Fairly Spiritual: ‘The National Parks’ delivers a lesson in democracy

I’ve enjoyed watching Ken Burns’ “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea”. This is a shortened version of the even longer and more awkwardly titled, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea is to DVR This Thing if You’re Ever Going to Make it Through All Twelve Hours”.

Burns is the master of therapeutic filmmaking. I’m entranced by his gentle folksy guitar/piano soundtracks and calmly annunciated voiceovers. He hypnotizes me with the rhythmic sway of his ever-panning camera; slowly zooming in and out, back and forth, revealing the nuanced details of a carefully chosen black and white photo or vivid painting.

The end result is I keep falling asleep in the middle of each episode. Although Burns deals with environmentalism and conservation, his latest film is really about democracy.

In our current political climate, democracy has become a euphemism for “freedom from collective responsibility.” When politicians hint of collective stewardship, accusations of socialism are soon to follow. Thus democracy has become the freedom to go it alone or to be left alone to do as one pleases. Within this definition, the greatest threat to democracy is government advocating or administrating a shared mission.

In response to our present definition, Burns inserts the reenacted voices of Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir and many other past champions of democracy. As I listened to their words, I began to realize the modern world has lost a portion of democracy’s definition. It’s as if a page has been torn, removed or simply forgotten.

In reference to the National Parks, Roosevelt observed: “It is the preservation of the scenery of the forests and the wilderness game for the people as a whole, instead of leaving the enjoyment thereof to be confined to the very rich. It is noteworthy in its essential democracy. One of the best bits of national achievement, which our people have to their credit. And our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever. With their majestic beauty all unmarred.”

For President Roosevelt and many other patriotic Americans, democracy was more than just the freedom to go it alone. Democracy also was the promise of equal access to God’s creation.

Unlike Europe, America embraced a concept of national land ownership that was thoroughly democratic. In fact, some of the most majestic portions of our land were set aside for the collective and common good.

Through the National Parks, Americans became co-stewards of God’s creation. We took on a collaborative responsibility to preserve, protect and share our national treasures with each individual in every generation. This equal access to America’s natural wonders was, and is, a thoroughly democratic ideal.

It is common for protest groups to champion the protection of country. In recent months there has been a resurgence of the phrase “Give me back my country!” Burns’ film points out the complexity of answering such a demand. If one’s country is defined as the ability to go it alone, then a collective vision is nothing more than tyranny. However, if one’s country is defined as common access to common treasures, then the answer must be found in shared responsibility and collective stewardship.

As with almost all uniquely American enigmas, the answer most likely lies somewhere in the middle. Or maybe I’ll discover the answer by the end of the series, if I can just stay awake long enough to find it.

Doug Bursch hosts “The Fairly Spiritual Show” at 6 p.m. Saturdays on KGNW 820 AM. He also pastors Evergreen Foursquare Church. Evergreen meets at 10 a.m. Sundays at the Riverside High School Theater. He can be reached at www.fairlyspiritual.org or doug@fairlyspiritual.org.