The plan to visit one of our nation’s westernmost national parks came as an afterthought — an afterthought as in anticlimactic following our tour of glorious southern California. But while in the Golden State, shouldn’t we venture on and view the storied sequoias of Yosemite National Park?
The stray idea took root like a hardy seed. As my husband mapped the route north from San Diego, I tried to wean my thoughts from Balboa Park’s museums and L.A. movie sets and prepare instead for a different sort of experience. There was an upside to our off-road jaunt: I’d enjoy standing before those imposing trees.
But like the widow described in the Old Testament, I glean with low expectations. By custom, she forages in the corners of the field, taking just enough fruit to meet basic needs. Never daring to imagine an invitation to savor the freshest, richest fruits.
A Day of Discovery
It is past lunchtime on a clear June day when we reach the park entrance. For an hour, we twist along a road shaded by fir trees before entering a tunnel that leads to Tunnel View overlook. In the bright light, I look up. A generous portion of untamed Yosemite stretches before us. There are massive granite walls, plunging waterfalls, and evergreens as far as the eye can see. Soon, I will match a stunning monolith to the name El Capitan, and learn that those gorgeously etched cliffs are called Royal Arches. Now I see a grand, delirious whole.
The four of us stroll through the valley’s lush meadow, then start the Mist Trail hike that leads up to Vernal Falls. Rookie hikers, our daughters soon encounter 600 steep granite steps. But they rally, later laughing as chilly waterfall spray splashes their faces. I am richly surprised by this wildness and thankful my daughters feel equally stirred. This is an inviting feast for the spirit, so virtually unexpected.
As the sun sets, shadows lengthen and a bird’s evensong streams through the valley. Before long, a full moon lights the sheer sides of El Capitan. After meeting rangers and climbing daredevils, we are attuned to the throbbing wonderland of the night. According to lore, a pair of bear cubs slumbered at El Capitan’s summit, awash in clouds; below, climbers dream of their ascent to the summit. At Yosemite Falls, moonlight transforms water. There is widespread awe as seasoned park employees and tourists alike relish the holy gift of a white moonbow.
I drift to sleep, knowing we’ll soon find those giant sequoias. I have a habit now of gazing upward, looking down only to navigate a challenging trail. But the next day, I meet one young boy who prefers to keep his eye on the earthworm.
Seeing Beyond the Beauty
After breakfast, we visit El Capitan Bridge to watch climbers as they inch towards the summit. While a man peers through the spotting scope, his son, a boy with twinkling blue eyes, skips to the park ranger’s side. Eagerly, he files his first citizen scientist’s report. “I saw a bird digging. It got a worm.”
The ranger encourages his curiosity. “What color were its feathers?” she asks. “Red,” he replies. “Orangish-red.” They chat, building a description and considering various identifications. The boy is intrigued by the mechanics of a magnificent system, a bird that swallowed a worm to gather energy to fly. For my part, I prefer watching a mountain bluebird soar. Already, I care deeply about the park, the sort of love shaped by powerful impressions of sublime beauty.
Yet drought haunts this land. Last winter marked the lowest Sierra snowpack on record for the Tuolumne River watershed, which means wildlife habitat and food sources will suffer. There are other signs of trouble, too. Along the roadside, we see red markers flagging spots where bears have been struck. Driven by a strong sense of smell, they come down from the mountains to forage for food. When they lose their fear of humans, they can become aggressive, forcing rangers to relocate or kill the animals.
We need to acknowledge those who want to learn more about the mechanics of these ecosystems and the battles faced by all that call Yosemite home. When the young birdwatcher grows older, he can participate in one of the park’s citizen science projects. This summer, volunteers sampled dragonfly nymphs to record their mercury levels. The larvae eat smaller insects, accumulating mercury from their prey as they grow. A dark invader, mercury comes from coal-burning power plants. This data collection will help to define threats to food webs and ecosystems.
Yosemite deserves such care and respect. For 8,000 years, humans have revered this spiritual place. Some, like nineteenth-century profiteers interested in commercialization, were unwelcome. But those who care about the land multiply its marvels through their devotion: The ranger who started as a young summer volunteer, staying on as his hair greys, and the weekend artist who works to capture early morning light on canvas.
Both the ranger and the artist belong. Many of us identify with the artist seeking the richest, most flavorful fruit. But this magnificent system needs new eyes to be trained on conservation issues. I’m thankful someone wants to keep an eye on the earthworm. One day, the junior citizen scientist just might return to Yosemite as an ecologist, eager to focus on the desperate stories unfolding in nature. At times, it may seem like a grinding responsibility. If he’s accustomed to bare vines in the corners of the field, he must grant himself a reprieve from the work and instead, seize the chance to view the land as one grand, delirious whole.