Archive for Chair Emeritus POV


In my last column I wrote about the significance of our very warm winter and what it means to the natural water regime upon which we so profoundly rely. This time I want to explore several issues related to precipitation. Be forewarned – this is another “tough love” column. I want to introduce some difficult facts we are going to have to face.

By most accounts, we are now in the fourth year of a “drought.” By this, we mean an exceptional period when our average precipitation fails and we are left unnaturally short of water. Everyone is waiting for the drought to “break” and for conditions to return to “normal.”

But what if this isn’t true? Is there any evidence that suggests that what we think is exceptional may instead be a new long-term pattern?  Sadly, the answer is yes.

I regularly read that our current series of dry years (I’m going to step away from the word “drought” for a few paragraphs) is “unprecedented.”  I frequently see two arguments for this assertion.

The first is that we have not had four successive years this dry since we started keeping modern weather records in California in the second half of the nineteenth century. The second argument is that tree rings and other data collected from nature suggest that California has not been this dry for a millennia or so.  

The problem with these arguments is that the periods involved – even the thousand-year term – are not long enough to capture the full unpredictability of California’s highly variable climate.

Sadly, there is substantial precedent for our current situation. To find it, all one has to do is take a look at the huge amount of data scientists have collected in recent decades about the climate history of California. Such information can be found in the growth rings of trees, silt layers in natural lakes and bays, and even pollen samples taken from the lower levels of mountain meadows.

All this information adds up to tell us some fascinating – and truly scary – things.

The first fact is that the past century – the time we tend to look back on as “normal,” was one of the wettest periods in California in the last seven thousand years.

Another fact is that there was an astounding prolonged dry spell in and around the ninth and tenth centuries (850-1090) and another half a century later (1140-1320). Note that these two events persisted (respectively) for 240 and 180 years.  In addition, over the past thousand years, there have been repeated dry spells of 10-20 years duration.  

Ponder these two “droughts.”  Those who lived through them – the native people of California were already long established then – surely didn’t see them as temporary dry spells. These long periods of dryness were simply the way things were.

And there’s more. Going back further into time. Between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago, the Sierra Nevada was so much drier than now that areas that currently support dense forest had only scattered pine and sagebrush growing on them. That was also, we should note, a period that saw temperatures like those we are moving toward very rapidly as the climate warms.

All this, by the way, has been written up repeatedly by climate scientists and paleoecologists and also generally ignored by both our elected officials and the voting public.

And here’s another troubling fact. The region that adjoins California to the east – the Southwest – has been in a “drought” now for sixteen years. The big reservoirs on the Colorado River – Lake Powell and Lake Mead – are both so low that their managers do not see them filling again in the foreseeable future.  Many folks there have stopped talking about “drought;” instead, they’re looking at their difficult situation as a new reality.

Could the same things happen here? Perhaps they already are. And are we ready to talk about “new realities?” Perhaps it’s time.

Notice that I’ve gotten this far without even mentioning climate change. In my last column, I wrote about how our warming climate is likely to drastically reduce snowpack runoff. That’s what happened this year. But what will happen to our precipitation?

The answer, quite honestly, is that no one knows for sure. What the climate models do say, however, is that we should expect continuing warming and more extreme weather events – both bigger storms and longer dry spells.  This is exactly what seems to be happening in California.

Where does all this leave us?  I believe that it’s time to move beyond our current model of seeing ourselves as suffering from an exceptional “drought” that is likely to end soon and return us to “normal.” We might well be at the beginning of a prolonged dry cycle – a new reality. Perhaps it will last 240 years – no one really knows.

It’s time to face the possibility that dry weather is our “new normal” and that our circumstances are not merely temporary.
Will we ever see a wet winter again? The answer almost certainly is yes, but how such a winter will work is highly uncertain. A pattern of increased drought with occasional intense floods might not be a bad starting point. 
California now has almost 40 million people living within its borders, but it still also has large and rich remnants of its natural ecosystems. Our civilization has yet to deal with how to live in California if it turns dry for decades or longer, but this is not true of nature.


The natural systems of California that are here today exist because they were able to survive the challenges of the past including prolonged periods of aridity. What can they tell us?


We’ll explore that question in my next column.

© Wm. Tweed


Like the great majority of Californians, I’ve been watching our recent weather with both interest and concern. Now that spring has officially arrived and yet another California “rainy season” has ended in disappointment, it’s time to take a look at the larger situation in which we find ourselves. What lessons can we draw from the world of nature about our circumstances and our future?

The answers to questions this big are far from simple, so I’m going to dedicate several successive columns to exploring them. Let’s get started.

If you believe our elected leaders and most of the news media, you would believe that the big story during our recent winter was the lack of precipitation. Quite simply, in this view, everything would be OK if the “drought” would end and we could get back to “normal” rainfall in California. 

Allow me to disagree. The biggest story this past winter was our extraordinarily warm temperatures.

If you were paying any attention to what goes on outside, you noticed. Not only did we see almost no frost in the San Joaquin Valley during the traditional wintertime, but at the same time temperatures often ran 5-10 and sometime 15 degrees above the statistical averages for long periods.

Amazingly, this was true both during our long periods of fair weather and also during the very occasional windows of storm activity. And the intensity of the warmth should have shocked us all. Significant changes in long-term weather are often measured as a degree or two. This winter, the averages jumped off the charts.

Let’s look at the numbers. According to NOAA, the average California temperature for the months of December through February for the years 1901 through 2000 was 43.6 degrees Fahrenheit. This year the average reached almost 50 degrees!

The implications of this are enormous, but let’s focus on the result that affects us the most.

Here are some more numbers – facts, if you will. Measured precipitation this past winter in most areas ran about 40-50% of the statistical average. At my residence in Three Rivers, where I have kept careful weather records for more than 25 years, I have collected so far this year 46% of the annual average for this site. By the time the weather year ends on June 30th, I will likely have exceeded 50% of average.

Many other sites in the southern Sierra have recorded similar totals, at least in terms of percentage of average.  But if that is the case, why are the projected snowpack runoff figures so incredibly low?

You must have seen this data by now, too. It’s been big news. The official numbers for the Kaweah River watershed document roughly 50% of average precipitation but forecast only 26% of average runoff.  

Why the difference — why doesn’t our snowpack match our precipitation this year? 

The answer – if you’re still with me — is: temperature. The extraordinary warm temperatures this winter have meant two things for the snowpack.

First, the storms we did have were so warm that very little snow fell below about 9,000 feet. Many areas that usually have good winter snow packs – locations like Giant Forest and Grant Grove — saw bare ground much of this winter. 

The second factor was that between storms, the warm weather melted much of the snow that did accumulate even at high altitudes. When I look out the window here in Three Rivers, I see an Alta Peak that looks like June did a decade or two ago. Below 9,000 feet, I see mostly bare rock.

It’s time to wrap this up, so here’s the headline you need to know. Our warm temperatures this past winter cut our snow pack runoff by roughly half and turned a dry weather year into a catastrophic runoff year.

So is this an anomaly? Will things return to “normal” soon? Don’t bet on it. Winter temperatures have been rising steadily in California for more than a century, and all the climate models suggest that our middle and long-term future will see sustained average temperatures very much like those we experienced this past winter. The winter of 2014-2015 may well be an introduction to the “new normal” that will define cool-season  temperatures in the twenty-first century.

What does this mean for snowpack runoff? The warmer our climate, the less water we will get from the mountains. This year shows us how it’s going to work. In the future it may well take 200% of average precipitation – something we almost never achieve – just to see what used to be “average” spring runoff.

I hope you are reading this as a “tough love” column, for that’s how it’s intended. Next time, we’ll continue this important conversation – focusing not on temperatures but instead on actual precipitation.

© Wm. Tweed


Human cultures often have short memories, and once something has existed for a few generations we are likely to assume that it has been there forever. Such, I suspect, is our perception of Tulare County’s national parks, even if we should know better.

Last week – on March 4th – we passed the 75th anniversary of the establishment of Kings Canyon National Park. Today, only a dwindling handful of local residents remember the days before the park was created and the long and bitter campaign to bring it into existence.

The small Grant Grove Section of Kings Canyon National Park is older, of course, having been established back in 1890 as General Grant National Park. This was a part of the same federal legislation that created Yosemite National Park.

But that early park-creating work by our congress left unresolved the future of the spectacular headwaters country of the South and Middle forks of the Kings River – in many ways the scenic climax of the entire High Sierra.

In 1893, President Benjamin Harrison – responding to continuing lobbying by a group of Visalians that included Tipton Lindsey, Frank. J. Walker, John Tuohy, and George Stewart – withdrew the region from sale and designated it as the Sierra Forest Reserve. In 1908, under President Theodore Roosevelt, the Kings River high country became a part of the newly organized Sequoia and Sierra national forests under the management of the brand new United States Forest Service.

This left open, however, the question of how the region ought to be managed. Then as now two basic options existed: should the region be developed for human use with roads, logging, dams and the like, or left intact in celebration of its great beauty? This question would dominate debate for the next forty-plus years.

As early as 1915, Stephen Mather – founding director of the National Park Service – was in Visalia politicking for the inclusion of the region in an enlarged Sequoia National Park, but when Mather finally got a much-debated Sequoia Park enlargement bill through congress in 1926, it did not include the Kings River headwaters region.

The fight resumed in the middle 1930s with national as well as local battle lines clearly drawn. Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, strongly supported the creation of a Kings Canyon National Park, and nationally the proposal thus had the general support of the president and his party.

But before you assume that politics then were much like now when it comes to environmental affairs, it is worth noting that in the 1930s, issues like park creation were much more bipartisan than in our own time. Although he worked for a democratic president, Ickes was, in fact, a republican.

Locally, things were equally confused. Visalia’s democratic congressman, Alfred Elliot, took a position in adamant opposition to the creation of Kings Canyon National Park while Fresno republican Bud Gearhart became its leading advocate.

Elliot and Gearhart were not only from opposing parties but genuine political enemies, differing on most everything. In many ways, the battle over Kings Canyon was simply one more event in a continuing political war between these two men.

In the end, it was a close thing. Republican congressman Gearhart, working closely with the democratic administration in the White House, carried the issue over the objections of local democratic representative Elliot. Such were the politics of the late 1930s.

Now, seventy-five years later, Kings Canyon National Park has become an accepted part of the human landscape of California. Tourists and backcountry hikers come from all over the world to marvel at its beauties. It provides what most agree is the most scenic section of the famous Mexico-to-Canada Pacific Crest Trail. Its rivers still run clean and free, providing priceless irrigation water to the people of the San Joaquin Valley.

Nearly a quarter of Kings Canyon National Park falls within Tulare County; the remainder can be found within neighboring Fresno County. It is – like Sequoia National Park — very much our local national park. Local citizens played critical roles in the campaign to create it, and today we still migrate each summer in happy relief to its trails and campgrounds.

Happy birthday Kings Canyon National Park – we’re glad that you’re a part of our local world.

© Wm. Tweed


Now and then this column likes to check in with some of the ongoing stories about Sierra Nevada wildlife. This week, I’ll share two encouraging stories and one that may not end so well. All involve creatures whose small numbers make them exceedingly rare.

Anyone who pays attention to wildlife in California is familiar with the gray fox. This common foothill animal is easy to see if one drives around in the foothills on summer nights, which is when the creatures hunt.

But are you familiar with the red fox? Bigger than their low altitude cousins, red foxes historically inhabited the snowy high country of the Sierra. Old park records document the presence of red foxes in both Yosemite and the Sequoia-Kings Canyon region but in very low numbers. As the decades passed, however, the animals seemed to disappear.

But now there’s good news – a motion-activated camera placed by wildlife researchers in the northern backcountry of Yosemite National Park has captured photos of red foxes this winter. The photos show a handsome fox strolling across the snow – the first confirmed red fox in Yosemite in several decades.

Scientists estimate the entire population of Sierra red fox to be fewer than fifty animals. A known population persists near Sonora Pass, and that locale had been the southernmost proven population of these northern animals in recent times.

It is possible that red foxes still endure in the southern Sierra? The answer is that no one really knows. Like Yosemite until recently, our southern parks have had no confirmed sightings for many years. But the habitat is right locally for this high country animal, so we can remain guardedly optimistic. It is just possible that red foxes still live in Tulare County.

More good news comes from the bighorn sheep department. By 1995, the known population of Sierra Nevada bighorn had dropped to barely 100 animals and the future of this iconic species seemed perilous. But since then, hard work has brought the animals back from the brink of extinction.

This past fall, the population of Sierra bighorn exceeded six hundred animals – the highest number in several decades. Many of these animals live in or along the eastern boundary of Tulare County.

Of particular interest locally is the recently re-established herd living in the Big Arroyo country just east of Mineral King. In coming years, as this group grows, many hope that some of these animals will begin to spend time on the peaks that rim Mineral King Valley.

Credit for this amazing reversal goes to an interagency team working under the umbrella of the Endangered Species Act. If you’d like to read more, check out

Finally, here’s an update on what must be the rarest animal in the Sierra Nevada. The known population of wolverines in the Sierra Nevada equals exactly one – that’s right, one animal. Once thinly scattered across the entire High Sierra, wolverines faded away until they were believed to be gone. Then, in 2008, a wildlife camera captured a photo of a solitary wolverine in the northern Sierra.

Since then, the presence of that single animal has been documented several additional times, but it remains alone. Studies elsewhere suggest that the average wild wolverine lives about seven years, so time may be running out for the Sierra’s smallest rare animal population.

Before we give up on wolverines, however, we should remember that we thought the red foxes were gone, too. The Sierra is still big enough – and wild enough – to provide habitat for rare creatures. That ought to be enough to bring a little cheer to us all.

© Wm. Tweed


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


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


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


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


 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






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