PBS to America: Parks ‘R’ Us

Better late than never to post on this… This week has brought a rather major environmental communication event, the broadcast on PBS of The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. This series, directed by Ken Burns, has received quite a bit of publicity in the US. One episode of the six-part, twelve hour series is being broadcast each night this week and there are frequent rebroadcasts happening, so if you are in the US or Canada, you should still be able to catch the whole series. The episodes are also available to watch online for another ten days or so I believe. You can also get it on DVD.

Here is an extended preview:

I’m certainly interested in learning about the parks, so the series demands my attention for that reason alone. But I’m also interested in the viewpoints and arguments presented in the series. And so far, it has done a good job of representing the ecocentric motivations and perspectives of folks like John Muir and the native peoples. It has also brought out some good stories of peoples’ experiences of unity with Nature that can take place in the parks and how Nature and the parks in particular help shape peoples’ identities, both national and personal. We don’t often get such perspectives on mainstream television, so it’s worth a watch if you have a few hours. As usual with PBS, there are lesson plans and other resources for educators online.

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About Mark S. Meisner

Executive Director of the International Environmental Communication Association (IECA). I also research, teach, write about, and speak on environmental and sustainability communication, media, culture, and policy. Facts are usually facts, but opinions and sense of humour are always my own.
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4 Responses to PBS to America: Parks ‘R’ Us

  1. Salma says:

    I do agree with Adrian’s comment. To read more, check out my response on the Ecomedia blog (http://ecomedia.wikispaces.com/message/view/Resources/14943352), where others too have been talking about the show.

  2. I’ve just posted a lengthier discussion of the series, including an overview of critical reviews, and more, over at Immanence. Comments welcome.

  3. Anna Davidson says:

    Having seen only the first hour of the first series, the big theme that struck me was of the overbearing infusion of the ‘National’ into the Parks. There was so much language tying the free and adventurous parks with the free and adventurous that is the US.

    The part that made me cringe a little – maybe from a deep seated Europeaness – was this deep national pride tied to the idea of the national park. The camera pans over Grizzlies catching beautiful silver salmon in a stream; and the voiceover speaks the words of Theodore Roosevelt; the majesty of ‘unmarred nature’ for all – not just the rich. The view changes to Mount Rushmore and the voice says: [the parks] are ‘more than a collection of rocks and trees and inspirational scenes from nature’..’they embody an idea born in the United States…as uniquely American as the declaration of independence’. Carl Pope states that unlike Europe – “where the palaces and parks are owned by aristocrats, monarchs…the wealthy”. America’s parks are democratic, and this idea as well as democracy itself is America’s greatest ‘gift to the world’.

    A few elements of this linking of the value of the Parks to national identity (even in the title: ‘America’s best idea’) sits uncomfortably with me.

    Just for fun I would want to tell Carl Pope that my history classes never mentioned the US as the birthplace of democracy, and that the last time I was in the Scottish highlands I wasn’t stopped by a monarch or an aristocrat at the gates and I didn’t need to pay. Sure, the Scottish Highlands sometimes make me think of a scarred surface of the moon, an image of humanity exfoliating the hills and planting sheep. But that brings me to another point of contention; that even the most pristine looking views have evidence of human influence; the idea of ‘untouched majesty’ that the language portrays is a little misleading. It is also the grand scale and aesthetic appeal in which the value of the parks is placed (at least the language and the visuals imply this). It makes me question if this is what makes them so much more valuable than say, an ‘unsightly’ swamp, bog or tundra. I suppose those just wouldn’t make the cut of a documentary.

    I questioned also a part of the story that was missing from this sense of national ‘pride’ of the parks. Could it not be argued that one of the reasons the US can claim to provide this ‘untouched’ nature as its contribution to the world, is because so much environmental resource use and destruction is outsourced to far-off foreign places, or pumped into the atmosphere in the form of ‘invisible’ greenhouse gases? Not to say that no ‘dirty’ industry occurs in the US itself, but not within the bounds of the ‘pristine wilderness’ of the parks.

    The very idea of nature being a source of ‘pride’ for a country, any country, implies ownership and some form of creation by the country. ( An analogy: People are generally not proud of merely existing, they are proud of the products of their work, their achievements) If these national parks truly are as ‘untouched’ and pristine as the language made them out to be, then although you can respect and love the parks, what is there to be proud of?

    Arguably the national effort to protect the parks and allow democratic access to them justifies great national pride. However, the pride to me still seems misplaced. The pride should be tied to the advocacy work, the ideals – being a national of a country requires only the effort of being born.

    My further worry is that infusing the Parks with so much national pride obscures the environmental destruction wrought elsewhere and the huge work still to be done. The big question for me is; does an inflated pride make us sit back and say ‘this is good enough’, or get up and take more action?

    I am entirely open to the possibility that I am seeing this with a European lense, where the beauty and awe of National Parks linked to a national pride, is just….well, a wee bit uncomfortable.

  4. Adrian says:

    Just to play devil’s advocate here: From what I’ve seen of it, it’s certainly very nice, in the best PBS tradition, a real instant classic with lots of laudable accomplishments in it. But my hunch is that students would get bored out of their skulls if they had to watch the whole thing. It’s so old-school — all talking-head historians, magisterial shots (which it does wonderfully, but Planet Earth does better) and soothing music (which will wear thin once the generation of people who like that die off), and mostly the same old white male voices with a smattering of tokens like the African-American forest ranger, a few women (Gretel Ehrlich, Terry Tempest Williams), a Native American or two, and the occasional reference to Buffalo soldiers and the Native Americans being evicted. (Those, of course, are among its achievements – it’s not a revisionist history but just a gently amended one. It’s interesting to compare it with the videos it’ll be replacing – like “The Wilderness Idea”, where Muir’s voice is more gruff and more obviously Scottish, or American Visions’ “Wilderness and the West,” et al).

    But to sit through a 12-hour history lesson (that ends, perplexedly, before the Reagan era) in which the viewer is talked to by the experts – is this the way (young) people learn these days?

    So the question for me is: what are the best ways to *use* it (and the web site, etc.)? How do we bring out the themes that remain relevant today — democracy, the role of government, the evolution of environmental advocacy, etc.? Somehow I wish Burns would have taken that kind of more engaged, topical and thematic approach to it rather than trying to re-present the chronological history of parks. Or at least break up the narrative more, even in the way that Planet Earth peppered its episodes with those live-action “here’s how we did it” clips. I guess I’m also wanting more ecology and less parks (and more debate about how parks are locked up monuments to ‘nature’s nation,’ etc.). Maybe there are still some surprises yet to come?

    But I’ve only seen parts of what’s been shown so far, letting my DVR record the rest – which may be how most people are watching it, given the commitment you need to be able to sit through it all over the course of one week. So far, I’d say: a job well done, but will it rescue nature – or television, for that matter? Dunno…

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