Monday, October 19, 2009
When you come through the tunnel from the West towards the East, and you reach the opening, just to your left is perhaps the most stunning, the most recognizable, the least forgettable sight on Planet Earth. There was a time when this vantage point was only accessible by trail. Now it is a scenic outlook. Generally speaking, only those with plenty of discretionary time and money would see it, until Mr. Ford made the automobile accessible to just about all us Americans.
It really does not matter when it is you finally emerge from the tunnel; morning, afternoon or evening. Every variable of time of day or season or weather condition has its own distinct charm. (The exception would be an enveloping, dense fog, which would be a monumental disappointment.) As the scene opens up at tunnel’s end, there it is: the imposing sheer face of El Capitan on your left. The waterfall on your right, like a bridal veil flowing over a v-shaped granite trough. And if the sun catches it just right, you’ll see its very own rainbow glittering the complete spectrum of color against the deep velvet grays of the wet rock glistening behind. The jagged peaks of the Three Sisters reach for the sky. The tall pines of the forest in the foreground point to the meadow in the distance, the wide, flat valley floor. The Merced River meanders toward you with rich grassy open spaces on either side. The steep granite on either side of the valley looks every bit like a natural cathedral and in the distance the unmistakable granite dome, eerily cut in half, stands like an altar. Half Dome begs a series of mysterious questions. Where is the other half? How did it break away? But beyond, there is still more. The broad granite fields stretch across the horizon from left to right, above the tree line, nearly white, reaching out towards infinity. The fresh open air fills your lungs, you scan the scene and you don’t want to leave. If an eagle or two or three drift by, wings spread wide, soaring the updraft, your Yosemite experience will be nearly complete. But this is only the front door. There is much more waiting if you will but enter.
Study the park and you will learn of the first Americans who called this magnificent valley their home. You will also meet John Muir and Ansel Adams. You’ll learn about the battle to preserve this irreplaceable space. You’ll discover that there is yet another valley, equally spectacular. But you will never see it this way. It is under water. The Hetch Hetchy Dam stands in the way of the river’s flow just to the north. It is now a reservoir, a filled up gorge with fresh water stretching into the ravines and canyons like a giant basin, covering up the valley floor and half the sheer granite and shortening up the falls up and down the scene. There was an attempt to build another dam on the Merced River blocking off this priceless scenic outlook. It would have made Yosemite Valley a deep man-made lake, just like Hetch Hetchy. But the plan was voted down.
Ken Burns calls his newest high-definition series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. I am quite sure there are those who will come up with an American idea that may arguably be better. But as I watch his stunning sequence of images and listen to the narrative, calling up all the memories of visits to so many of the scenes, I’d be hard pressed to name one. The first of the wide geography calling out for protection was Yosemite Valley. And the entire national park system grew out of the commitment of the federal government’s reluctant vote; a distinctly American ideal – to make these parts of the country accessible to all. En perpetuity.
One of the lasting heroes in the cause is the irrepressible President Teddy Roosevelt. In 1903, Roosevelt made a train tour from Washington DC to the West, intentionally stopping by the magnificent natural attractions along the way. Yellowstone. The Grand Canyon. And Yosemite. He read John Muir. He knew the roots of the son of a hard-line Presbyterian clergyman; Muir’s father a convinced Calvinist. So Muir had a profound sense of the sacred. We wrote about the valley and the cliffs and the dancing water and the wildlife and plants and towering trees as though he walked on holy ground. He approached his subject with the meticulous eye of a scientist collecting data, systematizing like a Presbyterian; but woven into the narrative is a profound sense of mystery. The President was impressed by the intentional manner of this gentle man and how he had so effectively convinced so many to put preservation before enterprise. He wanted to meet him.
So one afternoon, the President’s entourage all comfortably housed in the Wawona Lodge, Roosevelt escaped alone into the Mariposa Grove with John Muir. Teddy did not bother to tell his staff that he had no plans to return that night. The Presidential dinner went on without their honored guests. No secret service. No press corps. Just two influential men without tents by the campfire underneath the oldest living trees stretching high above into the starry night sky, talking. Laughing. Storytelling. Roosevelt tested Muir’s skill in identifying birdcalls. Muir faltered. Roosevelt, an avid ornithologist, chided the naturalist for this deficiency. Muir retorted with a scolding. “When, Mr. President,” he addressed the passionate hunter, “will you set aside this infantile need to shoot and kill living things?” Roosevelt broke into a belly laugh. Touché!
Out of that conversation and overnight under the stars, with the scent of campfire and redwood filing the crisp night air, came the preservation of the Grove for all time.
When we are cut off from our own history, our present is hollow and our future unsure.
The Great Isaiah Scroll was unveiled in Orange County on Saturday night. It is in words what Yosemite Valley is in wonder. The scribes who preserved this text, and then hid the parchment in the caves nearly two thousand years ago did for us what Muir and Roosevelt did under the great Sequoia trees.
In that ancient Hebrew text, preserved on the scroll, Isaiah wrote –But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2009