As part of commemorating the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Inyo County has suggested that we rethink the National Park idea and read Uncertain Path by retired park historian Bill Tweed. The county invited me to contribute an illustrated lecture. As I prepared my presentation, what most occurred to me is that the parks are “Experiments in Boundaries,” so that’s what I subtitled my talk. I started by recalling how, when I researched and wrote my first book, a hiking and natural history guide to a bunch of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, the park naturalists talked about two things: First, how they wanted people to make the world a better place by taking park ideals such as recycling and respect for nature back home. And second, they were tired of answering the question, “Where’s the tree you can drive through?” That tree of course was in Yosemite not Sequoia, and weakening effects of the tunnel and traffic had felled it many years previous.
America indeed invented the idea of national parks, and it arose out of our mythic belief that pioneers came upon a wilderness continent. Nowadays we’re becoming more aware just how much of an illusion that myth has been. Books including 1491 by Charles C. Mann and Tending the Wild by M. Kat Anderson bring out archaeological and historical information on: 1) how European diseases had spread to wipe out an estimated 90% of many Indian tribes decades before pioneers even arrived out West, and 2) the extent to which Indians actively managed so much of the continent. After California’s Mariposa Battalion of 1851 brutally exiled the Ahwaneechee Indians from Yosemite Valley, the immigrants flooding in to the new Golden State (including John Muir), conveniently forgot, weren’t told, and didn’t imagine that the valley’s meadows, for instance, were a function of the Indians’ fire management for oaks and deer.
The world’s first national parks bill was presented in 1864 for Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove by California senator John Conness, a rare progressive at that time who it is said was later voted out of office for supporting the rights of Chinese immigrants. The bill passed without discussion during the Civil War, carrying the irony that had Southern states not seceded they would have likely blocked the precedent of the federal government getting involved in land protection.
When John Muir arrived in Yosemite he heard like no one else ineffable music that rang through the valley and the whole Sierra. America was thrilled to hear that their Western outback could provide not only new prosperity and new independence but spiritual renewal as well. As immigrants to the West swarmed into the Sierra in a free-for-all of monitor mining, overgrazing, ethnic cleansing, gunfighting and rapacious logging, the lofty idea of experiencing original wonder in spectacular landscapes allied with tourism entrepreneurs to generate preservation as a balancing priority. In the early 20th century President Theodore Roosevelt, Stephen Mather, and Bishop’s own Horace Albright (the first two directors of the NPS) dedicated so much to that priority.
In line with Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous proclamation that Western frontiering ran out of frontier in about 1890, America’s mainstream moved on from the landscape ideals. In this era Mather and Albright were especially brilliant at expanding constituency for the parks by encouraging motor touring and car camping. New park territories were established, inevitably after intense political fights versus those who wanted the freedom to make use of material resources therein. Essentially there has been a race to prevent the destruction of landscapes yet to be appreciated by most of the nation.
There were of course many genuine inheritors of Muir’s legacy of passion for being embedded in nature. Among them Charles and Enid Michael stand out. Through the 1920s Charles was assistant postmaster of Yosemite, and he and his wife Enid were an inseparable pair in scrambling all over the valley precipices and High Sierra peaks. Enid wrote hundreds of “Nature Notes” articles with a passion and style not unlike Muir’s. But as America moved away from finding hope in nature and on to feverish things like wars, the Dust Bowl, and economic inflations and the Depression, the Michaels’ enchantments were catalogued as quaint curiosities. Americans came to regard the parks as designated vacation refuges that gave the appearance that nature and the nation were alive and well and entertaining. The parks fostered constituents and enchanted visitors with creative attractions such as the Wawona Tunnel Tree, the firefall, and bear feedings.
George Melendez Wright was a seasonal ranger in Yosemite who saw how the park’s animals and their habitats needed to be treated as wild. He took up the task of inventorying wildlife, and Horace Albright elevated him to head a new Wildlife Division of the parks. To Wright we owe a lot toward our modern expectation that the parks should serve as living ecosystems.
So many Americans, myself included, owe a lot of personal development to national park experiences. And the national park idea, “America’s Best Idea,” has spread around the globe. We owe ample gratitude to the people who established the boundaries and maintain the parks. But I can’t help but point out how the boundaries’ limitations and illusions have come clear. This is essentially what Uncertain Path is about. Bill Tweed emphasizes that the basic premise of preserving park “resources” unchanged in perpetuity is impossible. Put another way, the modern dichotomy of enabling extraction and consumption as best we can across most of the world and ascribing nature to parks where we can look but not touch has gross repercussions. In the parks it is as if we see the land through a window, a windshield actually. I’ve played around with one of my photos in Photoshop to portray this.
And this is where climbing comes in. When we start up a peak or a wall we get out from behind the windshield and take ourself body and soul into the very structure of the landscape. The Indians engaged the land of course even more intimately, and I would never claim symmetry between what I find as a climber and how they lived. But climbing, to the degree that it’s a personal journey into the terrain, is one of the better immersions we’ve got.
I think of many seminal figures; Muir, the Michaels, David Brower, Yvon Chouinard; these people took themselves directly into Yosemite’s terrain, and they carried what they found outside the park boundaries to say, “whoa,” we need to respect life on both sides of the boundaries. If we have developed a taste for quiet places where we try to keep our hard presence out of certain landscapes (as well as the imagery of them) it’s because we have overwritten so many places with our frenzies to succeed.
National parks may indeed be “America’s Best Idea;” how much poorer we would be today without them! Along with industrial development the parks idea has spread to most every country. Nevertheless our situation tells us we need to revise our ideas. Like the dams at Hetch Hetchy and Glen Canyon, like the forests that have grown thick from decades of fire prevention, we cannot wall off change with park boundaries. The dams are filling with silt and eventually they will cease to function, and the forests of course are going up in flames too big to manage. Parks cannot be the nation’s sole repositories of native plants and animals, and drive-by video shootings of designated scenes on summer holidays cannot be the sum of our acquaintance with nature.
The under-appreciated half of any landscape is the sky, where things are ever-changing and there are no boundaries. The land itself and our own ways of living are little different, just slower to change. As global warming threatens the sequoias at Sequoia, the roads at Rainier, the glaciers at Glacier, the meadows at Tuolumne and so many more “park resources,” the director of the National Park Service has said that “climate change is the greatest threat to the integrity of our national parks we have ever experienced.” Changes at every level are forcing us to see that no matter how much we want to keep parks unchanged, on either side of the boundaries we are agents of change embedded in the flow of nature. At some point along this way we need to huck off what doesn’t make us healthy and realize we’ve already jumped in.