I don’t know about you, but I’ve been spending some time this week watching Ken Burns’ documentary on the creation and development of our national parks (“The National Parks – Our Best Idea”, on PBS). Burns, of course, is the guy who also did some amazing work on baseball, the Civil War, and a number of other subjects. He’s a superb storyteller and the photography is exceptional. The story is not so much about the parks themselves, however. This is not a “travelogue”. Rather, it’s a story about the people who were instrumental in bringing them into existence, protecting them, and maintaining them. People who gave their time, their money, and, at least in one case, their sanity to preserve what was left of the American wilderness. Not just for the rich, but for everybody. It’s a great story – if you haven’t been watching it, you should take a look.
While watching the other day, however, a question popped into my head. Not about the national parks themselves or even about their future, but about the people who got things done then and the people who should be getting things done today. I’ve always kind of believed that people are people, that we don’t really change all that much from generation to generation, and that in the end, we’ll find a way to do the “right thing”. The best of us will step forward and steer us in the right direction. In the case of the parks, if there hadn’t been people like John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, someone else would have done it. There were, in fact, a number of others who were nearly as influential.
But then I started making some mental comparisons. We are, after all, a nation with a history of great ideas. While the concept of national parks is certainly one of them, there are others. Like the Bill of Rights. Like civil rights. Like Social Security and Medicare. And even ideas like going to the moon.
But think about it. Eight years after John F. Kennedy proposed a manned mission to the moon, we had actually done it. At the outset of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt transformed the U. S. economy into a military juggernaut – in about a year. There are other examples. The point is, when we had to, we got things done.
I’m not sure that’s still the case. Eight years ago, terrorists killed thousands of people and destroyed the twin towers in NYC, leaving a gaping hole in the ground. The hole is still there. I’m not convinced it won’t still be there 8 years hence. The bickering over what’s going to be there and who’s going to put it there just goes on and on. To me, it’s the worst possible symbol of a collective national paralysis. We seem completely incapable of doing anything. Hell, build a giant McDonald’s or something. Anything would be better than that damn hole.
If, as a nation, we can’t rebuild something that was so ruthlessly destroyed by others, how can we possibly “fix” more esoteric problems? Health care? Climate change? Economic recovery? Our dependence on imported energy? Where are the John Muirs and Franklin Roosevelts of today?
Sadly, most of our “leaders” seem capable of nothing more than poison rhetoric delivered in 30 second sound bites. One has to wonder: if the future of Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, or Acadia had been in the hands of folks like John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi, what would they look like today? It’s a scary thought.