Notes From My Knapsack 9-24-09
The National Parks: America's Best Idea
Sunday, September 27, I suspect many of you already plan to be watching PBS in the evening, to catch the first of six episodes of "The National Parks: America's Best Idea."
Ken Burns has shown us familiar sights in new lights before, of baseball and jazz and the Civil War; most recently, "The War" asked us to consider the homefront of World War II.
You know the presentation – archival photos, artfully selected and drifting past out of a close-up angle, the almost recognizable voices reading from diaries and letters and original documents, blending into current color footage of the scene today.
It's almost a marvel that Burns' "Florentine Films" hasn't taken this challenge on before, but the scope of some 400 sites and almost 150 years, starting before we even had a National Park Service, may mean that he needed the work he'd done before to really do justice to this theme, and the subtitle which can strike you on first reading as almost banal.
Yet there is a striking truth to the fact that until 1916, there was no such thing as a "national park system," not here, not anywhere.
Which is where Licking County almost edges into the story that you'll be watching the next few weeks.
It turns out that in the early 1800s, national figures like Daniel Webster and Caleb Atwater said of the Newark Earthworks, just as Thomas Jefferson said of Natural Bridge in Virginia and Charles Dickens did of the prairies, that they should be made a special preserve of some sort.
In 1853 New York City set aside Central Park, but they weren't sure what to do with it. "Parks" were interchangeable with cemeteries and town commons, and their use or uses, let alone management, was still an open question.
During the Civil War, Lincoln happily handed the dimly appreciated acreage of Yosemite over to the state of California to manage, being busy with other matters; in 1872, Yellowstone was seen as unique enough to be worth preserving, but supervision was given over to the Department of War, hence the garb of park rangers to this day, with campaign hat and green & grey uniform. Michigan set aside Mackinac Island as the first official "state park" in 1875, and California designated Yosemite a state park in 1890 at the urging of John Muir.
And it was in 1890 that local residents decided that the Newark Earthworks, or at least the part that wasn't the county fairgrounds – as the Great Circle had been since 1854 – would be put on the ballot for a levy vote, to decide whether or not to purchase the Octagon & Observatory Circle for preservation. It passed overwhelmingly, and the county purchased the land.
Since the idea of a state park service was still alien to Ohio – private groups had bought Serpent Mound and Fort Ancient – various ideas were tried to manage the acreage, including militia oversight like the Army at Yellowstone, until the idea of a country club and a "low impact" activity like golf came up in 1910.
So as you listen to Ken Burns' story about how this country worked its way into figuring out one of the best ideas we've exported around the world, the concept of a "national park system," keep in mind that we have our own place in that still unfolding story. Those tales and more will be shared in the week around Newark Earthworks Day, coming Oct. 17 – check out www.newark.osu.edu/osun/NewarkEarthworks for more info!
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he's looking forward to leading the last section of the walk from Geller Park to the Octagon around 5 pm on Fri., Oct. 16! E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.com.