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

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.