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October 6, 2009

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"National Parks: America's Best Idea" premiered on PBS last week. Prior to its airing, I talked with its creator, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, about his new documentary and about his 1990 film, "The Civil War." Portions of this interview aired on WVTF public radio (with thanks as always for the assistance!) and on West Virginia Public Broadcasting's "Inside Appalachia," and the interview is excerpted as our November/December issue's guest column.

Ken Burns is as articulate as his scripts, and after many years of interviewing and being interviewed, there's little he doesn't know his answer to already, but his passion for his work and for the stories he tells is evident.

Cara Ellen Modisett: With both "The Civil War" [in 1990] and now with "National Parks," it seems to me you were documenting two ideas of hallowed ground. I wondered if you could talk about that concept of hallowed ground and how it relates to each film.

Ken Burns: When one visits the national parks, or when one visits the now-quiet battlefields of the Civil War, you do have a sense that these are apples and oranges, that there are two sets of hallowed grounds, but in fact they do merge, um, and we have to begin first with the national parks. For the first time in human history, land was set aside –large tracts of natural landscape – was set aside not for kings or noblemen or the very rich, as had been the custom throughout all of human experience, but for everybody and for all time. It's an American idea – we invented it – and the history of the ideas and the individuals that make it up are the most compelling aspect of the story, despite the fact that they take place against the backdrop of some of the most spectacular sceneries on earth. We feel that the national parks are the declaration of independence applied to the landscape, because they are germinated from that first seed of a democratic idea. But just like the idea of liberty, which begins with "all men are created equal," a fairly narrow definition by Thomas Jefferson – he meant all white men of property free of debt – his narrowness of that definition set in motion a larger American history that has been continually expanding that story. In fact, our Civil War would not have taken place unless people felt that "all men are created equal" really meant – all men are created equal, and the history of the United States is continually enlarging that rather narrow definition of Thomas Jefferson.

Well, the park idea wasn't static either, and it began to grow, and eventually it added not just spectacular natural scenery, the highest free-falling waterfall, the grandest canyon on Earth, the greatest collection of geysers, but it began to add archaeological sites – later, habitats, and finally, at the time of the Depression, when, ironically, the national parks thrived as never before, because they got the first shovel-ready stimulus dollars of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, the national parks began adding historic sites – the Statue of Liberty, the ongoing project at Mt. Rushmore to carve into the, the walls of the sacred Black Hills the busts of four presidents. And it also began to add Civil War sites, so that now, the national park system includes not just our geological and even ethnographic history, but our recent, American history, and so they've merged, and what you find, of course, when you study the Civil War, that it is the ideas and the individuals, just like those individuals behind the national park idea, that are the most compelling. So in many ways, these two parallel hallowed grounds, um, like, like railroad tracks on the horizon, begin to bend and meet.

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October 6, 2009

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