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TV Reviews : 'American Experience' Goes Into Wilderness

January 27, 1992|MARTIN ZIMMERMAN

For those who think the trendy ecology movement began a few short years ago, tonight's "Wild by Law" will be an eye-opening, albeit often slow, history lesson.

This "American Experience" episode, airing at 9 p.m. on KCET Channel 28 and KPBS Channel 15, begins with the '20s and '30s, key decades in U.S. life that saw enormous changes--read progress and development--in our use of land. Ostensibly a look at the history of the country's Wilderness Act, "Wild by Law" touches many philosophical and spiritual issues.

It does so by focusing on three men: Robert Marshall, a Yale-educated millionaire socialist who founded the Wilderness Society in 1935; Aldo Leopold, widely acknowledged as the greatest of modern wilderness philosophers, and Howard Zahniser, a minister's son and career bureaucrat who became the society's master networker, skilled at working the congressional corridors of power.

Unfortunately, by taking this tack, producer-director-writers Lawrence Hott and Diane Garey get undermined by the strength of Leopold, who overshadows the others and could easily have been the subject of a full hour himself. Constant quoting from Leopold's masterwork, "A Sand County Almanac," an eloquent and thoughtful work, undercuts the segments on Marshall and Zahniser; their vital work pales in comparison.

The mix of philosophy and history never quite jells, even though the philosophical underpinning of the movement is essential to its success, to its existence.

As a result, "Wild by Law" doesn't quite satisfy. Big questions like "What is our relationship to the land? To other species?" and "What is essential ? To mankind? To a community? To a nation? To a world?" are raised but not adequately explored. For those who want more, a visit to a library for a copy of "A Sand County Almanac" might be in order.

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