The six episode series was a production from filmmaker Ken Burns, who has also made documentaries about the Civil War, baseball, Jackie Robinson, World War II, The Roosevelts, Prohibition, the Dust Bowl, the Lewis and Clark expedition, and many others.
Burns's movies are broad, comprehensive stories of important facets of "American" life and history, and are told in a steady mix of visual and narrative exposition that bring the stories to life.
I have one complaint, though. Burns employs a method of what I call the disembodied interview, in which various writers, historians, witnesses and other commenters expound on some topic or other, speaking to some unknown listener who is off-camera and anonymous. One annoying historian makes it even worse by turning his head from side-to-side so he can look at the anonymous interviewer out of the corners of his eyes. Someone else is being addressed instead of me, the audience on TV, and this someone else is faced sideways every few seconds.
Other than the disembodied interviews, though, the films are well-worth the time spent to watch them. In the case of the National Parks series, I was reminded of my own National Park experiences, and inspired to visit more of them.
My memories are different, though, from what several of the disembodied interviewees related. They consistently referred to being "humbled" by the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier and Denali, overwhelmed by something greater than themselves.
I wonder what exalted lives they lead that it takes visiting the Grand Canyon for them to be "humbled." Everything outside one's body is physically greater than oneself. By that definition my bathroom is "greater" than me, but I don't feel humbled every time I enter it.
What I experienced in the National Parks was expansiveness. Most of my park visits were in one sojourn, in 1997. I quit my job, moved out of my apartment and headed West. After a few days doing sweat lodge ceremonies on the Rosebud Lakota reservation in South Dakota, I went to the Badlands, Yellowstone, the Tetons, Craters of the Moon, some U.S. Forest Service sites in Oregon, the Redwoods in California, a state park in Big Sur, then the Grand Canyon. I also hiked the Boynton Canyon Trail outside Sedona, Arizona, and camped in not-too-distant Oak Creek Canyon.
By the time I reached the Grand Canyon I was satiated with beauty, so I was less overwhelmed than I was by Yellowstone and the other parks. It was still a great experience, and the most relaxed camping of the entire sojourn. What I remember from then, and from every place I visited along the way, was a sense of unity. Not "oneness," but non-duality, what is known in Vedanta as Advaita. It can be seen as a semantic parsing of words to non-duality as, hmm, different from oneness, but in my understanding of Advaita, there is no plural to be one from.
Or, from the lore of my guru-following days, Sarvam Shiva Mayam - everything is Shiva, the Supreme consciousness. In Buddhism, we are all of Buddha nature, and only need to awaken in order to realize Nirvana, a state of non-duality, among other aspects.
I could have visited even more national parks on this trip than I did, but what I saw was enough. It took a month, and by the time I came back I was both tired of travel and rejuvenated. My allergies were gone - for the time being at least. I lost about ten pounds. I eventually returned to the job I quit, something I wouldn't have predicted, but it was my best choice. A change of perspective can work wonders.
What, one might wonder, does an experience of non-duality have to do with ordinary mundane life? It has a lot to do with everything we do, individually and as a society. The modern Western view of reality is of things, a discrete and complex network of individual parts. Or, as physicist Fritjof Capra puts it, we have a mechanistic view of the Universe.
This mechanistic view gets in the way of understanding reality as it is, and it results in bad responses to challenges. People are things in the mechanistic view, and they are fair game for any level of abuse, exploitation, neglect, and of course killing.
A good example is our ruling elite's response to "ISIS." This organization came about as a result of our invasion and occupation of "Iraq," Over time, as the outrages of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and other loci of abuse accumulated, the ranks of the disaffected grew. The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was tortured as a prisoner at Camp Bucca, another of our infamous detention sites. Now ISIS is essentially a large criminal gang, and the "official" solution is to kill them all.
Presidential candidates are climbing over each other to denounce and threaten to destroy ISIS. Donald Trump says the U.S. should send 20,000 to 30,000 troops to the Mideast, and bring back waterboarding. He also says we should kill their families. Erstwhile candidate Ted Cruz wants to "carpet bomb" ISIS with nuclear weapons.
These are the kinds of things sociopaths fantasize about when they see other people as mere things. Indeed, psychopath or sociopath is a personality disorder that is uniquely suited to the mechanistic, reductionist mind of the modern industrial human being. Everyone is the "other." Especially if there is self-promotion propaganda value in thinking of them that way.
Donald Trump is only the most blatant example of seeing everyone else as the "other." Obama does it too. With one major difference. He kills people whom he sees as different with his criminal drone strikes. Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill describe Obama's assassination program in their new book The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program. They cite evidence from leaked government documents to show how widespread and irresponsible Obama's drone attacks have been. They talked about it on Tuesday's Democracy Now.
Maybe Obama should visit a National Park. It would be nice if it were that simple. I was primed for moments of non-duality by many years of meditation, yoga, tai chi, and life experience that guided me to a different way of being. This is not exaltation, or being "better" than anyone - which would set me up for "humbling" experiences. It's more of an opening, or, as the Buddha put it, awakening. I have attained little in life. When I'm gone few will notice. But I'm glad I never became president. It matters that you kill people. And when you kill wantonly it matters greatly. No amount of exaltation, or "legacy" can make up for one "accidental" drone strike or attack on a hospital.
The false perception of duality isn't confined to politics, sad to say. We wouldn't have craven politicians if we didn't have an ample supply of craven people. Duality goes hand-in-hand with the mass industrial culture, so it is a constant struggle to keep one's head above the metaphoric water. If we don't rise above pathological duality soon we will be struggling to keep our heads above water literally. Some already are.
Here's some music of non-duality.
Here's some more. This too.
Here's some traveling music. Alternate version. More traveling music. Even more. And, of course, this. And this. John Denver. Little Feat. Hank Snow. This is what I felt like when my travels were over. One more.
This was my attitude towards many jobs I have had. Most of them deserved it. Thankfully, the one I went back to wasn't one of them. I did go back for one season after retiring, and it had become like most others. I'm lucky that I don't have to go back.
This is a decent rendition of the Guru Gita. It was not usually done solo, but in ashram groups, sometimes numbering over 1,000 people. Though I no longer follow the path of guru veneration, when I hear this chant it is as if I never left. Thankfully, as if is not the same as still being there. I described the experience in this post in 2006.
You can watch the PBS National Parks series on YouTube starting with this video.
The Natural Resource Defense Council has some suggestions to prepare for climate change.
R.I.P. Daniel Berrigan. While I was "serving" in the Army his opposition to the war in "Vietnam" gave me great encouragement.