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MEMORIES AND GENERATIONS

Getting older has its advantages, and one of them is that our store of memories grows. Often all it takes to turn them on is something that returns us to a long-ago place or time. Recently, I ran across a book that did just that – it took me back to the time when I (along with much of the rest of my baby-boomer generation) discovered the joys of adventuring in the out-of-doors.

I had not seen a copy of the volume for many years, but I recognized it immediately when I ran across it. For a few short years the book was everywhere. It came out in multiple formats – both paperback and hardcover, and even in hardcover edition that came in a slipcover. The book was a best seller – you could find a copy in nearly every college dorm room.

Readers of a certain age by now know the volume I am writing about – On the Loose, by brothers Jerry and Renny Russell. It came out from Sierra Club Books in 1967.

To this day, I’ve never seen anything else quite like it. The entire book – some 120 pages – was printed in a way that reproduced the original hand-written calligraphic style in which it was composed. Much of the text consisted of quotes from an eclectic collection of writers – everyone from Mark Twain to Melville and James Joyce, but short essays from the two brothers appeared too, along with over a hundred of their photos.

As for the pictures, here is what the authors had to say: “The photographs in this book are of the lowest fidelity obtainable. They are as far from the photographer’s vision as cheap cameras, mediocre film, and drugstore processing could make them.”

So, you will now ask – what was this hand-lettered book with its poor photographs about and what made it so wildly popular?

On the Loose was – I can use no other word – a “paean” to the beauty of the Western American landscape and the joy of wandering freely through that landscape.

Looking up the world paean on the web, I find the definition of “a song or lyric poem expressing triumph or thanksgiving.” And that’s exactly what the book was.

For a few short years in the early 1960s, brothers Terry and Renny Russell explored the iconic places that define the West. They hiked the High Sierra; camped in the remote backcountry of Death Valley; sought out forgotten tide pools along the Pacific littoral; wandered through the maze-like canyons of the red-rock country of Utah.

Everywhere they discovered beauty.

Overwhelmed by the fragility of what they found, they began drafting their own plea to the world around them to appreciate and protect all these special places. In the spring of 1965, older brother Terry finished composing his unique manuscript and took it to family friend David Brower, then executive director of the Sierra Club. Several months later, while floating the Colorado River, the brothers’ raft overturned and Terry drowned. The book came out a year later. It was both a celebration and a memorial.

More than any other book of its time, On the Loose captured the excitement about wild places that pulsed through young people in those years.

The generation that came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s connected with wilderness in a way that no succeeding generation has done. By the middle 1970s, wilderness use in the High Sierra reached its all-time high point in terms of user numbers.

Today, nowhere near as many people are on the trails, and quite a few of those who are out there are stubborn baby-boomers, still on the trail after all these years. I’m one of them.

Like everyone else I knew, I had a copy of On the Loose when I was young. My original copy disappeared long ago, but the values it promoted lived on not only in my life, but also in those of many of my friends. That is why finding a copy of the book recently sent me spinning back into my own youthful memories of wilderness and adventure.

On the Loose helped define a generation. For some of us, those hand-lettered pages still send us to dreaming about places we have yet to go. Such is the power of books.

© Wm. Tweed

SEARCHING FOR THE SOUTHERN SIERRA

I found myself in an interesting conversation the other day, one that almost turned into a spirited argument. The question: where exactly is the “Southern Sierra?”

Since the 19th century, it has been common practice to divide the Sierra Nevada into three regions – northern, central, and southern. This makes sense because of the linear nature of the range. It is nearly 400 miles from one end of the Sierra to the other, and the various segments of the mountains possess strikingly different characters.

Past practice guides much of this thought. The first sightings of the Sierra Nevada by Euro-Americans in the eighteenth century took place from the hilltops immediately east of San Francisco Bay. The California Gold Rush that began in 1849 focused attention on the same region.

As a result, the Sierra Nevada was initially defined as being the snowy mountains visible to the east of the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta. And by default, what was north of that region became the “Northern Sierra,” while the region out of sight to the south became the “Southern Sierra.” No formal definitions were required.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and the definitions remain vague. All agree that it is useful to break the range into regions, but defining the frontiers that separate the three zones is largely a matter of personal opinion.

If one accepts the traditional definition of the Sierra Nevada as a whole – that it runs from Lassen Peak in the north to Tehachapi Pass in the south — the mathematical midpoint of the range falls almost exactly upon Yosemite Valley. Continuing with this same mathematical logic, the southern third of the Sierra begins at the Kings River while the northern third starts near Echo Summit, where US 50 crosses the Sierra Crest just west of South Lake Tahoe.

These divisions make logical sense, but few recognize them. The National Weather Service, for example, includes all of Yosemite National Park in its forecasts for the Southern Sierra. By this logic the Southern Sierra is larger than the central and northern portions of the range put together.

Popular usage also suggests that nothing south of Interstate 80 (Donner Pass) falls within the Northern Sierra, although this makes the northern “third” of the range notably smaller than the other two sections.

Looking closer to home, the Kings River is not a bad dividing line between the central and southern portions of the range. This major watercourse is the southernmost Sierra river to flow directly westward from the Sierra Crest to the Great Central Valley.

To the south of the Kings River, the Sierra takes on a significantly different form with a double crest and a very different drainage pattern. The Kaweah and Tule Rivers originate on the peaks of the Great Western Divide, the more westerly of the two ridges, while the Kern River comes to lire behind that ridge and flows southward some 60 miles to Lake Isabella before it finally heads for Bakersfield and the floor of the Central Valley.

Following this logic, the natural dividing line between the central and southern Sierra ought to be Kings-Kaweah and Kings-Kern divides, which, as the names suggest, separate the headwaters of the Kings River from the watersheds to the south.

This makes perfect topographic sense, but we humans are not particularly famous for our consistent logic. All the Sierra Nevada people that I know place the Kings River within the Southern Sierra.

So, seeking some form of resolution here: what if we define the “Southern Sierra” as including all the territory drained by the Kings, Kaweah, Tule, and Kern Rivers? North of that, the “Central Sierra” runs to Donner Pass, which coincides with the northern end of the continuous high alpine zone with its barren peaks. Beyond that is the “Northern Sierra.”

These definitions work on the ground and reflect visible differences between the three regions. But are they likely to be universally adopted any time soon? Don’t hold your breath.

But just maybe, if we stop describing Yosemite as being part of the Southern Sierra, we will have a more accurate sense of just where we live within the topographic complexity that defines the Golden State.

© Wm. Tweed

SNOWSHOES AND SKIS

We humans have a love/hate relationship with snow. It all depends on where one lives.

Those who live where snow occurs with some regularity – a zone that covers the great majority of the United States – often hold little affection for the frozen white stuff that falls from the sky. To many it is just a seasonal hassle.

Those who live in locales where snow is rare — or even nonexistent — can afford to appreciate it a bit more. The residents of Tulare County fall into this latter category. Snow for most of us is something remote that we can enjoy if, when, and how we wish.

I was pondering all this the other day after I drove up to Giant Forest in search of a little winter recreation. There, I put on my cross-country skis and headed out over fifteen inches of snow along the unplowed summer road that leads to Crescent Meadow.

I’ve been cross-country skiing since the late 1970s, and it has long been one of my favorite forms of exercise. On a good day, the pleasure of gliding smoothly across the surface of fresh snow brings an exhilaration that is hard to exaggerate. And when the snow is icy and not so good, well, it’s still nice to be out in the woods.

Like many other baby-boomer outdoor pastimes, cross-country skiing has fallen in popularity in recent years. I still meet other skiers on the trail, but not as many as I used to. Instead, I meet folks using snowshoes.

In the same decades that have seen cross-county skiing decline in popularity, we have witnessed a true renaissance in snowshoeing. By any measure, the popularity of the sport has now reached an all-time high.

Both skiing and snowshoeing have long histories.

What we now call skiing developed several thousand years ago in northern Europe. Archaeologists have uncovered skis three to five thousand years old at Scandinavian and Russian sites.

Snowshoeing apparently developed in central Asia at an even earlier date than skiing developed in northern Europe.

Eventually, both forms of snow travel made their ways to North America. Snowshoes came first. The people who first settled our continent brought snowshoes with them as they crossed the Bering Straits.

By the time Europeans arrived in North American several thousand years later, the native people of our continent had perfected a wide variety of snowshoe designs, each adapted to different conditions and needs. Many of these designs are still in use today.

Skis came later — as you might guess – arriving on our continent with northern European immigrants in the past few hundred years.

Both skis and snowshoes are attempts to adapt the human foot for travel in soft, deep snow. As anyone who has wallowed in snow can confirm, human feet are too small for efficient over-snow travel. Instead we must make our feet larger – hence the logic of both snowshoes and skis.

Most folks agree that snowshoeing is the easier of the two sports to learn. No particular skill is required to get started, but travel in soft snow can still be very strenuous. Skis reverse the equation; one needs better skills but uses less energy.

The rise of snowshoeing in recent decades reflects both the low skill level required to get started in the sport and a revolution in snowshoe design. Beginning in the early 1970s, a new generation of snowshoes appeared that were made of aluminum and synthetic webbing instead of wood and leather. These new designs were much lighter and thus much easier to use.

Returning this column to where we started: one of the joys of living in Tulare Country is that we can enjoy snow when we wish but don’t have to live in it. On clear winter days, the snowpack that clothes the Sierra Nevada can be plainly visible from Visalia, and getting up to that snow is surprisingly easy.

Our local national parks have marked winter trails, and snowshoes and/or skis can be rented at several locations including the Wuksachi and Montecito-Sequoia lodges.

Give it a try. Maybe I’ll meet you on the trail sometime soon.

© Wm. Tweed

A CENTENNIAL

We humans love “round numbers,” and few figures resonate as well with us as an even century. A centennial, it seems, is always a good time to look back at something or someone.

This coming week, on Christmas Eve, we arrive at such a date. On December 24, 1914, the man who may well be the most famous historical figure in California history died at the age of 76 years. I speak of John Muir.

I base the claim for fame on the long-acknowledged fact that more California things and places are named for Muir than any other figure. I’ve explored this turf before in other columns, but suffice it to say here that Muir’s name can be found on everything from schools, hospitals, and city parks to grand features like 14,000-foot Mt. Muir in the Sierra Nevada and the John Muir Trail.

For the last third of his, life Muir made his home on a large fruit ranch near Martinez, which he co-owned with his wife, Louie. But that is not where he died. Surprisingly, the famous naturalist passed away in Los Angeles.

By 1914, Muir was living alone in the big family house at Martinez. His wife had died in 1905, and both his daughters were now grown women living far from home.

Louie Strenzel Muir had died of pneumonia and, like her father, daughter Helen Muir also suffered from what were then called “weak lungs.” Two years after his wife’s death, Muir settled his younger daughter in the desert town of Daggett a few miles east of Barstow. There she prospered in the dry air.

Muir was close to both his daughters, and he visited Helen often at her desert home. This was easy to do because both Martinez and Daggett were stations on the transcontinental main line of the Santa Fe Railway. Muir actually had a railroad station on his ranch – called “Muir,” of course – and he could board the trains there, just a short stroll from his home.

In December 1914, Muir made the journey to Daggett for what would turn out to be the last time. He had been working hard on the book that would be published after his death as Travels in Alaska, and on December 21st, he boarded the southbound train that he hoped would take him to desert sunshine and Christmas with his daughter.

Arriving in Daggett the following morning, Muir received a warm welcome from his daughter but not from the desert itself. A cold, northern storm had swept eastern California several days earlier and left the region under the sway of a frigid air mass. On the morning of the 22nd, dawn temperatures on the northern fringe of the Mojave Desert fell to almost zero.

Anxious to get out of doors, Muir nevertheless took a walk the next day with his daughter, but by evening it was apparent that the cold wind had reactivated a lung infection that had been plaguing him for some time. The local doctor came to Helen’s house, listened to Muir’s lungs, and pronounced that the naturalist had double pneumonia.

That evening, Muir was carried to another Santa Fe train, this one running to Los Angeles, and later that night he was admitted as a patient at the California Hospital in downtown Los Angeles. And there, within twenty-four hours, he died.

The next morning – Christmas Day — the Los Angeles Times announced that: “All living things have lost a friend… John Muir, apostle of the Wild, is dead.”

Muir’s death generated obituaries in newspapers across the nation, and now, a century later, the centennial of his passing is stirring up a fresh wave of comment. Such moments provide an opportunity for voicing contrary opinions, and UCLA historian Jon Christensen has gone so far as to dismiss Muir as hopelessly out of date with modern, multi-cultural California.

So is Muir now “irrelevant?” Hardly.

Muir may have failed to anticipate many of the environmental and social problems of the twenty-first century, but that is not the point. He spoke eloquently to the issues of his time, and all of us enjoy still the beautiful places he worked so hard to preserve for us.

More than any other Californian – indeed more than any other American of his time – Muir defined how we still see and appreciate the natural world around us. In that regard, we are all his children.

Join me this holiday in toasting his memory.

© Wm. Tweed

AND NOW WHAT?

 Well, it has finally rained!

 

At my residence in Three Rivers we received over two inches of precipitation last Friday night and early Saturday morning. Looking back through my weather log, we have not had that much rain within a twenty-four-hour period since January 2012.

 

The rain did wonders for my drought-stressed native-plant garden. By the following day I could already see the difference. Drought-withered plants were suddenly perking up. I could find green leaves where I had seen nothing but apparent wilt since June. Even my cactus garden looked happier.

 

Human morale picked up at the same time. My wife and I left a window open Friday night just to listen to the rain. The sound of water falling from the sky did wonders for us too.

 

This leads, of course, to the inevitable question: what does all this mean for the coming winter?  Will we see a shift in our winter weather toward wetter this year? Is our drought going to be washed away by powerful storms?

 

The answer is that no one has any real idea.

 

As you may have read, the National Weather Service issued its winter forecast for the nation several weeks ago. To quote the agency’s news release, NWS scientists are predicting that California will experience “at least a 2 in 3 chance that winter precipitation will be near or above normal….”

 

This sounds encouraging, but let me caution you. Here in California, over the long run, about 40% of our winters fall into the dry category, with the remaining 60% divided equally between average and wet.

 

What this means, if you do the simple math, is that over the past several decades we have had approximately a 60% chance each year of having either an average or  above-average winter. This, of course, is very close to the NWS forecast that we have a 66% chance of such an outcome this winter.

 

That said, allow me to throw a further complication into the mix. The logic of long-term weather forecasting is to study past conditions, find periods that are similar to now, and then expect the same thing to happen this time.

 

This logic makes a big assumption, however. For the same things to happen that happened in the past, then the climate must be the same, and that increasingly is simply not true.

 

California is significantly warmer now than in the recent past. To quote again from the National Weather Service: “2012 and 2013 rank in the top 10 of California’s warmest years on record, and 2014 is shaping up to be California’s warmest year” (ever).

 

And that leads us to the most important question of all: Does climate change make us more susceptible to drought? 

 

In  response, here’s a quote from a recently-published, peer-reviewed (that means serious science) article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society: Using the best scientific models available, the authors concluded “that the human emission of greenhouse gases has very likely TRIPLED (my emphasis) the likelihood of experiencing large-scale atmospheric conditions similar to those observed in 2013” (extreme drought in California).

 

Put another way, the best available science is telling us that we should expect more frequent droughts in coming years.

 

All this science confirms a warning about our weather that your stockbroker may have given you under a somewhat different context — that “past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.”

 

So, in the end, no one really knows what will happen this year. With a warming climate, which has heated the Pacific Ocean adjacent to California notably this fall, and with a mild El Niño apparently still chugging along, all bets are off.

 

In the midst of all this confusion, I’m sticking to the long-term forecast I issue every year about this time – “dry until proven otherwise.” I’ll be very pleased if “otherwise” does assert itself in coming months, but caution remains the best position.

 

And if we plan for dry and find ourselves wrong, wouldn’t that be nice.

 

© Wm. Tweed

 

 

 

 

IN PRAISE OF FALL

We humans can be divided up in many ways and among them is how we react to the different seasons.  Some lament the passing of warm weather while others relish change. I fall in the latter category.

 

Summer can feel endless here in Central California, and as the nights cool and the daytime heat finally fades, I monitor the changes with quiet enthusiasm. Truth be told, I like fall more than most.

 

Autumn does not generate that much affection among my friends. They admit to being glad that the heat of summer is over but otherwise see this season as a dull time of fading light and biological shutting down.

 

By now, we are all noticing how much less daylight each day brings us. A month has passed since we passed the moment when each twenty-four hours sees equal daylight and dark, and now darkness dominates the clock.

 

But there is more to this change than a mere reduction of sunlight hours. At the same time, the angle of the sun is shifting. Each day the sun moves across the sky a bit further to the south, and each day lengthens the autumn shadows on the land.

 

Living as I do in Three Rivers, surrounded by canyons and mountains, I mark this shift with pleasure. High summer here drenches the landscape in bright overhead light; fall light plays out entirely differently.

 

Anyone who takes landscape photographs knows the difference. An old rule of  outdoors photography suggests that most good photos are taken close to either dawn or dusk; that is when the light is “interesting.”  Handsome morning and evening shadows  – with all the beauty they bring – now last for hours on the hills I watch from my house.

 

Much of the biological world outside is shutting down as well. Most of the native plants that grace our foothills lands have long since drifted into near dormancy. The season of growth and fruiting ended months ago. Now, the trees and shrubs that clothe the Sierra,  and the animals that rely on them for sustenance,  simply abide –waiting for winter and the return of moisture.

 

Others lament this quiet fading of nature’s exuberance, but I find it soothing. Perhaps that feeling develops naturally out of a life spent in the semi-arid West. Every cycle needs a quiet period to make it complete.

 

Artists and musicians have long known this. Good images require both light and dark. Music must vary in pace and intensity. Beauty requires contrast.

 

So, if you will, we are now in the quiet part of nature’s annual song. The quiet conveys not sadness but rather resting and preparation for the coming drama of winter and spring. In classical music, a slow adagio movement usually precedes an exciting allegro. Such is also the way of nature.

 

And that’s why I’m enjoying the quiet beauty of autumn here in Tulare County. I trust that you are too.  Now, if only it would rain.

 

© Wm. Tweed

A MODEST PROPOSAL

We humans like high places; mountains always fascinate us. As a result, we like to talk about mountains, and that leads inevitably to the urge to divide these special places into categories.  

 

In our local mountains we seem to have only one category. We call the mountains “fourteeners” that reach above an altitude of 14,000 feet. All the rest of our hundreds of high summits go unclassified.

 

Earlier this summer I ran into a more elaborate system. In the highlands of Scotland, the higher summits are divided by altitude into three categories. Each of these provides a list for those who want to seek out and climb the highest mountains in an area.

 

The mountains of Scotland are not nearly as high as our Sierra Nevada, with the highest being Ben Nevis at 4,409 feet. The Scottish mountains are very far north, however, and above 3,000 feet they are as barren and challenging as our own high country.

 

For this reason, the Scots tend to rank mountains more than 3,000 feet high in a special category. They have a name for them; they call them “Munros.” According to the 2012 list of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, Scotland contains 282 distinct peaks worthy of Munro status.

 

The name comes from Sir Hugh Munro, a founding member of that same mountaineering club.  In 1891, Munro published the first list of Scottish mountains that exceeded 3,000 feet in height. He came up with almost three hundred such summits.  

 

Munro’s list soon evolved into a challenge for Scottish mountaineers, who took to calling these peaks “Munros” in his honor. The first person to climb them all was the Reverend A. E. Robertson, who completed the challenge in 1901. Today, according to the mountaineering club, more than 5,000 people have climbed them all.

 

Soon, two additional categories of mountains appeared in Scotland.  Peaks rising between 2,500 and 3,000 came to be known as Corbetts, and those mountains between 2,000 and 2,500 feet took the title of Grahams. These names, too, celebrated Scottish mountaineers.

 

I bring all this up because I think it might be fun to consider something similar for the Sierra Nevada.  Our mountains are much higher, of course, and we would need to adjust the categories appropriately, but the idea of naming classes of mountains after early mountaineers does seem appropriate.

 

Let’s start with those peaks in the Sierra Nevada that rise above 14,000 feet. These, I propose, might nicely be called “Clydes.” The name comes from Norman Clyde, the Sierra’s all-time master of first ascents. Using this standard, the Sierra would have ten “Clydes.” (Half of these, incidentally, can be found along the eastern boundary of our own Tulare County.)

 

The next category would be summits between 13,000 and 14,000 feet. This list would be longer, running into the dozens of peaks. Following the Scottish logic, I would name these mountains “LeContes” after Joseph N. LeConte, a University of California professor who made the first recreational maps of the High Sierra in the 1890s and spent much of his life climbing Sierra peaks.

 

Our final category would include all those Sierra summits topping out between 12,000 and 13,000 feet. This list would include several hundred peaks, including many dozen locally. I would call these our “Solomons” commemorating Theodore Solomons, who was the first to identify the route that is now followed by the John Muir Trail and another early “peak-bagger.”

 

So, how likely is it that the peaks of the High Sierra are about to be categorized as Clydes, LeContes, and Solomons?   The answer, I am pretty sure, is that this is merely my personal fantasy.

 

But if Scotland can have “Munros, why can’t we have “Clydes?” Certainly, such a name would be more descriptive of our mountaineering heritage than merely calling them “fourteeners?”

 

© Wm. Tweed

A FAMOUS NAME AND A MYSTERY

Interesting questions come my way occasionally, and sometimes the answers surprise me. Here’s a recent example.

 

Back in August, I was asked if I could come up with evidence to “prove” the reliability of the story that is usually told about how the General Sherman Tree of Sequoia National Park obtained its name.  Proving anything historical is always a tricky business, but I promised to look into it.

 

The official story, which has been published in national park publications for many decades, is that the tree was named on August 7, 1879. On that day a cowboy and fur trapper named James Wolverton is reputed to have discovered the tree. The story goes on to state that since this was the biggest tree Wolverton had ever seen, and since he had served under Sherman during the Civil War, Wolverton named the tree after the general, whom he greatly respected.

 

So how does a historian “prove” that a story of this sort is true?  The answer is to seek out contemporary evidence that confirms the story but remain skeptical until such evidence is found. This is what I set out to do.

 

I have always been a little suspicious about the truthfulness of this story. First, the date is just too specific.  Why would a cowboy, camping rough for months at a time, remember the exact date on which he first encountered a particular tree?  It’s not impossible, but somehow it doesn’t feel right.

 

And, if the story is to be believed, why did Wolverton center his attention on this specific tree? Using only the naked eye, several nearby trees look just as large as the General Sherman, including the monarch sequoias now named Lincoln and President. Indeed, modern measurements show these three trees to be relatively close in overall size.

 

So, with more than a little skepticism, I went looking for evidence. Specifically, I sought a written document that could confirm early use of the General Sherman name. In this I struck out. I could not find a single mention of the “General Sherman Tree” in the decade following the tree’s supposed christening in 1879.

 

Congress created Sequoia National Park in 1890, and beginning in 1891, U. S. Army troops came each summer to the new park to protect the trees. As you might expect, these soldiers produced reports and other documents. Surely I would find the Sherman Tree mentioned there.

 

And, after a long search, I eventually did, but not as early as I expected. Not until 1897, in fact, did soldiers first write down the name “General Sherman Tree” in a report. That summer, they documented, they placed a sign on the tree with that name.

 

So, I then asked, could I find any other mention of this tree between 1879 and 1897? That proved easier. Beginning in 1884, a socialist Utopian group known as the Kaweah Colony explored the Giant Forest area with the goal of ultimately logging the area.  The colonists identified the very large tree and gave it a name – “Karl Marx.”

 

When the soldiers arrived in the spring of 1891 to protect the new national park, they expelled from the park those Kaweah colonists who were still present.  Did they also throw out the “Karl Marx” name?  And did those same soldiers also come up after 1890 with a new, military name for the tree? One has to wonder.

 

I pursued my research a bit farther, this time seeking the first reference I could find in print mentioning the James Wolverton connection. To my surprise, I could find nothing earlier than a park guide published in 1921 – a full forty-two years after the supposed event.

 

So where does all this leave us?  Nowhere very clear, I must admit.  There is, as best I can determine, no contemporary evidence to support the 1879 story and in fact the full story does not show up in print until over forty years later – a time lapse that at best makes one pause.

 

In the end, all I could tell the person who first got me started on this was that the official story that the tree was named in 1879 by James Wolverton cannot be proved and seems shaky. Beyond that, despite apparent plausibility, the alternative argument that the army named the tree is founded on nothing more than circumstantial evidence.

 

And there you have it. You can believe the official story, even if it is weak and un-provable, or you can draw your own conclusions from the circumstantial evidence. The choice is yours.

 

Sometimes, history just doesn’t provide the clear answers we seek.

 

© Wm. Tweed

THE 50th ANNIVERSARY OF THE WILDERNESS ACT

It’s safe to say, I suspect, that the concept of wilderness is far from universally popular here in Tulare County.  In recent times, most of our elected officials have been opposed to the idea, and the political party that dominates our region has long made it clear that the whole idea is a complete mistake.  And all this, I fear, without most people even knowing exactly what wilderness is.

 

So let’s take a moment this week to review the wilderness idea and how it has come to be applied locally.  Our timing in this is appropriate, for next Wednesday, September 3rd, will mark the 50th anniversary of the approval of the federal law that started the modern designated wilderness movement.

 

The signing of the Wilderness Act by President Lyndon Johnson on September 3, 1964, marked the end of a bi-partisan campaign that had gone on for more than a decade.  It’s hard to imagine now, but the idea of creating a national wilderness system made sense to a handful of legislators in both major parties, and they worked together to get the bill through congress.

 

The idea was simple: portions of our public lands should be left undeveloped forever, but with the proviso that they should remain open to traditional recreational use.  Areas designated as formal wilderness areas would have no roads and would be closed to motor vehicles of all sorts, but would remain open for hiking, camping, and horseback riding.  Areas that previously had been open to hunting and/or grazing would also continue to allow those uses.

 

Fifty years later, that’s pretty much the way it has worked out. Since 1964, piece by piece, congress has created a federal wilderness system that covers about 2.7 per cent of the contiguous forty-eight states.

 

Still speaking of the forty-eight states, California has more designated wilderness than any of the other contiguous states. Arizona comes in second. (And it shouldn’t surprise that Alaska – the last frontier — has more designated wilderness than all the rest of the country put together.)

 

Since 1964, most of the rugged backcountry of the High Sierra has been designated as wilderness. Local wilderness areas include, the Domeland Wilderness (created in 1964), the Golden Trout Wilderness (1978), the Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness (1984), the Jenny Lakes Wilderness (1984), the Sierra South Wilderness (1984) and most recently the John Krebs Wilderness (2009). Adjoining Tulare County on the east side of the Sierra is the 600,000-acre John Muir Wilderness, also created in 1964.

 

Today, the wilderness areas of Tulare County are known to hikers and mountaineers worldwide, and tens of thousands use and enjoy them each summer.

 

All of this sounds innocent enough, so why do many local residents find the concept of wilderness so objectionable? Two reasons usually come up.

 

The first argument is that wilderness limits economic activity, even though over 97% of the land base of the 48 states remains outside the system. The other reason is that wilderness is exclusionary, denying use of the land to those who will not or cannot walk to enjoy it.

 

It will not surprise readers of this column that I don’t find either of these arguments particularly compelling. Are we really so desperate economically that we cannot afford to set aside less than 3% of the acreage contained within the forty-eight states for something other than commerce?  I doubt it, especially when you consider that most of the land involved is either desert or high mountain country. 

 

And is wilderness “exclusionary?” Well yes, in a certain way, it is.  Wilderness is closed to machines like 4×4 trucks, ATVs, motorized trail bikes, and even bicycles. But so are most churches, schools, city parks, and shopping centers, and we don’t seem to think that these are unreasonable closures.

 

At its heart, wilderness is a form of respect for the beautiful planet we inhabit. Wilderness allows us to enjoy nature on its terms rather than our own. It is, if you think this way, a recognition of God’s handiwork.

 

Personally, I’ll be toasting the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act this coming Wednesday. I hope that you’ll join me.

 

© Wm. Tweed

STILL WRITING AFTER ALL THESE YEARS

Today, this column reaches a milestone. Since I began writing for the Times-Delta in January 1997, I have now written and published in this newspaper five hundred columns about the natural world that surrounds us here in central California. Roughly speaking, that amounts to more than a third of a million words that I have shared with you, my readers.

 

For the first ten years, while I worked for the National Park Service, these columns focused mostly on Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Since that time, I’ve wandered more widely, writing about anything that caught my interest in the natural world.

 

Throughout these years, to its credit, the Times-Delta has given me free rein to go wherever I felt like going.  My responsibility here has been simply to find a story related to the natural world that is worth telling and to put it down in a way that makes it worth reading.

 

It is often said that the best way to learn something is to try to teach it. The same can be said of writing. These past seventeen years have taught me a great deal.

 

Much of this learning has been about the immediate subjects about which I have written. I always enjoy this kind of research. It is, in fact, one of the great pleasures of writing these columns.

 

But over time, I have learned many other things as well. Slowly, and with many a stumble, I have been able to assemble a broader and more complete view of the relationship here between the human and natural worlds.  The resulting picture is complicated, and like all things human, full of contradictions.

 

Over the past one hundred and fifty years, the human residents of Tulare County have both appreciated and abused the natural world in a wide variety of ways.

 

We have created world-class national parks yet also elected and re-elected local officials who have called for things like denuding the Sierra Nevada of all its trees. (Yes, one of our county supervisors proposed just that barely a decade ago!)

 

We have created a highly productive agricultural society, yet have structured it in a such a way that there simply will not be nearly enough water for our children to sustain it.

 

We have worked hard to preserve our individual freedoms, but all too often have used those same hard-gained rights to deplete our neighbor’s groundwater and pollute the air we all breathe together.

 

The truth is that as a collective populace, the residents of Tulare County still wrestle with the realities of the natural place we have chosen to call home.

 

The valley portion of our county has deep, rich soils, but we have nowhere near enough water to irrigate all our acreage sustainably. Right now, we’re depending primarily on ancient, Ice-Age water we’re mining from the ground at an alarming rate.

 

Geography makes our valley almost uniquely susceptible to air pollution. With mountains on three sides, big cities upwind, and a mild, usually sunny climate, one could not create a better place to concentrate pollution. Yet, we complain bitterly when we are told that this fact must be dealt with if we are not to poison ourselves and our children.

 

To the east of our valley lands, we have some of the grandest mountain country in the forty-eight states – the ultimate source of our water. Growing on these mountains are forests that contain the largest trees in the world. Yet, embedded in these mountains is a message we generally do our best to ignore – that our climate is highly variable year-to-year and prone to prolonged periods of aridity.

 

These are just some of the realities the natural world seeks to share with us. Yet, for many of us, “nature” is just what goes on up in the national parks and otherwise is of little consequence to our daily lives. In this, we could not be more wrong.

 

What have I learned while I’ve wrestled to write five hundred columns? That in the end, it is futile and ultimately self-defeating for a society to think of nature as a separate and unimportant part of creation.  The natural world and the human world are ultimately the same world. In these columns, my job is to seek out the details that allow us to see how the two fit together.

 

And for those of you who have made it this far – thanks for reading. In the end, it is you that make this all worth doing.  “See you” in two weeks.

 

© Wm. Tweed