Photographers and Cinematographers alike have long made use of the hour surrounding sunrise and sunset. The enchanting light is referred to as “golden hour;” a fitting name not only because of the quality of the light, but because it is rare, valuable, and transforms mundane to spectacular. Sunrise and sunset are times of change. They are the moments when day passes into night, and night to day. They are not the status quo, they are the special moments.
I’ve been watching nothing lately except the PBS series “National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” I’d been anticipating the latest in Ken Burn’s canon of historical documentaries for the latter part of the summer, and was happy to discover that the full episodes were available online. As I’ve taken them in, sometimes on my lunch break and sometimes in the evenings, I remember wishing this were possible. Here it is. “I wish I could just watch the whole thing whenever I wanted, you know, like if you could download it or. . .” Thank you flash media players and HDTV. Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan have not done anything revolutionary with their approach and style. It is, like all their series, a splendid mix of commentary, systematic storytelling, and the slow-zoom-on-still-photography that has for years been referred to as the “Ken Burns Effect.” Add to this the abounding existent and new images captured of the almost 400 parks, and who wouldn’t want to watch? The happiness is not Burns and Duncan’s innovative technique. That was celebrated in their early works. Now, it is the application of their “same old” or “tried and true” (depending upon one’s opinion) to worthy subjects. Their treatment of the parks is wonderful. Of note, many of the writers, rangers, and historians (as well as personal stories from the past) they interview mention the transcendent experience of visiting the Grand Canyon and Yosemite.
What is it about these experiences that is transcendent? Watch the series and find out. Here’s what gets me: We are all seeking transcendence. We want the supernatural experience. We strive for not just joy, not just happiness, but exaltation; to rise above our problems or commonplace existence. And this transcendence cannot come from same-old, same old. Either our situation must change, or we must.
I have lived the vast majority of my life in small communities. Even when I was apart from them, I strove to find them in social groups. In college, I looked for my tight-knit group of friends. In graduate school, my loose but important groups affiliate with school and church. Quite often, especially in reference to small towns, I have heard people lament that “nothing ever changes.” I beg, at the top of my voice, to differ. Everything is always changing. There are many constants and a slower progression in small towns, to be sure, but my communities have changed drastically even in my short lifespan. We are works in progress. If we do not change, we grow stale and stagnant.
Last week it finally frosted. Those of us suffering from the high pollen count give thanks. We were waiting for the change. I love summer and wish my tomato plants could keep producing ad infinitum, but it was time for summer to end. Summer had grown stale. Even tropical climates have shifts in season, albeit not as drastic as those in the temperate zones. We were suffering for a change.
The change of seasons is a beautiful thing. What can compare with the flowers of May or the forests of October? They are the sunrise and sunset of the year. They are our bi-annual golden hours. Change indicates progression as well, the march of time forward. Humanity has long nurtured the hope that this passage is a positive progression; a move to greater things and times.
In our slow march upward we, the artists, pause to account for the change, and to take note of the passing beauty. That is one of the necessary roles of the storyteller. The “National Parks” may have the same format as other Burns docs, but the subject matter is an American treasure still present, still active, as much for tomorrow as it is for today. Does this mark as shift from “recording the past” to “addressing a cause”? I don’t think so. The cause was there before, and Burns seems to report it rather than push it. Will it have an effect on the country’s attention to National Parks? Undoubtedly, which is interesting, considering some of the paradoxes addressed in the series.
The images and stories of “National Parks: America’s Best Idea” are not merely a recording of the transcendent experience of visiting the parks, they are themselves an experience which, even on a laptop, is moving. Moving indicates a change. Can art stay the same? Can we when we experience it? Let us pray not.