Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Review in the North Dakota Quarterly

The North Dakota Quarterly has published a review by James Ballowe of my Yosemite book.  From the review:

“The practical lessons that complement the personal story will make Mountains of Life a useful companion for the solitary camper and hiker in Yosemite. But above all, Liebenow’s record of the lore, natural history, and lessons to be learned from Yosemite will be of interest even to the reader who may never have the chance to experience its grandeur in person.”

Elsewhere in the review, Ballowe writes that the book reminds readers of nature’s power to create a sense of awe and humility, and says my writing is in the tradition of natural historians like Muir and Thoreau.

The journal's homepage can be found at

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Trail Markers

Signs you wish were at the viewing points around the valley to tell you why so much sweat and toil was spent to put a trail there.

Crocker Point  elevation 7090 feet
Crocker was one of the “Big Four” who made a lot of money on the transcontinental railroad.  Name appeared by 1907.

Dewey Point  elevation 7385 feet
Named for Admiral George Dewey who was in charge of the victory over the Spanish in the Battle of Manila Bay, 1898.  The name appeared on maps by 1907.  Dewey had aspirations for the presidency that never materialized.

Eagle Peak  elevation 7779 feet
Highest of the Three Brothers, named in 1870 by a lady hiking to this place in a party with John Muir.  She thought it was a place where eagles would rest.  Joseph LeConte called it Eagle Point.  Hutchings said it was called such because eagles hung out there.  Rev. Sutherland, from Washington DC told Hutchings that this view alone was worth his trip across country.

Four Mile Trail
Built by John Conway in 1871 for $3000.  It took eleven months and the toll was $1 to hike it.  Later the trail was rebuilt and lengthened to 4.7 miles.

Glacier Point  elevation 7214 feet
The date of the name is uncertain, but it’s probably tied to the Whitney Survey as it is a scientific name rather than a romantic or patriotic one.  The point was covered by a glacier in an earlier period, but its top remained above the ice during the more recent Tioga stage.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Quotes about Yosemite

(pointing at El Capitan) That mute appeal illustrates it, with more convincing eloquence than can the most powerful arguments of surpliced priests.            -- Lafayette Bunnell, 1851

... as the scene opened in full view before us, we were almost speechless with wondering admiration at its wild and sublime grandeur.  “What!” exclaimed one at length, “Have we come to the end of all things?” “Can this be the opening of the Seventh Seal?” cries another.            -- James Hutchings, 1855

A passage of scripture is written on every cliff.            -- Thomas Star King, 1860

I hesitate now, as I did then, at the attempt to give my vision utterance.  Never were words as beggared for an abridged translation of any Scripture of Nature.            -- Fitz Hugh Ludlow, 1863

I am sitting here in a little shanty made of sugar pine shingles this Sabbath evening.  I have not been at church a single time since leaving home. Yet this glorious valley might well be called a church, for every lover of the great Creator who comes. . . fails not to worship as he never did before.            -- John Muir, 1868

There is so much of Grandeur and reverential Solemnity to Yosemite that a bit of humor may help the better to happily reconcile ourselves to the triviality of Man.  Give me the souls who smile at their devotions!  Now, should this light effort--not altogether truthful, so not altogether dull--afford you a tithe of mirth I shall feel I have added to your reverence for Yosemite. [on his humorous painting of Yosemite Valley that has a cloud sitting in an easy chair on Clouds Rest and a bishop straddling the Cathedral Spires]            -- Jo Mora, 1931

The experience from which these Yosemite poems come is the experience of interacting with the Other--of constantly trying to be aware of the Universe as all one body, of trying not to be separate from it but recognize every part of it as part of yourself.  There is nothing alien in it at all.  Sometimes interacting with the Other remains theoretical.  Even then it is interesting.  Sometimes it is an experience.  When it is, I can make a poem out of it.  It takes on the force of poetry.                        -- Gary Snyder, 1955

I remembered the famous Zen saying, 'When you get to the top of a mountain, keep climbing.'  Upon reaching the top Ryder gives out a beautiful broken yodel of a strange musical and mystical intensity and then suddenly everything was just like jazz.                 -- Jack Kerouac, Dharma Bums, Matterhorn Peak, Sierra Nevada, 1958

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Words From My Yosemite Video

This is where it began.  In the snow.  My journey through Yosemite began here.  And this is where the next journey begins.

I grew up in the woods and on the lakes of Wisconsin, reading the words of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Sigurd Olson.  Then I moved to a large city in California and lost touch with the outdoors. 

When a friend took me to Yosemite, I discovered the place that John Muir describes in his books, and I was stunned by what I saw.  I return to Yosemite whenever I can to be renewed by the fresh air, the openness of the mountains, and the quiet sounds of hiking through undisturbed forests. 

I sit by the rivers and listen to the surging water, watch deer and coyotes play in the meadows, look for owls, hawks, and ravens in the sky.  Often I see bears as I hike along the trails, and sometimes I think I glimpse mountain lions moving through the shadows.

Yosemite inspires me with the power of its waterfalls, the great granite domes, and the giant sequoias.  Sunrise and sunset often fill the sky with yellow, orange, and red.  From the warm, green fullness of summer and the cool brown days of autumn to the quiet trickling of snow-clad rivers in winter, each season holds its own beauty.

When I am in nature, the rush of daily life slows.  I have time to think about life back home and work through its complications.  By camping, I develop a relationship with Yosemite. I learn to hear its many voices.  Often I feel awe as I hike the trails between the great vistas, and sometimes I feel fear, for this is still the wilderness.

When I look over the valley as a winter storm clears, light brightens on the horizon.  Mist rises from the dark green forest, drawing me from the visible world into what is hidden within.

(These are the words to the video I posted on YouTube.  The video uses photographs I took in Yosemite and wonderful music by Lindsay Adler.  You can go to YouTube, type in “Liebenow Yosemite” and the video will come up, or use this link: . There are two versions – one has the words in captions, the other does not.)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

If You Have Two or More Days in Yosemite

If you have more than one day to spend in Yosemite Valley, use the first day to get acquainted with where everything is in the valley.  This will also give you time to acclimate to being almost a mile in the sky.  If the shuttle is running, take it around the valley and get off at each stop to see what is there and how the views of the waterfalls and mountains have changed.  Visit Happy Isles and walk over to Mirror Lake/Meadow, visit the Indian Village and the Native Center, see the natural history displays at the Visitors Center, and watch whatever video is showing in the theater behind the center. Walk through the meadows, visit the cemetery for its historical occupants, and watch rock climbers make their way up El Capitan or the Royal Arches. Have afternoon coffee or ice cream on the outdoor patio at Degnan’s.  It has a good view of the Lost Arrow and there might be climbers doing a Tyrolean Traverse to it.

On the second day, take a hike up to Vernal and Nevada Fall and have lunch overlooking Nevada.  If you feel you’re in pretty good shape, continue beyond Nevada Falls to Glacier Point on the Panorama Trail (crossing the top of Illilouette Fall), and come back down into the valley on the Four Mile Trail.  Have dinner at the Ahwahnee Hotel.

If you have three days, hike up to the top of Yosemite Falls.  Now you have a choice.  You can either head left for the top of El Capitan and return this way, or head right for North Dome, Indian Arch, and Snow Creek Fall, coming back down into the valley in Tenaya Canyon with its unmatched view across its valley of Half Dome.

With four days you can hike up to Half Dome.  If you have five days, hike up to Glacier Point on the 4 Mile Trail and take the Pohono Trail to Inspiration Point, seeing Sentinel Dome, Taft Point, the Fissures, and Dewey Point along the way.  With six days, build in a day to let your body recover, or hike around on the trails in the west end of the valley. 

And if you have a full week to immerse yourself in the glories of the valley, hike up to Clouds Rest.

If you don't want to do any hiking, simply wander around the valley, sit in scenic places, and watch and listen to the valley go about its daily life.  As the sun moves over the mountains, all the granite features change their appearances.  Day trips to Tuolumne Meadows, Mono Lake, and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias are also well worth the effort.

Whatever time you have, if you can be in a meadow for sunrise and sunset, and again at night to watch the stars, you will count yourself blessed.  Even the scent of the pine-scented air is enough to knock you off your feet.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

One Day in Yosemite

It would take an entire summer to see everything in Yosemite, but if you have only one day in the valley, what do you do?  This is what I recommend. 

Start off before dawn in Leidig Meadow and watch the stars give way to the orange and yellow colors of dawn.  You will see deer and probably a few coyotes.  As soon as it is light enough to see the trail, around 5:30 a.m. in the summer, head for the top of Upper Yosemite Fall, pausing at Columbia Rock halfway up the wall to take in the view, as well as to catch your breath.  Arriving at the top two hours after starting off, spend half an hour walking around – go to the bridge that crosses the creek, look up the river channel to see the landscape that gathers the water, then walk to the Fall's overlook and watch the river shoot out over the valley and fall.  Notice how the Lost Arrow attaches to the wall, and scan the crest of the Sierra Nevada range stretching along the horizon.  Head back down, arriving on the valley floor at 10:00 a.m.

Walk to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall and view it from below.  In spring you’ll be pummeled by water hitting the rocks and shooting off horizontally. Hike across the meadow to Sentinel Bridge, pausing to look at Half Dome to the left and Sentinel Rock rising up straight ahead.  Continue on to Curry Village, following the path along the river for most of the way.  From Curry proceed to Happy Isles and head up the John Muir Trail toward Vernal Fall.  It will now be around noon.  A short ways up, a bend on the trail has a clear view of Glacier Point and reclusive Illilouette Fall.  Shortly after the footbridge with its great view of Vernal Fall, the trail splits with the Mist Trail going left and the John Muir Trail going right.  Take the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Fall and look for rainbows.  Notice the Emerald Pool and the Silver Apron just above Vernal, and continue on to Nevada Fall.  At the top of Nevada, have lunch in the sun, look carefully at the jointing in Liberty Cap and Mt. Broderick and wonder why the glaciers didn’t break them down and carry them away with all of the fracture lines they have.  Notice how different Half Dome looks from the backside.  At 2:30 p.m. head back down, taking the John Muir Trail this time with its view of Nevada Fall from a higher elevation.

Arriving back in the valley around 4 p.m., take the shuttle to your car and head for El Capitan.  From El Capitan Meadow let the grandeur of this granite monolith overwhelm you.  Look for climbers on the rock; they are the colored dots.  Drive around the bend to Bridalveil Fall and walk up to its viewpoint.  Drive up to the Inspiration Point parking lot and gaze up the length of the valley and take in the wonder.  Then drive to Glacier Point, arriving around 7 p.m. to watch the sunset color the mountains in the rose and purple of alpenglow.

If you come in winter, you won’t be able to do everything on this list because there won’t be enough light to start hiking until later, it will get darker earlier, and some of the trails going up the walls and canyons will probably be covered with ice or buried under snow.

And if you're not up for a day stuffed with hiking, or you can't get into the valley before 9 a.m., or it’s winter, then just hike the Vernal/Nevada trail at a leisurely pace.  And when you’re on top, take more time to explore the area behind Half Dome.  When you come back down, walk across the valley to the Indian Caves.  A large flat rock near the main cave has holes worn into it where the Ahwahneechees ground acorns for food. Walk on to Washington Column and the Royal Arches, looking for climbers going up, and visit the grand Ahwahnee Hotel.  Another grinding rock is along the trail by the parking lot.  If you want to watch deer, the meadow by the Church Bowl is a good place to sit.

A quieter alternative to the rush of all this activity is to find a couple of natural settings that appeal to you (like Happy Isles, Mirror Meadow, the bend on the river by Rixon’s Pinnacle) and stay in each place for a couple of hours, watching the valley change around you as the sun moves over the mountains.  Discover what animals and birds call that part of the valley home, and feel yourself drawing close to nature.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

June News

A new review of my Yosemite book appears on Amazon, written by nature writer, Lisa Knopp, who lives in Nebraska and is the author of What the River Carries: Encounters with the Mississippi, Missouri, and Platte (University of Missouri Press, 2012).

I’m back from hiking in the Beartooth Mountains and giving a reading at the book store in Red Lodge, Montana.  Recently I gave a book reading at the Peoria Public Library and talked to the Sierra Club about Yosemite and ecology.  I also bounced up to Wisconsin to give a presentation on poetry at the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha.

And a recommendation from Marty Olney in California: 

"I've just finished reading our friend Mark Liebenow's book Mountains of Light: Seasons of Reflection in Yosemite. Read it. Buy it for a friend (which I'm about to do). Read it in your book group. Devote a church study group to it. I think this review from the book cover says it best: "This is a book of a hero's journey--of a journey deep into the wilderness of our hearts among the wild flowing rivers we try to navigate in the face of pain, the glacial movement of recovering from tragic loss. It's about how when we listen to the gifts of nature we can find deep spiritual power; we can find grace. This is a beautiful book." It is indeed beautiful."

As you read Mountains of Light, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to write.

thanks, Mark

Readers Update for May

I met with a book club that chose my book for this month’s reading. We had a lively discussion about Yosemite, how each of us draws close to nature, and their concern that on some of my adventures I might have taken a few too many risks.  Perhaps.  But after one makes one wrong decision in the middle of a long hike, one almost has to make another risky decision in order to get back to safety.

Good reviews continue to come in.  I noticed this one the other day.  A friend in California loved the book and gave it to one of her friends. He loved it and posted the following at Amazon:

“It is lovely to discover a newborn classic, especially when sent as a gift unlooked-for, out of nowhere, with no prior contact with the author or story. In the narrative tradition of John Muir, but suggestive of the more explicitly metaphorical images of the Robert Frost or Annie Dillard, Liebenow's poetics and meaning match in a way that includes the reader in an experience of congruence, rather than offering a passing nostalgia. The simple ritual of reading Mountains of Light brings the reader into the experience of parallel journeys, often divided into "inner" and "outer" life, such that the usual practice of estranging the two becomes less and less possible. Faithful to the best of nature writing, Liebenow writes naturally, "dissolving the boundaries" so that the organic mutuality of being a creature and alive warms the everyday while opening a door to an understanding of what hurts most, uplifts, challenges, and opens the eyes of the heart to see that "Grace collects on the mountain peaks in the high country and flows down the Merced Canyon into the valley as fog..." This kind of reading experience is not just recommended, it is essential.”
                                                                        Brandon Williamscraig

I’m grateful when people like the book enough to tell others.  This is the best recommendation that an author can hope for.

Developments in April

With the talented help of my nephew, Kevin Hall, I created a video trailer for my Yosemite book and posted it on YouTube.  (You can see it by clicking on the link on the right side of this page.)  It uses my photographs and words, and has elegant music in the background composed by Lindsay Adler. 

The Wisconsin State Journal also interviewed me.  It’s more of a profile on me than a review of the book, but I’m grateful.  They also used some of my Yosemite photos.  You can read the article by clicking on this link:

Friday, April 27, 2012

Yosemite Readings

I’ve been giving a number of readings for my Yosemite book.  While I like to talk about nature and how the book came to be, I’ve really been enjoying the questions that people ask at the end, as well as sharing what they love about Yosemite and the outdoors.  The questions encourage me to go further in my thinking.  For example, I mentioned that when I hike I write my thoughts and observations in a pocket notebook.  Then around the evening campfire, I transfer these notes into a larger journal, adding in the details before I forgot them.  I also reflect on the day’s encounters.  At the reading in Chillicothe, Gail asked if my writing about nature changed my experience of nature.  It’s a good question.  I will think on this.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

River Thoughts

In a favorite area of Yosemite, I like to sit by a bend in the Merced River and watch the reflection of Half Dome glow on the water. A slight breeze causes the surface of the slow moving river to ripple slightly, making Half Dome flicker.  A line creases the river’s surface where an underwater sand bar ends and the river drops down to a rocky bottom. The trees reflecting on the surface of the water shimmer with the water's movement.  Looking deeper, I see leaves fluttering on the river's bed, moving not to the movement of the air but to the current of the water.

Is the reflection of Half Dome on the water more real than the reflection of light on Half Dome?  Without the light, I would not see Half Dome at all.  When I see love on the smiling face of my beloved, is that a reflection or real? 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

One Hundred Year Flood

Fifteen years ago, in the winter of 1996-97, Yosemite Valley had a 100-year flood, and the damage was great enough to the road and the infrastructure that the valley was closed for months.  When I could get in, I hiked the length of the valley, from the east end to the west, surveying the damage.

The bridge crossing Tenaya Creek above Mirror Meadow is down, washed away like most of the other footbridges in this area.  I reach the other side by stepping across boulders in the stream.  The trail that went along the river bank is gone.

In many places the water is red-orange, indicating the presence of iron.  There is an actual "Iron Spring" below the lower pool of Mirror Lake that colors the water there, but this coloring is new since the flood and starts just below where Snow Creek joins in.  The pine trees in the middle section of Tenaya's landscape are dying out, whether this is due to the change in the river's route, damage from the flood, the new presence of iron in the water, an infestation of insects made possible by the environmental changes, or all of the above.  It's an example of how changing one element in nature creates a ripple effect throughout the ecosystem.

The new stream route flows over clean, white granite.  The accumulated detritus of decades, as well as the soil that built up over the years, have been swept away by the flood.  Trees that used to line the river bank now stand in the middle of a beach of white granite sand.

The riverbed going into Mirror Meadow has been altered from a quiet, pastoral scene to something that resembles the torn-up delta below Yosemite Falls.  Furrows have been dug through its broad plain, and boulders line the new river banks, pushed to the side by the surging water.  Footbridges that managed to stay intact now have no trails leading to them or from.

Below Mirror Meadow the river bank eroded away to such an extent that the main metal footbridge across collapsed into the flood and was swept away.  At this end of the valley, the flood took shortcuts over bends in the river and swept away the Upper and Lower River Campgrounds.

In the middle of the valley, the meadows are buried under a foot of granite sand and look like a wasteland.  The place on the river bank where I used to sit and listen to the water ouzel play in the water and watch the colors of the sunset spread across the sky are gone.  The cabins below the Lodge were destroyed.

At the Cathedral beach area down by El Capitan, the flood shifted the river 150 feet away, leaving a massive gravel sandbar behind.  On the bend, a large section of the forest was eroded away by the power of the water, and trees were tossed into the woods like unwanted toys.

At Valley View in the west end, where the canyon walls come together and the river leaves the valley, the rushing water compressed.  Everything being carried along in the water battered the trunks of the trees, taking out chunks of bark.  Further down the canyon, the river washed out the river road.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Yosemite Artists and Writers - part two

Although any kind of photography does well in Yosemite, black and white photography succeeds particularly well because it captures the dynamics of the granite.  Charles Weed was the first photographer, taking pictures for Hutchings in 1859.  Carleton E. Watkins, 1860s, used a mammoth-plate camera to try and capture the mammoth dimensions of the park.  Eadweard Muybridge, 1860s, took stereoscopic pictures and was preoccupied with the debris that collected at the bottom of waterfalls and along the rivers.  In the 1880s George Fiske put people into landscape photography. 

Ansel Adams reclaimed a place of honor for black & white photography beginning in the 1920s.  Galen Rowell, 1970s, set the stage for the mountaineering photographer.  Current photographers include Keith Walklet, Jeff Grandy, Christine Lober, Ted Orland, and William Neill. 

Video photography came of age in the 1990s, blending moving images with narration and music for stunning presentations.  Some of the people involved are Sterling Johnson, Dennis Burkhard, and Jon Else.  Shelden Neill and Colin Delehanty are currently in the midst of Project Yosemite, recording time-lapse photography of the valley.

Musicians who have been inspired by Yosemite include Rick Erlien, Siegfried Benkman, Jeff Victor, Dylan Anton, and Shira Kammen.

In the area of drama, Lee Stetson often performs as John Muir.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Ostrander Hut - Solitude

In a back issue of The Yosemite Journal that I find lying around at Yosemite’s Visitors Center, Howard Weamer writes about the Ostrander Hut that is in the area behind Glacier Point.  The Hut is ten miles out in the backcountry and in winter is accessible only by cross-country skiers.  Weamer was its caretaker and host for a good many years, and writes of the wide-ranging discussions that would go on into the night between people of different backgrounds.  He also mentions the need for solitude that was often expressed by his visitors: "those who welcome it are assumed to have attained something special."

This phrase stays with me.  Does being comfortable with solitude mean that we have arrived at our goal of attaining solitude?  Is there nothing more that happens once we have arrived?  What about self exploration?  Does this happen only in solitude or do our discoveries about ourselves lead us deeper into solitude?  Being able to be alone with yourself shows an acceptance of solitude.  But it is also in solitude that we sort things out, drop useless habits, limiting conceptions and traditions, and become more focused on life and where we want to go.  Certainly solitude is good for restoring our sense of balance, but it can also be transforming.  Attaining solitude means slowing down enough not only to see the trees shimmering in the afternoon sunlight, but to see them differently.

The beauty and natural silence overwhelm me here....  How do you ask people, though, to walk into the trees and listen to ... nothing?"                        Joe Evans

It is not easy to get people to sit still and listen to the world around them.  And when we do stop our activities and listen to the silence of the trees, are we listening with them as they commune with nature, or are we listening to their sounds in the silence, hoping to reach the place where we can finally hear them?  Every time the breeze picks up the sugar pines hum.  My mind jumps to the song "I Talk to the Trees" that Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin sang in the western movie, Paint Your Wagon, but as I sing the lyrics myself and start touching trees, I begin to laugh and lose track of my thoughts for a moment.

Being able to appreciate solitude says in great measure that we have arrived, although we may not realize how deep this appreciation goes.  So if we appreciate solitude, then we, in some significant way, already have it, although much can still happen within this place.

As caretaker of the Hut, Weamer found that he often had to answer the same questions with each group that came in, and he tried, as with the Buddhist's bell, to speak and be heard as clearly on the fiftieth ring as on the first.  He discovered his impatience and, in solitude, learned to let go of his pride.  I would think that he also learned how to answer better, more tuned into the nuances of how those same questions were asked.  People do not always say what they mean, and sometimes they do not know what they mean.

Today I walk on the trail going along Tenaya Creek to a place of solitude in an isolated corner of Tenaya Canyon above Mirror Lake.  The water is low and boulders in the river are meditating in the still water.  I wanted to come here early, get away from the bustle of people and activities, and spend time in quiet, letting a sense of balance and vision return.  But it's already midday, the sun is warm, and the water is so low that it isn't reflecting anything.  I move on, trusting the spirit to lead me to another quiet place.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

John Westlake, Rock Climber

John was one of the adventurous youth who climbed mountains in Yosemite in the 1960s, the Golden Age of climbing in the valley.  Although he camped with many climbers, including those would go on to become famous, he seldom climbed with them.  In those days, people lived in Camp 4 for months at a time as they expanded the limits of climbing.  They were climbing everywhere, trying to see what was possible, and attempting to create new routes up Sentinel Rock, the Leaning Tower, Washington Column, and the Lost Arrow.  The big walls of El Capitan and Half Dome were looked at longingly and with awe, but dismissed as unclimbable. 

John was in high school then, sometimes skipping classes in Berkeley to head for Yosemite to climb.  This was in the days before new techniques and innovative gear brought a measure of safety.  Just to climb in Yosemite required a huge amount of physical energy and courage. Then a few people took on the sheer granite monoliths of El Capitan and Half Dome.  Warren Harding laid siege to El Capitan for months, setting lines and putting in bolts, coming down at night to rest, and taking time off to plan the next segment.  He finally made it up.  Others tried their luck and began to stay on the rock, hauling their gear with them.  Today the climb to the top of El Cap is a 4-7 day event, depending what part of the rock you are attempting.  Some daredevils will go up in a single day without using any aids.

One day John realized that he had to climb El Capitan.  Months before the actual climb, he stood in the meadow looking up at that massive monolith, saw where he would start, where he would end, and figured out the line he would follow, and where he would need to put his hands and his feet all the way up the 3000 foot face of the rock.  By the time he started climbing, he knew what he would do. 

Everything did not go as planned, because from thousands of feet away it's hard to tell if a crack the size of your finger actually continues upwards or simply ends.  Rudimentary pitons and bolts provided the security.  This was before spring-loaded cams and gri-gris that adjusted on their own to the width of cracks were available.  John and the other climbers jammed odd pieces of metal found in junkyards into cracks, attached a rope, and hoped they held.  Yvon Chouinard, Royal Robbins, and a few others were beginning to create their own security pieces in blacksmith shops and spawned a new generation of gear. 

Sometimes the cracks did end, stranding John with nothing to hold on to, and nowhere upward to go.  Then he had to try a number of alternatives.  Sometimes he climbed back down and headed up at a different angle.  Sometimes he would swing on the end of his rope like a pendulum and catch hold of another crack forty feet to the side, secure himself and continue on, hoping to reconnect with the route he had carefully laid out.  A couple of times he had to unclip himself from his safety rope and walk delicately along a ledge barely an inch wide, trying to maintain enough contact with the rock with his fingertips, knees, and feet to keep him on the side of the mountain, trying to make his body a suction cup.

He climbed with others on the nine days it took to reach the top.  Some days they were only able to move up fifty feet, and it was easy to get depressed.  There were times when tempers flared, nerves frayed under the constant pressure of serious consequences if a mistake was made, and the shock and frustration they felt when they fell 80 feet and were yanked back by their ropes and slammed against the mountain.  They yelled at each other more frequently as the days went on and they grew more tired.  But they were tied together on a common rope, and knew that they would succeed or fail as a group. Working together, and sharing their visions and strengths, they eventually reached the top.  Getting up was only part of their goal.  The hard journey of finding a way to work together through the difficult stretches, and the simple joy of climbing, were why they risked their lives.

John would later climb Half Dome and the rest of the big routes in the valley.  Today some of his fingers are permanently bent from injuries he suffered from wedging his fingers into cracks and pulling himself up, and a light comes on in his eyes when he talks about those years. 

Today he loves to hike in the Sierra, especially on the eastern side.  As he puts it, “There is a certain joy that I experience when I look upon Conness from Saddlebag Lake with my silver-haired companion.  The solitude of early morning mist rising from the water, the call of Clark's Nutcrackers, the scurrying of Alpine Chipmunks and the taste of fresh-brewed coffee.   These things I can share on an Autumn morning.  I have a much stronger feeling now for the Sierra than I did in my teens, a spirituality that I missed.  Maybe as Leopold would say, "I was young then and full of trigger itch,” not stopping to look at what was around me. Only wanting to get to the top of a cliff but missing the mountain it was on.”

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Yosemite Artists & Writers - part one

Yosemite has long inspired people to be creative, from the purity of line in Chiura Obata's watercolors to the design of buildings like the Ahwahnee Hotel that blend in with the landscape.  Art is a natural expression of those who are surrounded by the wonders of nature, who seek not to create a work of art that is simply different but to create something that helps them understand what they are experiencing and to share this with others. The following is a list of the art forms involved, with a few of the notable people working in each.

The early painters and artists of Yosemite focused on the grand scale of the park, finding it hard to believe that such a wilderness place existed, even though they were looking right at it.  They found it harder to convince others.  Thomas Ayres made the first Yosemite sketches in 1855.  Albert Bierstadt, beginning in 1863, used light in his paintings for dramatic effect, and moved a few mountains around to help direct the mood.  William Keith, 1860s, painted more literally after a trip with John Muir, recording the scene like a photographer.  Thomas Hill, 1860s, used a style that was a blend of Bierstadt and Keith. 

Painters coming after them focused on smaller, more intimate scenes, partially because all the big panoramas had already been painted.  In the 1920s William Zorach introduced an avant garde style, and in the 1930s Obata began a series of striking watercolor pictures showing Japanese influences.  He came after seeing the series of woodblock prints that Hiroshi Yoshida made of Yosemite.  Ellen Frank Chan, 1980s and Hong Leung, 1990s (lithograph), also included Asian dynamics in their art.  Jane Gyer (1960s-2004) worked with watercolors and scratchboard.  An exhibit in Yosemite in 1985 displayed many different styles of painting.

The early writers tended to focus on the physical wonders of Yosemite and the people who lived there.  Lafayette Bunnell, in 1851, recorded early descriptions of Yosemite and the Ahwahnechees.  James Hutchings published a national magazine extolling the valley.   John Muir wrote articles and books detailing his adventures, his studies of glacial action, and his concern for protecting the wilderness.  Galen Clark compiled three books on Yosemite history in the 1890s.  In the 1930s Francois Matthes wrote the definitive study on Yosemite's geology, The Incomparable Valley.

The poetry written in the late 1800s, as with the painting of the period, tended to be more about reading grand images of humanity and divinity into the landscape than anything specific about Yosemite.  In the 1950s Gary Snyder joined a trail crew in the park.  One night, while sitting under a juniper tree near Paiute Creek, letting the presence of the Sierra sink into him, he found his voice as a poet.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Merced River Meditations

The Merced River is one medium of solitude in Yosemite Valley, a place where one’s thoughts and feelings can be pondered and explored.  I return to the river after my hike -- after the walking meditation with the mountains, the listening conferences at the waterfalls, and the conversations with the forests along the trails.  Coming back to the river, I deepen the meditations begun, and connect them with the ongoing meditation of life.

In front of where I’m sitting, a line of dark boulders cuts across the light-colored sandy bottom of the river, looking like an underwater Zen rock garden with only one boulder showing above the water.  It's a contemplative scene.  In this situation one could ask any question that comes to mind and hear a response.  Perhaps:  "How is this scene before me like life?"  Then listen for the answers that come and think about the response that startles you the most.  Follow that train of thought until you see how it applies to your life.

Opportunities for meditation are all around us.  That one boulder sticking up in the middle of a perfectly still stream gives a true reflection of itself.  It shows what it is because the peacefulness of the river allows it.  But when the river rages around the rock during a storm, the wholeness of the self is lost, with only the part above the surface of the river visible.  Little of what is engaging the water beneath is seen, even to the rock.

One can meditate on any scene, such as the one to my right of a calm river running by with colored patches of leaves on the river bottom, white granite rocks on the opposite shore with long tufts of green grass growing out in bunches, and bushes behind that.  Sound good?  This spot is next to a busy road.  But one meditates because one is ready and with what is there.  Something will call us deeper into meditation.  Every scene has a secret that is waiting to be discovered by someone.  Everything can teach us something about eternity.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Yosemite Nature Notes

Steller's jays are related to the eastern blue jay and to Clark's nutcracker, which is black and white.  Go figure.

In the late 1800s Sir Joseph Hooker said he had never seen a coniferous forest that rivaled the Sierra's because of the grandeur of its individual trees and the number of its species. 

The prime growing area for the ponderosa pine is in the Sierra. 

Incense cedars and sugar pines are California trees. 

The gold cup oak is also known as the canyon live oak. 

There are two tree problems for Yosemite.  Black oaks need fire to thrive, which they don't often get, and they love moist earth.  Cedars and pines like dry earth and are suffering root-rot because of ground moisture. When the settlers drained the swamps in the valley, pine trees began replacing the oaks.

Coyotes mate for life.

Mountain lion kittens are born from April to August.

The Western fence lizard is the one that does the pushups.

The western gray squirrel stays under the oak trees, and in autumn buries its food in many small holes.  This leaves the conifer forests to the Douglas squirrel, which buries its food all in one place.

Male deer travel around in "bachelor" pods most of the year.

I had been thinking that a "quidoquidoquido" sound in the trees was being made by a squirrel.  But I found a Steller's jay making it; finally something pleasant to go with its irritating "squawk."

Monday, January 23, 2012

Snow Falling Along the Merced River

Snow begins falling while I'm sitting by the river that winds its way through the middle of Yosemite Valley.  Birds splashing in the water along its edges don't seem to notice, although some begin to play with a little more excitement.  The large flakes quickly change the landscape, covering the rocks and trees, and unifying everything in a common blanket of white.  My thoughts turn to the Ahwanechee who used to live in this valley.  Did Chief Tenaya's band gather inside their shelters during heavy snowstorms to share stories, traditions, and concerns?  Or did they go out and play?

I think of friends and their struggles with illness, poverty, failed vocations, or troubled relationships.  I sense that if we all lived here our sorrows would not strike as deeply because our community would be close by to share the burden.  Our expectations would be simple -- to live this day as best we could.  Living in harmony with nature, our basic needs of food and shelter would be met. 

Black Hawk, chief of the Sauk and Fox, spoke of this sense of community:

We always had plenty; our children never cried from hunger, neither were our people in want....   The rapids of Rock River furnished us with an abundance of excellent fish, and the land being very fertile, never failed to produce good crops of corn, beans, pumpkins, and squashes....   Here our village stood for more than a hundred years in the Mississippi Valley.  Our village was healthy and there were no better hunting grounds.

The call of a Steller’s jay brings me back to the storm.  I must have been thinking for some time because now I'm covered with two inches of snow.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Quotes to Ponder

The landscape of one’s home is always sacramental. It molds our character and it’s the soil out of which we grow. It’s where we either encounter the divine or we never make the connection. -- Seamus Heaney

If you have no relationship with nature, you have no relationship with humanity. -- Krishnamurti

The upshot is that if we don’t connect to the landscape where we grew up, then we won’t be able to nurture relationships with others. We won’t believe in a higher power but think that we know what’s best for everything. And we won’t care about what happens to the environment and will regard trees as only wood for building houses and rivers as conduits for getting water to our homes and factories.

If we don’t connect to nature, then we will exploit the land, each other, and religion in order to make money. And when we die, we will be alone, depressed by the too-late realization of our limitations, and closed up in hermetically-sealed rooms.

Send your children outdoors to play before they become bitter.