessible and attractive.
One alternative for travel-hungry but budget-conscious Boomers unfolded before a national television audience beginning September 27 in a spectacular documentary series by filmmakers Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan: The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. During six consecutive nights and twelve hours of programming, Burns and Duncan shared chaotic and inspirational history of our national parks.
This story began in 1851 when white men first beheld a valley that would become known as Yosemite. Their primary mission then was to expel Native Americans from the valley. Twenty-one years later, in 1872, Yosemite became the first national park. A unique idea to preserve and protect wild and beautiful places eventually led to a park system that today encompasses almost 400 sites and protects 84 million acres.
Creation of almost every park required enormous political will, as nearly every acre represented economic opportunities for private interests, from lumber to mining and water resources to tourism. Almost every park owes its existence to a few passionate protectors who fought against powerful lobbies that would have preferred exploitation over preservation.
As these filmmakers wisely observe, the original idea of a national park system is unique to America. In the Old Continent, the most compelling and memorable natural landscapes tend to be owned by aristocracy and private interests, and if these places become available for the general public to experience, they do so because of benevolence and generosity of landowners. “Only a democracy could have thought that land could have been set aside, not for the rich and nobility, but for everybody for all time,” Burns said in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor.
In America, vast tracts of wilderness have been preserved for perpetuity, owned equally by all the nation’s citizens rather than a minority or elite. These landscapes constitute an incomparable bequeathal to the future and generations yet to be born. Whereas Europe has majestic cathedrals, America has majestic canyons and mountains of equal spiritual import – “cathedrals of God’s handiwork.”
The film trailer intones, “As Americans, we’re not only connected to this land, we’re connected by it.” And this is how Boomers became part of the history of the national parks. Many remember at least one special trip to a park shared with parents and siblings during the 1950s or 1960s.
I recall visiting Rocky Mountain National Park many times with my parents: a vivid tableau of majestic mountain landscapes, a pungent pine aroma from blue spruce following afternoon rains, a comical encounter with chipmunks begging for peanuts as we gazed at inspirational beauty from an observation point. This is how my parents taught me about the importance of wilderness preservation, at just about the time when Congress passed the Wilderness Preservation Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson 45 years ago on September 3, 1964.
These two filmmakers are also members of the Baby Boomer generation who reaffirm by their achievements many core values important to the generation. This includes respect for the nation’s pioneering traditions, drive to capture history artfully through modern media, commitment to an enduring conservation ethic, love of wilderness trekking through low-impact sports such as backpacking and cross country skiing, and veneration of shared egalitarian values.
Ken Burns, born in July 1953, is quintessentially an American born of the Boomer generation, still wearing a longer hair style reminiscent of the 1970s. Nominated for two Academy Awards and recipient of several Emmy Awards, Burns is son of a homemaker and anthropology professor. After receiving a B.A. from Hampshire College, he avoided a corporatized path to success but instead chose to become an entrepreneur and cofounder of Florentine Films. Since 1975 he has become an innovator of many of the most significant techniques in modern documentary filmmaking. His filmography includes several critically acclaimed PBS series: Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson, and The Civil War, which set a benchmark for viewership on public television by attracting 40 million for the premiere in 1990.
Dayton Duncan graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1971 and is author of ten books, including Out West: A Journey through Lewis & Clark’s America. He has served as a consultant and writer for many of Ken Burns’ documentaries including The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz. He has written a critically acclaimed children’s book, The West, An Illustrated History for Children. He has also been a political operative in the Democratic Party, serving as chief of staff to New Hampshire Governor Hugh Gallen and as national press secretary for Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential bid.
The National Parks: America’s Best Idea by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan can also be seen as a compelling invitation for Baby Boomers to preserve their legacy. Americans are “co-owners of some of the most spectacular scenery on earth,” Burns said. “And all you’ve got to do is go out and visit your property now and then, and make sure it’s being taken care of. And put it in your will for the next generation.”