Yosemite National Park
Beautiful! (Washburn Point)
The towering grandeur of these majestic Giants provides a living relic from a prehistoric age. Their immense girth soars up into the sky as a striking symbol of longevity and strength. Some of these trees were alive when Jesus walked the water, once dominating an area of some two-million acres of the Californian coast, and before the last Ice Age pruned them back they covered almost the entire northern hemisphere of Planet Earth. Today they survive in parks created by the very species that brought them to the brink of extinction. Knee-jerk
: We should save the Giants and restore these forests to their original state, right?
Crescent City is the first town we came to heading south into Northern California. I’ve long known of this place because a certain anarcho-primitivist, Derrick Jensen, lives there. I had an intellectual man crush on this guy a few years back so I’m deeply offended you haven’t heard of him. I would dearly love to spend the next ten minutes of your life explaining who he is and what he stands for, but I won’t. You can go do that yourself. In any case, anarcho-primitivism is dead to me
now. Trust me when I say I’ve played out all possible logical theoretical conclusions and it is a fundamentally flawed ideology. Besides, these days I’m far more grown up and extreme.
Crescent City neighbors Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, and it is here we had our first encounter with the Giant Redwood during a pleasant drive and hike before camping in amongst their drippy subterranean shadows at Florence Keller County Park. One of our inflatable mattresses died in that forest requiring us to seek out a replacement. Note to visitor: do not use the word “Wal-Mart” around these parts when referring to the generic “supermarket” if you wish to make friends. On our way to Target™ in Eureka we stopped off at the Redwoods National Park Visitor Centre where I started asking the resident botanist anthropological questions about trees.
Nowadays the debate about these big trees and the forests in which they reside is heavily intertwined with narratives of ‘nature’ and social perceptions of preservation, spirituality and aesthetics as well as conservation. Do not allow any of this to sway you from the fact that those big old trees are the personification of evil.
Tourists performing Big Tree
A Giant Redwood, Northern California.
Make no mistake; plants are in ferocious competition with one another for limited resources. The Giant Redwood’s success is due to its ability to successfully exclude all other trees by growing to well over three-hundred feet. Reaching these lofty heights they enlarge their canopies and cut off the light from their neighbors, slowly killing them, reducing forest density and allowing the Giants a greater share of resources and a further increase in size. Once the canopies of all these Giants come together the forest is cast in darkness and the under story all but dies off (apart from some weird yellow slugs, it seems). A world shrouded in darkness is a pretty miserable environment. This status quo remains intact for Giga-annums (Giant Redwoods can live for over 2,000 years and Sequoias for more than 3,500 years). Animals and insects don’t particularly like to eat these trees and even if they wanted to, the foot-thick bark is virtually impenetrable, providing protection against their biggest natural threat, which is fire.
Okay, I know you’re thinking, those teddy-bear-like hunter-gathering Ewoks got along just fine in such an environment. But in reality there wouldn’t have been much for
them to eat under that shadow of death either. This explains why they ate Stormtroopers, and in Return of the Jedi they tried to eat Luke, Chewie and Han. (Though in fairness the Ewoks did help the Rebel Alliance defeat the forces of the Galactic Empire at the Battle of Endor).
Losing a forest to a car park is one thing. Turning the land back over to nature is a bountiful gift to the variety of life. Cut down the forest and a dramatic reconfiguring takes place…an evolution – a riot of life, a race for a foot-hold, a ruthless struggle for survival. Plants that have lain dormant in the shadows or have had their seeds carried in from afar now have their chance, their shot at life. They grow and compete and form relationships in an exotic riotous smorgasbord, nurturing a similarly eclectic mixture of insects and animals. Isn’t that the essence of life, or is it the infinite stasis cast in the shadow of the Giants? Bolts of lightning reigning down from the heavens, Ice Ages and earthquakes couldn’t shake those Redwoods until bands of greedy little sapient bipods arrived on the scene with an
Half Dome Rock
Yosemite National Park
insatiable need for the giant weed to construct their towns and cities in this ‘New World’ of theirs.
Heading south we drove on the grandly named Avenue of the Giants. This is a stretch of road which has Giant Redwoods either side of it, averaging some three-trees-deep. But beyond the casual glance from a speeding car the Giants are long gone. Some people feel this is a travesty, a façade. Personally I don’t have a problem with it because by definition an avenue is a broad street lined with trees. It is those of you who live on ‘avenues’ which don’t have trees who should feel aggrieved.
In the United States you can camp for free on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. There is actually a fair bit of it too if you have the right maps, and heading south just as route 101 splits to highway 1 by “Drive-Thru Tree Park” we found some -- Okay just one more thing about the Giants before I move on: How can we, Homo sapiens, dominate the largest tree on the planet? Cut it down, sure, but that type of behavior is frowned upon these
Papa and Kiva
days as you know. You could try climbing it…good luck with that! No, what some wily entrepreneurs of human nature have done is cut large holes in some of these Giants so that you can drive your car through them. That’s right, you can penetrate
the giant for only $6 a car load! We declined... six bucks – what a rip! Besides, rumor has it that our friend Eucalyptus regnans
(Tasmanian Oak) down in Oz can grow to over 400ft making it
the tallest tree in the world! But remember size is not everything…yeah right!
Back to the BLM land, after we found a suitable clearing we were just setting up camp when we heard some dogs barking and engines start. Two cars then slowly drove past our spot taking a very (badly disguised) keen interest in us. About 2 minutes later they came back (meaning they would have had to U-turn on the road to nowhere) this time our children were strategically visible for their viewing as I’d quickly discerned they were worried we may have been the authorities coming up here to snoop. Now I’ve no firm proof of this and my assumptions are solely
Kiva on the hike
Yosemite National Park
founded on their appearance and the historic agricultural substances grown in these very areas. But I’d bet my bottom dollar they were growing plants containing tetrahydrocannabinol, and quite close by too, judging by the nervous manner in which they returned a couple times before the end of the day, ‘casually out walking the dog’. But as the saying goes, they were more scared of us. The next morning we hooked up with California State Route 1 and continued our journey south along the Pacific coast to Mendocino.
In the '60s and '70s land was cheap in Mendocino County, with thirty-five hundred square miles and very little law enforcement; the hippies moved in and started growing pot. The lumber used to build San Francisco following the Gold Rush and the great earthquake of 1906 came from forests here - ironically the clear cutting of forests presented these hippies with a clean slate to plant their own forests. Not to get too technical but if you take marijuana seeds from say Mexico, they will not thrive here because of the different day lengths and temperatures. Fortunately for many local residents, northernmost Afghanistan has the same latitude and a similarly
temperate climate as Mendocino. If you know your tourist history you’ll know that a fair few hippies visited Afghanistan in the 60’s and 70’s. Some of them brought back seeds from their forays. Today it is estimated that two-thirds of the local economy is based on the cultivation of “the finest marijuana in the world” (if you think wine snobs are bad - and they have those here too - pot snobs are a breed apart). Many of these steel-haired hippies have become very wealthy and have invested their profits in local businesses, effectively becoming the local establishment.
The other major driver of the economy in this rich hippie heaven is white people tourism. With its population of around 2,000 and its selection of New England style Victorian houses squeezed onto a headland of this rugged coastline, it sounds quaint and charming, and for your average Californian citizen, perhaps it is. I found it to exude a rather crusty pretentiousness. The restaurants offer sustainable, organic vegetarian items: the epitome of gourmet hippie dining, or you can grab a coffee at “Moody's Organic Coffee Bar" (these people wouldn’t be seen dead with a frothing Styrofoam cup in Starbucks).
North Coast California
Whilst there we visited a few realtors to enquire about house prices and gathered up some brochures to gauge the market (an odd pastime we’ve developed). One of them stated “it is cool enough just to be able to have the opportunity to visit Mendocino, imagine how cool it would be to live here?” Along with the resident hippies the place seems to attract rich white retirees who come here to paint. Nothing wrong with that, but if you have $800,000 (the local median home cost) to drop on a wooden house, I can think of quite a few places on my ‘global places to paint’ short-list which rank a wee bit higher than this.
Further down the coast we witnessed the Mini Cooper replace the Subaru Outback as we continued south on Highway 1 to Russian River before turning left to follow the valley as it wound inland. If we manage three hours on the road we consider it a productive day. With the children falling asleep at strategically advantageous points on this journey it had proven to be an epic. So in an attempt to reward
our efforts and stave off our
own fatigue we decided to forego the very many picturesque options for camping along the way for the promise of AC, TV and tub in the city of Santa Rosa, before ultimately settling in Rohnert Park.
Bathed and fully re-charged, the next day we drove down Sonoma Valley, pit-stopping in Sonoma town itself. Fulfilling Jennifer’s nostalgia for the authentic Mexican food she grew up on in southern California, we gorged on every variety of taco offered at a street-side shack before ambling lethargically through the plaza. The hundred-degree heat notwithstanding, the kids enthusiastically took to exhausting themselves on the playground. Their ensuing siestas eased our circle drive though Napa Valley, as we joined the middle class pub crawl along the shop front of the Californian wine industry. Some five million visitors visit the four hundred wineries here every year (that is equivalent to the number of tourists who visit India annually). A façade of plywood-built haciendas, castles or Chateaus
, backed by rows of vineyards disappearing into the barren hills, it’s an elaborate illusory wonderland whose old world fantasies lure the masses with promises of the most civilized thing in the world. I would love to share some
photos of this pretentious fantasy forthwith, but with Jennifer driving, I was mostly too pished.
The sun was shining the next morning as we set off on the short hop south to San Francisco. We had a nice walk round some of the tunnels and abandoned gunner lookouts to the north of the Golden Gate Bridge, hoping it would reveal itself through the ubiquitous coastal fog, but this being peak tourist season it was a little shy. We drove over to the other side and did our bit there before navigating roads south for an alternative viewpoint and a BBQ lunch on the beach before driving into town proper to afford ourselves three hours on the parking meter so the kids could divert themselves at the wonders of Pier 39 before we drove over the big silver bridge on the other side of the city to Oakland…phew!
The next day we stopped over at a hospital in Fremont to visit a friend of Jennifer’s who’d just given birth to twins, after which we headed across the agricultural plains, broaching the inland heat on our way up to Yosemite National Park for some R&R.
Kiva Pier 39
Yosemite was ‘discovered’ in 1851 whilst a US army battalion led by a Mr. Savage was hunting and murdering the local “Indians”. In between massacres they were awe-struck by the sheer beauty and grandeur of the valley. We must preserve this for “the people” one of their number said, and in one of the first instances of protecting the environment over and above the wishes of the inhabitants, in 1864 the U.S. government voted to set aside the “park” specifically for preservation and public use.
Yosemite inspired the national park idea and in its creation Roosevelt bestowed the ‘democratic principle’ embodied by the parks, that they were created "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." These words were later carved into the entrance arch's mantle as a reminder of why the park was there – and for whom (”Indians” clearly didn’t make the category “people” back then). Incidentally, the Yosemite Museum is today built on the site of the village those ‘original discoverers’ razed to the ground, and a reconstructed "Indian Village of Ahwahnee" is now located behind the visitors centre. But before you drift off into utopian fantasies of a lost world of
Noble Savages living in harmonious union with this beautiful valley it is important to note that the word Yosemite comes from the local Miwok (Ewok
s are actually named after the Miwok) word to describe the tribes who inhabited this area: "yohhe'meti" means "they are killers". We can only guess at what the yohhe'meti’s in turn called the white people who discovered them.
A hundred-and-fifty-years later it is not difficult to see why these pioneers were so impressed by Yosemite. We spent five nights camped out there exploring the valley and left feeling five months wouldn’t have been too much.
We started out in a commercial campsite just outside the park, commencing our return to nature with a dip in the river – which, truth be told, was actually prompted not by ecological appreciation but rather by practical needs, which in this case involved the kids covering themselves head to toe in the ashes from the fire pit! The next morning we took in the central Yosemite Valley, getting our first taste of the outrageous high season traffic and crowds and sizing up our possibilities to get a camping spot somewhere within the park for
the remainder of our stay.
Yosemite’s enormity should not be underestimated when planning a visit. Our campsite ‘just outside’ the park was actually a 45 minute drive away. After spending two-nights there and a full day exploring inside Yosemite Valley we decided to investigate the valley from upon high. Having taken down camp, packed up two sleeping kids, topped up the petrol, and completed a 90-minute drive by 9 a.m., we managed to beat the summer scramble for available sites at Bridal Veil Creek campground and we were rewarded with a plum spot. After being in almost constant motion for the previous month, the luxury of three full days in one location was bliss, particularly considering our new backyard.
Viewing the valley is magnificent from all angles, anywhere, at any time. The sheer walls create an immense sense of space which doesn’t intimidate. If anything, Yosemite coddles, envelops and protects. Not too tight to feel claustrophobic and yet not too wide to leave one feeling exposed. All the rough edges have been chiseled and sanded away; Yosemite has sculpted smooth granite curves which protrude, sweep and flow; streaming magnificent waterfalls into the verdant river
I like to take pictures of tourists taking pictures and so in retaliation Jennifer has started taking pictures of me in the act (see photo X)
"No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite... It is by far the grandest of all special temples of Nature" is how John Muir described it. Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect who designed New York City’s Central Park, called Yosemite “the greatest glory of nature”.
Early mornings we would attempt to catch the light and avoid the heat as our little champions amazed us with their rapture for and stamina in hiking, allowing us all to indulge in long afternoon naps and a second onslaught before the sun turned the mountain-tops pink. Our three-year old’s penchant for scrambling mountain-goat-style above the thousand meter precipice at Glacier Point drew groans and cheers from the assembled sunset crowd one evening. Though one bystander remarked “a cool kid you got there”, as I rushed past him chasing Kiva over the rocks, my expression told him I wasn’t too keen on him one day appearing as the main subject of a Jon Krakauer novel. After darkness we usually rustled up some rustic campfire fare and savored a glass or two from our cache of reds as we stargazed and cuddled with our dozing human lapwarmers until the
Yosemite National Park
campfire embers bade us good night.
Of course, visiting in high season facilitates the marring of this romanticism. We’d learned to overlook the crowds and fight for parking spots; after all, it was jaw-droppingly evident why they were all here. But uneasiness set in at the effects of all these visitors on the permanent inhabitants of the park. After stopping to watch a mother bear and her cubs alongside the road, it took all of 2 minutes for a camera-wielding gaggle of eager onlookers to amass, sending the trio scampering in fear. More worrisome were the multiple signs around the park pronouncing the (very recent) dates when the last bear/deer/elk had been mowed down. The park rangers surely had a full-time job attending to these accidents, as we often witnessed the road bathed in blood and one morning returning from a hike we witnessed a pair of hysterical blondes with a large dent in their rental’s hood, and a still trembling, wide-eyed but fatally injured deer pondering its fall from paradise as blood pulsed from a wound in its head. Preservation vs Conservation
There is actually a marked difference between conservation
which is the sustainable use of natural resources for the benefit of the people, and preservation
, which is the act of keeping safe to prevent harm or decay – to essentially embalm nature for eternity, free from human influence.
The reason I raise this issue is because, despite the fact that Yosemite was made a National Park in 1864, in 1913, Congress authorized the construction of O'Shaughnessy Dam within the park to provide electrical power to the distant city of San Francisco. In 1923 a 430-foot-tall dam was built and the waters of the Tuolumne River backed up to flood the narrow, eight-mile-long, Hetch Hetchy Valley. (See also: oil extraction from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska or Uranium mining in Kakadu National Park, Australia).
I’d never heard of Hetch Hetchy valley before coming here and since it is now underwater I’ll have to rely on the impressions of John Muir, the voice of nature and pioneer of the national park system for his impressions, to leave me green with envy: "Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever
Mandalay the tourist
(Tourists beget tourists)
been consecrated by the hearts of man.” And, after the dam’s construction he lamented, “It’s hard to bear. The destruction of the charming groves and gardens, the finest in all California, goes to my heart."
Muir was a preservationist who valued nature for its spiritual and transcendental qualities; "places for rest, inspiration, and prayers." One-time friend turned nemesis, the early conservationist Gifford Pinchot favored the damming of the valley as "the highest possible use which could be made of it”.
The belief that these parks are somehow created in the interests of nature rather than the interests of man is misguided. And therein lies the dilemma. If we were to truly preserve the natural environment this decision would come at the expense of the way we choose to live our lives, and here we’re not talking about carbon offsetting or recycling milk cartons, we’re talking about a radical revolutionary change in the way we live our lives as a global culture.
“No matter what we call it, poison is still poison, death is still death, and industrial civilization is still causing the greatest mass extinction in the history of the planet”.
Our anarcho-primitivst friends are a little bit more extreme in this regard, as they don’t believe we can change, and they may be right, so they advocate a return to non-"civilized" ways of life through deindustrialisation
. Civilization is seen as the root of all evil and needs to be dismantled. The only way they foresee this being achieved is to go out and physically destroy it and save what is left before everything is gone. This will inevitably lead to the mass genocide of billions of people. Once this is accomplished they advocate asking “Indigenous People” to impart their secrets of survival.
My own research has taught me that an increasingly alienated section of ‘modern society’ truly believes this to be the answer as Indigenous people have come to be perceived as containing all that ‘Western society’ is thought to be lacking or has ‘lost’. Research has also taught me this tragic and desperate fetishism is a reoccurring myth based on distance and a lack of knowledge.
Anarcho primitivists often fantasize about destroying dams, as they consider them to be one of the linchpins of civilization. Oddball Republican tree-hugging trio
Sentinel Dome (2477m) Yosemite National Park
Reagan, Bush and Schwarzenegger have all advocated removing the dam at Hetch Hetchy through the years, and incidentally, authorities in Washington State are currently in the process of removing two large dams in Olympic National Park. This isn’t idle fantasy. It is absolutely feasible that Hetch Hetchy valley can be restored to something resembling its original grandeur -- a narrower more natural Yosemite without the hotel parking lots and cars -- but as much as this appeals to me on a personal level, shouldn’t that decision be made by those who would be most impacted by the dam’s removal, the residents of San Francisco?
"The tendency nowadays to wander in the wilderness is delightful to see. Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness 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. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature,
and to get rid of rust and disease" John Muir, 1901.
A hundred years on that itch hasn’t subsided. Those thousands of over-civilized people number in their millions and the millions are more civilized and urbanized than ever. The destruction of the planet, deforestation and global warming are now generally acknowledged as being symptoms of that very civilization in which they live. The wilderness that people crave beyond, or before, the contaminations of civilization is becoming markedly smaller and increasingly sought after.
It is often said that the US national park system is “America’s Best Idea”. If that be true, there is a sad irony in that achievement. If we choose to live our lives the way we do without drastic changes, the band-aid of preservation (a.k.a. national parks) is all we can really aspire to. Preservation aside, we need to find a balance between conservation and development, otherwise national parks are destined to become museum-ized natural theme parks where future generations go and see what ‘nature’ used to look like. And, they’re gonna hate us for that; particularly if they draw the conclusion that nature used to look like Yosemite Valley.
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