03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

America's Best Idea

It was our 30th anniversary. Dianne and I had found bargain flights to the Southwest. Arizona would be great we thought. And so we went. And so it was.

For our first eight days we rummaged through the central parts of the state - Prescott, Jerome - the abandoned copper mining town with its visitor population made up mostly of week-day dentists/weekend biker guys (and gals), and Sedona - where, apparently, thousands believe the "naval of the universe (or something)" is to be found. The folks were great everywhere. The food was hearty (if not all that healthful). Hiking (2 to 6 mile stints with little labor or over-tough climbing) was lovely. It was October and the weather was perfect.

On day 9 we arrived at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. I'd never been. (If you've only seen it from 35,000 feet up, you haven't been either.) They don't call it "grand" for nuthin'. I have spent the 15 years since our trip trying to come to grips with what it was that came over me when I first caught sight of it. And you don't catch sight of it really until you walk right to the rim itself. When you do, and if it's a clear day, you can see all the way into infinity - back in time and space millions of years. It is, in every sense, a transcendental, religious experience. It gives you perhaps the only experience you'll get on earth of the gateway into eternity. For me it was that overwhelming.

When I began to watch Ken Burns' The National Parks: America's Best Idea, that feeling returned. What Burns does so well, in so much of his documentary work, is use his subject matter to paint some aspect of the all-too-illusive "American soul". The Burns-eye-view sees into the facts, the letters, the diaries, the recollections and the staggeringly beautiful images that have survived the centuries to reveal epochs and epics that evoke both the dark and light inner-reaches of the American heart.

He has done this again, perhaps even more powerfully in this regard with The National Parks. Amidst the elements of that "soul" - and, perhaps, at the center of it - lies a seemingly unique characteristic of countless Americans, across several hundred years: a profound but wholly de-institutionalized religious yearning or instinct.

Since the Canyon experience, I have had occasional "flashbacks" occasioned by "parks." What are our parks, really? The "park," particularly as it's found in American cities and villages, is much more than a pleasant place to while away a lazy moment or two. The park in American life has a "near-religious" function, a kind of geographical "sabbath" place. It's where people go to "rest from their labors." It's a place where's it's okay to simply "be." It's a place where, if you lie down on the grass, you probably won't be arrested. A park's most productive days are the weekends - our least productive days. When a community is at its best, people of all types and kinds and backgrounds gather in parks to recreate - to be the people they dream of being. There they cook their foods, play their games, sing and dance, or read - or just "veg". Together. In the park you can be you, and I, just a hundred feet away, can be me. In that near sacred space, for a time two strangers can achieve a sense of "us."

Few things attract people to move to a new community like beautiful parks. If there is such a thing as "secular religion" in America, our parks are its chapels. Simply visiting them at any time is a kind of "sabbath" experience even to those not easily taken to fits of piety.
Burns in his new series seems to latch on to this notion but he takes it much farther to places that evoke these kinds of "sabbath" experiences but do it on a truly grander scale.

Beginning with many of the "founding fathers," especially Thomas Jefferson, it is apparent that, while America's sense of itself is rooted in "religious principles," it has never, as a nation, been at all comfortable with any formal relationship with "established religions." (See the First Amendment.)

But as the American settlers' Exodus begins in the early 19th Century, it is the early explorers and settlers who, separated from virtually all formal ties to religious institutions and edifices, find the land itself and its frequently awe-inspiring vistas (whether plains or pinnacles, deserts, canyons, or glaciers) to be a source of renewed belief in the greatness and goodness of God - a God who has given all "this" to "us." From the first episode of the Burns series, a viewer can get the sense that - at one time this whole country of ours was a "natural sanctuary" and human beings would do well not to damage it.

Of course native peoples had always seen these special places in this way. For them these were the places where the Great Spirit dwelled. These were places where the fruits of the Great Spirit's fertility and generosity were ever expressed. Not all the early settlers were rapacious; many, upon beholding these glorious wonders, reacted no differently than the native peoples in presence of such awe-striking beauty. Their letters home and their diaries are filled with such insights. To be sure, there were many who looked at these "natural cathedrals and shrines" and saw nothing more than resources to be exploited and even despoiled. Yet, few but the terminally cynical could behold these marvelous vistas and staggeringly beautiful panoramas without some expression of faith being uttered or at least vaguely felt.

It is further indication of the series' impact that, very early in the series, Niagara Falls is described in terms of it having been rapaciously despoiled by commercialization. It is frequently referenced in terms that make it clear that this travesty should never be repeated. Burns reveals the commercialization of Niagara Falls to be our equivalent of "original sin," a blot that will ever stain us and one that can only be washed away eventually by the "baptism" of hundreds of other sites whose near-purity can inspire us and lead us to a more profound appreciation of "this land" and its irreplaceable role in the shaping of the American psyche.

John Muir, a Scotsman and son of an over-bearing Presbyterian minister father, becomes in the Burns series the combination Abraham/Moses that was needed to coax the nation and its leaders to act on behalf of the preservation of these "sanctuaries of God." For Muir, visiting Yosemite was not "like" a pilgrimage, it was a pilgrimage. Muir went "into the wild" to find God, to "listen to him" - not to stumble upon reminders of God. Setting aside these singularly sacred spaces was ultimately a religious quest for Muir. Nothing less. Of course, it didn't hurt that Muir had Teddy Roosevelt as his combination Mohammed/Jesus figure to ratify, to codify, and to redeem these places by setting them apart in perpetuity.

Virtually every park that has been established since Yosemite has been established for these kinds of motives.

Since the establishment of the National Park Service by Woodrow Wilson, the amount of land set aside equals 84 million acres - an amount about equal to half the size of Texas. That is staggering. There is no nation in the world that matches this kind of dedication to the land and its natural treasures. Perhaps even more staggering, a number nearly equal in size to the U.S. population visits these "shrines" annually - some 273,000,000 visitors.

Ken Burns, in The National Parks America's Best Idea, has not shied away from a profoundly crucial, central theme: America will not establish a religion but it will establish places where people can meet the God of their own experience, the eternal Power who made this land, all lands, and all things. We will, as a nation, never establish a religion as our own, but we will establish places where we can be reminded of how beyond our greatest imaginings is the Power that made this land and this earth. And how humbled we must be to stand before its cathedrals, enter its temples, behold its magnitude, and to be humbled by its grandeur. At one point in the narration, the narrator states a kind of "article of faith" that ratifies these places' right to exist: these places are, in and of themselves, perfect; nothing humans can do can add to what is here; anything we add can only mar this place. This is a profound article of faith. Few Americans would protest against it.

The conclusion is quite simple: America has a national, nature-based "religion" - but it is not one established by government. Rather, it is one established by our own nearly universal, common human experience of, as Woody Guthrie put it, "... our land." It acknowledges what the native American has always believed - the land itself is sacred and, while everything cannot be set aside for purposes of meditation, recreation and worship, some of the most sacred, most awe-inspiring, most magnificent must be set apart - virtually unspoiled and undisturbed - to remind us of who we are and how grateful we must be for the "blessings" that surround us.

Who can spend even ten minutes with someone who thinks that gazing upon the Grand Canyon is "boring?" The actual, in-person experience of a visit to these places seems to ignite some kind of awareness in each of us, just by the mere fact of our presence to them. We ponder as the series itself does: we did not make this; a power greater than we did; creation's magnificence is beyond our power to comprehend never mind duplicate or improve. America's "best idea" is to preserve forever at least some of those natural and cultural reminders whose grandeur overwhelms us and tells us how truly blessed America is.

Here are a few questions a family or a group of friends might wish to explore in the light of this series:

1. Describe one of your best experiences "in nature." Where was it? Describe the day. Was there someone with you or were you alone? Was there some particular element of the experience that sticks with you most?
2. If you could visit any natural wonder anywhere in the world, where would that be? Why?
3. Have you ever heard someone (a relative, a friend) describe the experience of visiting a "natural wonder"? What impressed you most about their description?
4. Is there some place on earth which you think should be reserved as it is, forbidding any significant human development? Why would you choose this place?
5. What is your "take away" from watching the Parks series? What will stay with you?