Q&A: Filmmaker Ken Burns on the Danger and Wonder of National Parks

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Filmmaker Ken Burns attends a press conference to promote National Parks Week NYC at the Central Park Arsenal on August 24, 2009

Last week, three young hikers were fatally swept over a Yosemite waterfall after ignoring posted warnings, and national parks were propelled into the news. To get his views on how these lands have shaped the American psyche and what we should learn from the accident, TIME spoke to documentarian Ken Burns (whose allegiance is made clear in his 2009 film, National Parks: America’s Best Idea). 

What was your reaction to the incident in Yosemite? 

Nature never makes a mistake. It’s the human beings that make a mistake in not respecting nature. And this proves to me more than ever why we need national parks. We have so isolated ourselves from nature, and the more time you spend in nature, the more you respect it. There are dangers. And there are glories to behold. We focus on this tragedy, quite understandably, forgetting the millions of other people who go to Yosemite and have their molecules completely rearranged in the most positive of ways.

How do you think the country perceives national parks?

I think they understand them, quite rightfully, as the crown jewels in this democratic expression of ours. We, for the first time in human history, set aside land not for the pleasure of kings or noblemen, but for everybody and all time. Nature seems cruel, but it’s not. It is. Just is. And it’s the human beings who do the foolish things. And for these three people, this is, unfortunately, the worst of all tragedies … You don’t play too close to the raging Merced River.

(LIST: Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know About National Parks)

The danger of parks is a perennial story, from mountain climbing to animal encounters.

A lot of people put themselves in harm’s way. Every once in a while you hear the tragedy of a climber who loses a grip and falls, horrifically, to his or her death. It is not terribly rare that someone startles a bear and is killed. But these are parts of what the human interactions with nature have always been. We have reaffirmed generation after generation that we wish to be exposed to wild nature, in all of its manifestations.

So you believe that these places being so wild is an integral part of what makes them of so much value to us? 

That’s exactly right. We need to have a connection at a much more primordial existence. People have been saying this since Emerson and Thoreau and Teddy Roosevelt. We need these places. They are sort of safety valves for civilization and remind us of something bigger than ourselves. When you stand on the rim at the Grand Canyon or look up at the Yosemite falls, you’re reminded of just how brief a tenure we humans have.

A recent study showed that conditions in many parks are poor and called for more funding. Should America be spending more money on parks?

There’s much haggling over figures, but there’s multi-billion dollars worth of delayed maintenance, mostly because the previous administration refused to treat parks with the respect that most other administrations have. The hope is that there will be a broad governmental, corporate foundation and citizen consensus to do the necessary work [during the] centennial of the National Park Service in 2016. Just as there was in 1966.

(PHOTOS: 120 Years of Yosemite National Park)

How did your work on your national parks documentary fit into your career of documenting America (which you’ve viewed through lenses of sports, war and adventure, among other things)?

We’re assembling aspects of this broader national experience, personally and intimately and spontaneously. And the national parks are a huge, huge piece of the puzzle. Because when you scratch the surface of American history, you more often than not come up against two extraordinarily powerful themes: race and space, the physical space of America. There is this sense of understanding salvation and even national purpose through the national parks. My father took me to Shenandoah National Park when I was six years old. I’ve taken my kids to national parks. The generational handing of the torch is a very powerful American thing.

But today a lot of artificial environments compete with the natural world.

I think this will be the great struggle with our civilization, the idea that we can substitute artificial experiences for real experiences. I just passed a magazine rack and saw a men’s magazine that said, “The New Etiquette for Skype Sex.” A zoo brings nature to us, and we’re all quite often pained by its artificiality. When I was a kid, I piled out of the house as early as I could and played baseball or went into the woods or fell in the creek or whatever it was. Kids don’t do that anymore. You go fly over suburbia and every diamond is silent and the jungle gyms are without kids, and you worry tremendously about what the effect is—for people who know how to shoot down enemy aliens in video games, who know how to text while they’re doing three other things but don’t know how to forge real relationships with their world.

You have an upcoming project on a very different aspect of the American story: Prohibition.

I’m interested in telling good stories, and this is one hell of a whopper. This is the story of single-issue political campaigns that metastasize with horrible unintended consequences, and the demonization of immigrants, and a whole group of people who feel like they’ve lost control of their country and want to take it back. And you say, ‘My god. These are all the contemporary issues of today.’

PHOTOS: Ken Burns, American Filmmaker

Katy Steinmetz is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @KatySteinmetz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.