I-Rant, (A new series) Rant #1: Art, Nature & Ken Burns

`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

Ok, there I said it.  Ken Burns has jumped the shark.

Ok, too, that Percy Bysshe Shelley said it first in the above verse,(way before the Fonze went water skiing)  and contemporary Boston artist and educator, Douglas Kornfeld, said it in steel (though for the record I do not contend that either artist had this intention) and titled his outside installation of a red, 18 foot male symbol, “Ozymandias”  as well.

(I viewed this new scultpture and photographed it on Sunday from the rooftop terrace of the ever wonderful Decordova Museum in Lincoln, Mass.)

You see, I’ve been brooding on just this Ozymandias theme since I spent six nights last week watching two hour installments each of Ken Burns new historical documentary, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea”.

Six nights, two hour segments. 12 hours.

After mucho brooding, I’ve concluded he went wrong with the title taken from that line from Wallace Stegner, “America’s Best Idea” in reference to the national parks.  It set you thinking  possessive case “America”.

I’ve spent time on the website to see if I missed something.  It is a web-marvel, I’ll tell you that.  Lesson plans, clips, profiles, it has everything but the “American Parks” perfume, offering the viewer more options than Starbucks coffee items.  There’s even the opportunity to send a national parks photo e-postcard to a family member or friend with selective soundtracks just in case you’ve been out of touch for a while.

The age of some of the stone in the parks may be over a billion years old, but this series has state of consciousness marketing.  There’s a way to get park badges, screen wallpaper, widgets, plan your vacations, as well as a free IPHONE app for this series.  I kid you not.

First, let me say, that if I had the dream choice of someone to eulogize me it would be Ken Burns.  I have watched practically all of his historical documentaries but listening to him talk about each documentary is to know you are in the hands of a man with the gift of language.  He could make the mediocre spectacular which is why I’d want him to be my eulogist.

So, for me to suggest he’s jumped the shark?

Heresy. Shame.  Guilt.  10 lashes.

But, seriously, after taking in this marketing campaign, I am wondering whether the singing mouse pad can be far behind?  Or, worse, the famous waterfall in Yosemite returning to tourist pleasing rivers of fire, ignited at night for one’s viewing pleasure.

I’m brooding because I wanted it to be worth the hype or at least come close.  I’ve been to many of these parks and wanted to understand, lo these many years later, why their physical presence so affected me.

I also remember the effect of watching his other series, “The Civil War” for example, and, more recently (two years ago,) his series on “The War”.

These programs educated on a nightly basis, an accretion of details and voices, that seemed to go beyond the boundaries of entertainment.  It unsettled me in ways that needed to be unsettled.  They made me think about the complexities of America, humanity, and citizenry, global and national.   I have come to think of the work of Mr. Burns as being well worth the investment of time.

But, for me, if I’m honest, this series on the national parks?

It felt like “Groundhog Day”, the movie, without the charm of Bill Murray.  Things kept happening, in the same way, over and over and over and then, over again.  Does that add up to six nights?

Peter Coyote’s voice (the narrator) telling us night after night that the locals were opposed to the proposed park in their neighborhood seemed to gather cement rather than resonance with each new park conflict, each new passionate visionary, each new set of locals pitching an apparent state of permanent oppositional palaver to wildness for wildness sake.

That these locals were ultimately won over, or silenced, or just moved out and out foxed (no pun intended) by the Antiquities Act, and not by the John Muirian concept of preservation, and later converted to preserving wildness by capitalism–tourism brings in money–seemed to diminish the righteousness of the visionary when presented in such nightly bulk.

This was the Cosco or BJ’s approach to human nature : on aisle 1, we have the visionaries;  on aisle 2, we have the politicians; on aisle 3, we have the philanthropists; on aisle 4, we have park employees; on aisle 5, we have historians, authors, artists, relatives of visionaries; on aisle 6, we have the scoundrels, evil doers–oh, I mean, all of the locals who opposed the national park system in their neighborhood.  Mix and match from the aisles and you have the overall arc of six nights of story telling.

America’s best idea, for me,  seemed to turn into a night after night with a spectacular looking narcissist.  “Hey, enough about me.  What do you think of me?”

The talking heads, a staple of a Ken Burns historical documentaries, are meant to carry the weight of the series, along with every sunrise and sunset picture of the parks, and though some individuals were lyrical and poetic and earnest–and the photographs  and videos impressive–the voices and images did not grow as much as repeat themselves with each evening’s broadcast.  It was oddly stagnant work for such an obviously life affirming subject.

The personal stories of visiting the park with Dad & Mom, or that vacation you took with your husband or wife, or telling us over and over that Americans own this real estate can get..well, soppy in the former and just plain cringe material in the latter.

My experience of Yellowstone National Park or Glacier National Park or the Grand Canyon was not one of a landlord even if my tax dollar pays the maintenance bill.

I was a speck of dust to the grandeur around me. I didn’t feel like an American, I felt like a dazed and stunned human being.

Is this not lift-off for a writer and producer of a six night series?  OK, If you are Ken Burns and dedicated to exploring what it means to be an American, can’t he begin to look at who we are by noting what we have in common with all of human nature when confronted with “Great Nature”, whatever our zip codes?

What is it about the geography of place that connects to all humanity, not just Americans?  What do the wonders within these parks tell us about ourselves, the forces of our planet, our species, our history, and about our fellow citizens of the planet?  These are not just America’s wonders.  They do not belong to us.  Each time a commentator or the writer made this assertion, I winced.  Do we seriously feel the grandeur more because our name is on the purchase and sale agreement?

Do I think for one second that my appreciation of The Grand Canyon is any more deep or reflective than a citizen from another country?  No.  Do I think I’m lucky to be able to drive there?  Yes.

Some of the commentators, I believe, would have guided this story differently, and one even said clearly what I felt was missing in the overweight imbalance of politics and patriotic purchase and sales agreements.  Kim Heacox said the parks are about scenery, yes, that is obvious…but preservation of it for that alone is not it, it also about science and that is not so visible.  Preservation of these parks has to do with preserving answers to questions we have yet to ask.

OK.  Now, we’re talking six nights of  material on this mystery.

The Japanese American painter, Chiura Obata, called the vistas of Yosemite,  not just nature, but “Great Nature”.  Something larger than oneself, something larger than the city limits, state or country in which it is contained.   It is a connection that humbled him, instilled gratitude not possessiveness.   He spoke of the geography of grandeur as a guiding spiritual principle in his life.  A spiritual principle tested fiercely when he and his family were forced into a Japanese internment camp in WW 11, a herding he called a “intolerable sin” but met by beginning the Topaz (the name of the town in Utah where the internment camp was located) School of Art, and taught fellow detainees how to have nature help them endure this indignity and injustice.   I would have loved to have heard more talking heads speak about how to find the geology of this grandeur in our own small towns,  hamlets and hearts,  amidst our own personal challenges and circumstances, far from National Park boundaries, and would have loved equally to hear, in pure scientific terms, for example, how these natural wonders were created.

I checked the website’s roster of talking heads and have found many authors, conservationists, environmentalists, politicians, relatives of park leaders, park employees, but as of yet, have not located one geologist.  I don’t remember one in the program either, aside from generic explanations, but I do confess to napping periodically so I could have missed them.

How did this extraordinary geology came into being?  No, really, what in hell is a glacier, Mr. Burns?  Why exactly does Old Faithful keep on keeping on?  How did a river carve out the Grand Canyon?  I heard you say it did, but….really? How?  Does any other place in the world look like this?  If not, why not?

‘Splain'” it to Lucy, would you?  Show me.  I’d like to know why my jaw dropped when I first looked over the canyon’s edge over forty years ago or while driving the “Going to the Sun ” road in Glacier National Park fifteen years ago. I was holding no one’s hand although I instantly thought I loved the person standing or sitting next to me.  This was the essence of a solitary experience no matter how many hands are outstretched.  The sight simply was not eye level or human.  It was something else and I wanted you to tell me, Mr. Burns.

When both the writer of the series, Dayton Duncan, and another talking head, (the naturalist writer, Terry Tempest Williams, perhaps?) choked up on the last night, telling a personal family anecdote, I realized Mr. Ken Burns may have  just jumped the shark before my very eyes and ears.

“round the ruins, the decay of what is left” wrote Percy Blysse Shelley.

If this emotional attachment to the parks and the politics of its ownership could have been matched by an equally strong artistic and scientific view of the parks, perhaps, this sentimental and political vein would not have gushed so thoroughly over everything.

Mr. Burns, may I call you “Ken”?

I understand if the memory of your father’s hand in yours taking you on a nature walk is a sweet one, I truly do.  And, Mr. Duncan, writer of the series, I’m happy your son wrote “this is the best day of my life” when he saw the mountain goats while on a hike with you in a national park.

But, we’re talking not just nature here, but “Great Nature” and even when Mr. Obata and his family were forced behind barbed wire in a Japanese internment camp during WW11, he managed to maintain his contact with Great Nature by teaching others to paint it.  His voice, heard through his granddaughter, evoked for me the presence of that first visit to Yosemite, that canyon, that glacier of years ago, though I sit thousands of miles away now in a small New England town.

I think the geology of the national parks needed to be explored not just through a family album, and the wiliness of politicians, but the rigors of science and the imagination of artists.   When the paintings of Mr. Obata’s Yosemite were placed next to his paintings of the internment camp in the US,  you got my undivided attention.  I cried, not for my previous trips to these wonders nor the ones I can no longer physically take, but to the wonders of nature that exist all around me and within me and are still accessible despite my limitations.  I do not need the Antiquities Act or my youth back to protect it.

It is the single most important idea this program gave me and it was not in the script or the viewfinder.

Now, enough.

I’ll go straight to my room.

Lights out.

No dinner.

But, I’ve got my IPHONE, just in case I later recant this heresy and have a relapse rant and just have to download that National Parks app out of guilt.

©Pat Coakley 2009



21 comments on “I-Rant, (A new series) Rant #1: Art, Nature & Ken Burns”

  1. A stunning picture, and a thoughtful essay/rant. It is likely that Mr. Burns did what the funders of the project had hoped. It is often at the very beginning, in the conceptualization of a project, that the failure to think outside the box occurs. All that follows suffers regardless of how masterfully executed.

    • I so loved this sculpture, Don! The catalog has a photo of it up close and I took one like that as well…but, somehow, the far view seemed more in tune with the piece. You would love this museum!

  2. Excellent! And I love that photo.

    • If you live anywhere near this spot, I think you’d love to visit it! Sculpture Park on 38 acres on the outside. Contemporary art on the inside on four flours of gallery space. Yum!

  3. It’s change with the times or fall behind I guess. Eat the fish and spit out the bone.

    P.S. interesting sculpture

    • Well, Renee, I have to give you extra points for sloggin’ through this extra long post! But, I’m not quite sure what you mean about change w times or fall behind! I’m with you on the interesting sculpture, though!

  4. oh no guilt, no! absolutely stunning review. i think you should be the official pbs reviewer or something. i think you should print it out and send it to Ken. The artist he has been, the bite of the sharkjump analogy, i bet he would pay attention. i certainly did because this piece opens out like a wide mountain valley canyon vista, you cant be complacent about including
    or not all of humanity, as you cant get away w/o being transformed by that awareness. and if he is a man of vision which i always assumed he was, he will need to grow or else fizzle. your viewpoint on this is just brilliant pat and it really opens new ways of thinking/seeing. bravo! xtraxtra bravissimo!

    • 2200 words of blog post is a rarity for me, Tipota, so I am glad some found it worth investing the time. I like to review things that blow me down or up, nothing in between. I would be a disaster reviewing PBS…I’d have written reams on “LIttle Dorritt” (BBC) (loved it!) and now, this, their biggest money maker show, I diss…Oh, I’d be a skunk at a lawn party, there, I’m afraid. But, I am totally pleased you found this viewpoint valuable!

  5. “This was the Cosco or BJ’s approach to human nature”

    We can blame such a simplistic approach on people like the screenwiter’s guru, Syd Field and his ideas of narrative trajectory with the need for conflict to drive a story.

    I also find the need to harp on in a jingoistic manner to symptom of low self esteem. I don’t feel good about myself so I’ll wrap myself in the flag of the “greatest country on earth”.


    The more I travel, the more thoroughly sick any kind of nationalism makes me. Nationalism is the root of all evil, not money. A nasty little concept carried around by nasty little people with dubious motives.

    I think it was Samuel Johnson who once said, “patriotism is the refuge of the scoundrel”.

    I haven’t watched Mr Burns latest effort and, thanks to you, I’ll give it a miss.

  6. Razz, I actually thought of you while writing this review…a while back I had read your account of visiting the Grand Canyon and your irritation with a rather “American” shall we say womanl who was talking too much and annoying the bejus out of you! I, of course, defended her! But, I think you are right about the Syd Field narrative trajectory on this series (even though you haven’t seen it)…it fits my problem with it. The Civil War had the drama built in, as did “The War”…you didn’t have to thump the bushes for every ounce of drama. Anyway, kudos to you for even reading this long thing as you travel through Tuscany! Good God, that photo you posted today was sublime!

  7. Off the topic for a minute, what’s up with you and celeriac? Is Razz sending recipes for celeriac mash or something? Just curious…
    And thank you for teaching me the phrase “jumping the shark”. I hadn’t heard that one before (God bless Google!)
    I know exactly what you mean about Mr Burns missing the point here. I haven’t been to America’s national parks. I haven’t watched this series. But every now and then I see something so incredibly indescribably beautiful in the world that my eyes fill and I feel like I’m about to choke with an emotion that I’ll call WONDER. There’s life in this old world yet. “The sight simply was not eye level or human,” Yep. I getcha. Sounds like Mr Burns needs to get it now, too.

  8. Epic, Razz made his hosts in Slovenia a soup flavored with celeriac, so I decided to go and buy one. I’m a soup girl. So, now, I have it and it’s scaring small children on my counter! WONDER is the best word, isn’t it?

  9. Pat and Epic

    here’s a recipe for celeriac soup by our old mate Gordon R


    He puts potato and cream in his recipe which I don’t but I’m sure a duffer like him might have some idea. By the way, don’t use one of those nasty stock cubes when “stock” is mentioned. That premade Campbell’s stuff is much better and I tend to use chicken stock instead of vegetable stock..

    • Thanks, Razz, for the recipe! I’m going to make it after a stint babysitting. There’s no way on this earth I could convince these kids to try it, so I’ll wait for a better audience…ME!

  10. I just love it when you “rant” Pat! You remember thats how we met? Ahhh true genius in your rants. They make me howl with laughter, even when you don’t think you are being funny. Great picture too…

    • Amber, rants are my trademark sorta, aren’t they? Eloquently irritable the award said, right??

      Oh, well, bile has its place in the blogasphere!

  11. P.S. Re: comments on soup stock above… there is a product called “Better than stock” It comes in a jar and is a paste. Its basically condensed stock (the real stuff). I wouldn’t cook with anything else. Its wonderful.

  12. all right then maybe it should be a letter cc to ken burns and pbs and the boston globe entertainment section. maybe you get a contract and then
    sfar becomes a sensation worldwide. i think your work is that good. buckle your seatbelt.

  13. Hi pat,

    Could I get a copy of your fabulous photo of my sculpture?
    I would give you attribution if I use it for anything.

    Thanks for putting a photo of my piece on your blog.


    doug Kornfeld

    • I sent you a jpeg file of the photo, Doug. If you didn’t get it, let me know. Congratulations on being at this museum. It is a perfect spot for your work, I think!

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