Nature Religion For Real (A Review of “National Parks”)

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 3, 2009 — 6 Comments

Watching twelve hours of a single documentary over the course of six consecutive nights takes commitment, and showing them in that manner can be risky, even the best-made films from the most skilled directors can start to seem repetitious and a bit dull as they continually return to the larger themes unifying the project. “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” is no exception to the almost unavoidable pitfalls inherent in a documentary mega-series, but luckily those drawbacks are mostly minimized thanks to the skill of director Ken Burns, one of the most successful documentary film-makers alive today. That’s a good thing, because “The National Parks” is an important work, one that does more to showcase the history of American nature religion, a faith and philosophy that would come to heavily influence American modern Paganism, than any other work of its kind that I’ve seen.

John Muir: A Self-Portrait, 1887

While the bulk of the twelve hours is spent recounting various grass-roots efforts and political struggles over park creation, almost the entire first episode is devoted to the spiritual dimension of nature (called, appropriately enough, “The Scripture of Nature”). Briefly referencing the influence of works by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Burns makes ground-breaking naturalist and preservationist John Muir the centerpiece. “National Parks” clearly illustrates how his unique brand of Christian-colored pantheism (along with a keen scientific mind) would go on to inspire many, including President Theodore Roosevelt, to preserve vast swathes of American wilderness. The early episodes also take care to mention Native American spiritual and political perspectives, and extensively interviews National Parks superintendent, and Mandan-Hidatsa Indian, Gerard Baker (who says that John Muir would have made a good Medicine Man).

Though “God” and a “creator” are often invoked by various historical and contemporary commentators throughout the documentary, the presence of denominational Christianity is sparse, perhaps illustrating both its historic indifference to preservation/conservation, and the current culture wars over creationism, global warming, and science. The net cumulative effect is to indeed see a distinct American “nature religion” that has existed alongside “traditional” religious expression in America for generations.

“On no subject are our ideas more warped and pitiable than on death…Let children walk with nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights. All is divine harmony.”John Muir

For this, along with hours of breath-taking nature footage, “National Parks” is a treasure, and should be seen by any modern Pagan living in America. However, while “National Parks” is extremely well-made, the documentary series is far from perfect. While Ken Burns is an obvious evangelist for preserving the last wild places in America, he also takes great pains to avoid the ugly battles over preservation and conservation that have happened in the last thirty years.

“The documentary cannily stops at 1980, avoiding the Ronald Reagan — James Watt era as well as today’s drill-here, drill-now controversies. It helps too that one of the parks’ most vigorous progressive advocates was a Republican — President Teddy Roosevelt.”

However, we’ve come a long way from the nature-loving hunter-conservationism of Roosevelt, and his party is more often the party of “drill, baby, drill”. Will “National Parks” ignoring almost the entirety of the modern environmentalism movement really galvanize bipartisan support for a new ethic of conservationism? Was it responsible for this love-letter to not even mention climate change, and the terrible damage it’s doing to the parks? I have to feel, that as much as I loved the scenery, the rapturous commentary, and the spiritual centrality of Muir’s vision to this series, this is a somewhat cowardly oversight. The happy ending of wolves being reintroduced to Yellowstone blatantly artificial considering the current controversies over their reintroduction. Despite these serious oversights, “National Parks” is still a fine work, and its early episodes a useful reminder of how our view of nature has evolved over time. Certainly worth picking up.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters