Sit back and enjoy our ‘best idea’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 27, 2009

An amazing experience is coming to a screen near you!

Beginning on tonight and running for six consecutive nights, PBS will broadcast Ken Burns’s new film, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”

For the past 10 years, Burns has turned his breath-taking cinematography to the creation of America’s system of national parks, the first of its kind in the world. The idea was born in the mid-1800s as westward-traveling pioneers from the east coast of the United States first encountered the dramatic beauty of America’s vast western wilderness.

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To Ken Burns, this idea is an example of American democracy laid on our landscape. The most treasured places in this nation are not set aside for a privileged few; they are preserved for the enjoyment of everyone.

The title for the series comes from Wallace Stegner, the great western writer, who called the creation of national parks “the best idea we ever had.” An important component of this series is how encountering these beautiful wild places allows us to experience something about who we are as individuals and what it means to be an American.

Burns and his crews filmed in all 58 of the natural parks, in all seasons and at every time of day. His series is about rocks and animals and plants and birds, but it is also about the people inspired by such places to become catalysts for their preservation. Burns hopes that his series will spur Americans to visit Denali to see bears catching salmon in the rivers, or Hawaii to experience volcanoes, or to go to Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, the Everglades, and the Smoky Mountains — as tourists or as part of the diverse NPS staff protecting and interpreting them today.

He said, “Here in these special places that we’ve resolved together as a people to preserve, we feel a sense of commonality. You come to a national park and all of a sudden some of the barriers between people, between classes, even between nationalities are broken down and you share and have the experience of an essential, collective humanity.”

Today, the total number of American national parks has expanded beyond 58 natural parks to stand at 391 units.

Within about a three-hour drive, Natchez-area residents can enjoy the Natchez Trace Parkway, Natchez National Historical Park, Gulf Islands National Seashore, Vicksburg National Military Park, Cane River Creole National Historical Park, Jean Lafitte National Historical Park & Preserve and New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park.

“America’s Best Idea” will be broadcast on MPB and LPB 7 to 9 p.m., tonight through Friday.

Viewers may watch at home, or they can join park-lovers in the theatre of the Natchez Visitor Center to experience the dramatic scenery on the big screen. There is no charge; seating is available on a first-come basis each night.

Kathleen Jenkins is the superintendent of the Natchez National Historical Park.