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.