Or simply indifferent?
Visiting Yosemite National Park in the spring of 2023 I have come to believe it might really be all of the above. Smoke plumes rise and mingle with mist from the multiple waterfalls flowing down from great heights all around.
We see small smoldering pyramids of branches and brush, lit by fluorescent-garbed fire professionals to eliminate underbrush that might spread wildfire.
The National Park Service will be shutting down most of the 747,956-acre Park starting Friday night, two days after our visit, because the place is expected to flood. Some of the roads as we drive already shows signs of dangerously high water.
The snow is melting into music, wrote John Muir, he who knew Yosemite through and through, sunshine to snow melt. The waters of the Merced River rise and rush, a bathtub of soap bubbles.
Yosemite is breathtaking, lush with grasses after all of California’s precipitation this year.
It is probably impossible to do justice to El Capitan or Half Dome or the rest without a tripod and fancy camera, and myriad shutterbugs throng the route’s turnoffs.
But actually, any picture in these parts is a good picture, so divine are the views.
It is hard to believe the Nature is angry even as the fires burn and the floods rise, the mountains are so majestic, such a boon to humankind.
We cannot ascend to the high peaks as the roads through the passes will be closed until May due to snowpack.
We knew this coming in, but chose to make the trip anyway, taking the dreamy highway down from San Francisco through the Central Valley. We saw some happy dairy cows noshing on green grass in roadside fields and others reveling knee-deep in spa-like shady watering holes. Once in a while bull would wander off, doing his own lazy thing, and I was of course reminded of sweet Ferdinand.
Wait, do cattle have knees?
The funky resort where we stay at the edge of the Park, known as the Yosemite Bug, bears a discernable southern California-hippie-Charlie Manson vibe.
All the little cabins have been set into the hillside, necessitating a clamber up to get to your room.
It is a place that offers rentable snow shoes and tire chains in the icy season. Now it appeals mainly with insect art, hung everywhere. The Junebug seems to be the totem animal.
Entomology is not my thing, but I know that Junebugs and mayflies are identical. Mayflies do not bite. The reason: they have no mouths. Their life span is a mere 24-72 hours.
Seeing the celebration of insect life all around the lodge I recall mayflies I saw on Star Island off the coast of New England one summer years ago, how wet and gross and omnipresent they were, flying against the lights at night, as well as the daytime vision of a doomed one being crunched between the diminutive jaws of a chipmunk perched on a pine stump. My mind was not entirely well at the time, and I recall how the sight seemed a metaphor for the futility of human existence.
At the Bug, we find ourselves startled by a bison head looming over the door of the canteen.
I had no idea bison were so gi-normous. Bison factoid number one: bison and buffalo are two different creatures, and it is bison that roamed America before their population was decimated in the course of the genocide campaign against Indigenous Americans of the Plains. Photo documentation reveals bison skulls ultimately used for fertilizer.
Bison factoid number two: the animal was never native to California. Bison factoid number three: in 1891, in a burst of Wild-West fervor, bison were introduced into Golden Gate Park, where a now-all-female herd lives in a paddock and cannot possibly charge innocent day trippers. Having all females just keeps everything a little bit more calm, the general manager of San Francisco Recreation and Parks has been quoted as saying. Ain’t it the truth.
The food at the Bug is scrumptious, and after a dinner of kimchee ramen, a sleep worthy of Ferdinand and a pancake breakfast we begin our adventure through the lowlands and bluffs.
The road in to Yosemite Valley ought to be called red bud highway.
Nature is indeed kind to bestow this flaming fuschia everywhere, now just going from bud to blossom.
Which is more beautiful, the shape of the trees themselves or the showy flowers, ready for their closeup? Additionally, the blooms make a delicious addition to salads.
Making our way past rockslides takes patience.
Even windshield views reveal amazing plants making a life in the granite.
John Muir wrote: When one is alone at night in the depths of these woods, the stillness is at once awful and sublime. Every leaf seems to speak.
We are rewarded with the sight of iconic formations. Passing under Arch Rock is like entering a magic zone.
Many people have obviously come this way, with some comical results.
We worship at a spot marked by history, the very place were Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir sat down together in 1903 and talked forest good. Not sure exactly what that means but it sounds like a positive.
I kvell, imagining Muir lighting his campfire here—serving up a salad with redbud blossoms?
I also think of him walking here all the way from San Francisco and seeing this landscape for the first time. Muir wrote that he was overwhelmed, scrambling down steep cliff faces to get a closer look at the waterfalls, whooping and howling at the vistas, jumping tirelessly from flower to flower. Less jumping now, apparently.
We come across quaint old interdenominational Yosemite Community Church nestled beneath the sheer face of Half Dome.
Built in 1879, it predates the Park itself and is in fact the oldest building in Yosemite. It would have been there when John Muir first sauntered through (he preferred the word saunter to hike). The church is closed, it being Wednesday, but I enjoy the sign outside.
Some people might prefer a meeting to a stiff drink after whooping and howling down these mountains.
Ponderosa pines are everywhere. Muir: Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.
Nature nurtures us. We are so fortunate to have these trees, along with the other 36 species in Yosemite, including black oaks and sugar pines, Douglas firs and incense cedars. And giant sequoias, of course, some of them 300 feet tall, although on this trip we do not see many of the earth’s oldest living specimens.
Still, we have to look up. Ponderosas can reach 200 feet, so they’re no slouch in the reach-for-the-clouds department.
And Ponderosas have it over sequoias in the department of fragrance. We stick our noses up close to the tree’s rough-plated bark and get a good hit of butterscotch. We admire the plant life enjoying itself, having a good old life in the tree bark’s grooves, its nooks and crannies.
We look down to see the ground littered with cones and breathe in the intoxicating breeze wafting up from the carpet of brown needles.
Muir wrote about his first summer in the Sierras: Another glorious day, the air as delicious to the lungs as nectar to the tongue.
I want to come back and stay in a platform tent here some day. Unit 309 will do just fine, thank you.
Muir was not always serious. He must have had a sense of humor to describe himself as poetico-trampo-geologist-botanist and ornithologist-naturalist etc. etc. !!!! On another occasion he wrote: Surely all God’s people, however serious or savage, great or small, like to play. Whales and elephants, dancing, humming gnats, and invisibly small mischievous microbes – all are warm with divine radium and must have lots of fun in them.
So let’s have fun when we camp out in the Valley. I will bring the n/a beer, you bring the salty snacks.
Muir, once more: Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail.
It’s not only old trees here. Fetching young ones spring up all around as well.
We break open our box lunch brought from the Bug and I devour the most delicious sandwich with which I have ever filled my gut, crispy bacon, lettuce, tomato and avocado. Happy makes hungry.
A current storm not of Nature’s making involves recent controversy surrounding John Muir’s views about people of color. He was criticized a few years ago by the then executive director Michael Brune of the Sierra Club for his comments about the Indigenous people he came across on his travels through America. Brune asserted in a 2020 blog post that the group must “take down some of our own monuments, starting with some truth-telling about the Sierra Club’s early history.” He said that the storied conservationist must be chastised for his “derogatory comments … that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes.” In one oft-quoted remark, Muir spoke of the strangely dirty and irregular life these dark-eyed, dark-haired, half-happy savages lead in this clean wilderness…
Brune’s assertion drew pushback from traditionalist board directors and he had to step down, but not before Muir received a public trouncing.
Who knew that blog posts could be so influential? Poet W.H. Auden famously said, “Poetry makes nothing happen,” and I was always under the impression that blogs ranked even lower than verse in the category of inconsequentiality.
Now the Sierra Club takes a measured view. A History and Future Task Force concluded in 2021: The Sierra Club acknowledges that John Muir used derogatory language about Indigenous people that created harm. Muir later recognized and appreciated the achievements of Indigenous people and spoke about the equality of all people and the importance of making public lands accessible for all.”
What did he say as he matured? He wrote after visiting with Alaska’s Native Americans in 1879 that:
“The most striking characteristic of these people is their serene dignity in circumstances that to us would be novel and embarrassing. Even the little children behave with natural dignity, come to the white men when called, and restrain their wonder at the strange prayers, hymn-singing, etc. This evening an old woman fell asleep in the meeting and began to snore; and though both old and young were shaking with suppressed mirth, they evidently took great pains to conceal it. It seems wonderful to me that these so-called savages can make one feel at home in their families. In good breeding, intelligence, and skill in accomplishing whatever they try to do with tools, they seem to me to rank above most of our uneducated white laborers.
While the current thinking regarding Muir’s views might or might not contain some truth, what is clear is that the ecosystem he did so much to preserve still thrives.
Muir wrote: Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.
In recognition of this truth, the Park Service has now taken the controversial step of expanding the built environment at Yosemite to allow for more comfortable tourism. Off to the edges we see earthmoving machines and cut trees and construction workers hard at pouring concrete to create expanded viewing platforms.
Five million people from all over the world descend up the Valley and the Peaks in the warm months, wanting to get just a taste of John Muir’s elation over the Sierras.
Muir: Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.
All in all it strikes me that Nature is mostly indifferent to our presence here. These stern mountains and this sumptuous valley will go on for eon upon eon regardless of what we careless and sometimes stupid humans do to each other, making our tiny, flailing forays up her wildflower-rich greenscapes. All we can do is be a little less mean, a little more kind in the day to day. Nature’s job is to remain magnificent. Ours is to rise, somehow, however improbably, to the example She sets.
That’s all we can do, and the effort is hard. But the attempt means something, now more than ever.