Sunday, November 17, 2013

Western Time Diary: Yosemite National Park

When the government shutdown was in the news, I couldn't help but feel for all the little businesses that depend on travelers visiting the national parks. We like to patronize these smaller establishments as often as possible when we vacation. For our Yosemite trip, we stayed at the charming Meadow Creek Ranch Bed and Breakfast Inn in Mariposa.

The adorable chicken coop. I felt like I was in a little Irish cottage.

A clawfoot tub invites a soak. There was brandy, tea, fresh coffee and dark chocolates in the room.

Two of my favorite words to describe a home (or in this case, a home away from home), invoked so often by Laura Ingalls Wilder, are "snug" and "cozy" (or cosy).

All the little details make a place homey to me.

A cozy and snug home for fine feathered friends to seek shelter from the elements.

Homemade blueberry and black walnut pancakes (black walnuts grow on the property), with fresh fruit (including figs, which we found so much more abundant in California), orange juice and vanilla chai tea.

The Meadow Creek Ranch served Mariposa Coffee, and we stopped by to take a pound home.

When driving to the bed and breakfast at night, we  pulled the car over and turned off the lights to take in the stars. Recalling when Laura and Charles, her Pa, on the premiere of Little House on the Prairie viewed the majestic starry filled night sky,

Charles, "Hear that?"

Laura, "Hear what, Pa?"

Charles, "Stars. They're singing Hallelujah."

It's hard not to want to sing Hallelujah when seeing Yosemite.

Even in the busiest national parks, one can find moments of solitude. Hiking up to Sentinel Dome, we were the last two left to enjoy the views.
Ansel Adams capturing Yosemite's beauty so memorably.
Annie, at age 14, wrote here, "Yosemite is a place of timeless beauty that will never be affected by the greed and woes of humans. Here we can rediscover ourselves, others, and the bonds that connect us with everything. Here is where we realize the incomparable essence of nature."
 The author Willa Cather so missed the abundant trees of lush Virginia when she moved as a child to the Nebraska plains. Trees were so rare in the plains, she wrote, people would feel anxious about them, and visit them as if they were people.

We should treat them with sacred awe, for they are a life force.

I feel anxious we are not concerned enough about protecting our lands. For instance, there are so many ads on television from gas companies trying to convince Americans how good natural gas is. I said to my husband, if natural gas is so wonderful, why are these corporations spending so much time and money to convince people in feel-good commercials? Whenever I see warm and fuzzy advertisements from oil companies, I immediately question.

The film Promised Land portrays how natural gas companies get landowners to sign over their land to extract natural gas through fracking. Frances McDormand plays Sue and Matt Damon is Steve, who are trying to do just that. Sue tells an anxious mother about the better school her daughter can go to. "Everything to me starts with an education." An education is correct, but who is doing the educating? Those that seek to benefit?

When Sue and Matt arrive, a store clerk is so happy to see them. He says, "We can't sell the scenery, can we?"

I think we can (the parks experience is about scenery, but then the greater lesson is of stewardship), and it's time to introduce a word that has gone missing: conservation. Steve says, "Unless we talk about cutting consumption and so far that's a conversation none of want to have." We simply must conserve as much as we can. The land cannot give more. In J.J. Brown's  Brindle 24, a cautionary novel about fracking, it was wisely stated, "We had paradise. We threw it away." Let us not throw our paradise away.

The naming of Yosemite has a dark story with roots in the gold rush, according to Ken Burns' The National Parks: America's Best Idea. In 1851, a group of white men calling themselves the Mariposa Battalion were armed and looking for Indians to drive out of their homelands from the western Sierra Nevadas. Lafayette Bunnell, so awed by the landscape here, thought they name the place they came upon, and suggested Yosemite, which he thought was the name of the tribe they were displacing. In fact, Yosemite refers to people who should be feared. It means, "They should be killers." Watch the clip here.

"We signed a paper that said they could take the trees, signed a paper that said they could take the copper from the earth," said the old chief Bizhiki, disturbed, "We didn't say they could take the earth.

Who can take the earth?" - The Game of Silence by Louise Erdrich.

Erdrich penned a series of books, beginning with the Birchbark House, about a tribe whose main focus is Omakayas, a young girl living not long before Laura Ingalls Wilder. If you read the Little House books, they are a wonderful comparison, especially for children, as these are tribes the pioneers would displace. Disney adapted a film version of Little House on the Prairie, and there's a moving scene when Charles Ingalls passes the Osages. Their chief tells him,

"This land knows our stories. The wind knows the names of the children before they're born. But this should all be yours. Why do you think so? Do our memories matter less? Does our laughter not lift its way to heaven as yours does?"

In an interview, the mother of Tori Amos, who has Eastern Cherokee roots, was asked if she felt different growing up because of her background. She recalled not knowing a difference until she went to college and observed of her classmates, "They didn't have the same respect I suppose or love for the nature I was taught and for the animals and spirits."

Tori Amos recalls,

"As I was researching for this record [Scarlet’s Walk], a Native American woman came back to see me on the last tour and she said to me, “The people that hold the land and the white brother that owns the land must come together for the sake of her survival.

And I said to her,

"But so much has been taken from you and your people already."
There were tears rolling down her face, and she said “Sadly enough my dear the white brother only took the land. Now he needs to take more.”
This woman, older, no fanfare, but her commitment to building bridges to a people that has not integrated her stories, her people’s culture. She still is compassionate and holds a space by the fire. When you stop holding a space by the fire, then there’s no chance for the people that own the land to know what they really don't have access to. It isn't taught in our schools. Their culture is segregated. They are marginalized. Yet, they are still willing to share, even though they've lost so much. Yet still not pretend that agreements weren’t broken, that there wasn’t betrayal.

So I learned a lot in this woman's activism that she carried a torch and she carried a tomahawk but she carried compassion in her other hand."


I wish we had a modern day John Muir to advocate for the land. We need a space at the fire to talk about these issues. I hope to see you there.



  1. What beautiful pictures! In both Canada and the US many of the original American tribe members are speaking out and protecting the environment from industrial pollution now, great to see, this give me hope.

  2. Wow, that sharing from Tori Amos is so powerful. Thank you for sharing it.

  3. I think of Tori's questions posed within the song "Scarlet's Walk" which invokes in my mind the land taken from the Native Americans by the pioneers, but could be thought of about modern day issues like fracking.

    "What do you plan to do with all your freedom?
    The new sheriff said, quite proud of his badge.
    You must admit the land is now in good hands.
    Yes time will tell."

    Time has shown many have been too reckless with their treatment of the land, and still are today.

    Her words in that interview give me pause to consider why we aren't more concerned about issues of the environment. It just isn't really part of our culture.

    Thought-provoking article in the New York Times last year on fracking in Montana:

    "All through the billiard-green mesas leading up to the mountains are signs of the boom. Well pads and water tanks dot the rolling hills. Tractor-trailers loaded with chemicals and drilling machinery kick up contrails of dust along the reservation’s winding gravel roads. And spirelike drilling rigs quietly bore into the ground, silhouetted against mountains with names like Sinopah, Rising Wolf and Chief."

    “These are our mountains,” said Cheryl Little Dog, a recently elected member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, the reservation’s governing body. “I look at what we have, and I think, why ruin it over an oil rig?”

    These tribes deserve better economic opportunities than casinos (which I find downright depressing) and certainly better ones than exploiting the land.

    J.J., recalling your passage in Brindle 24,

    "So much for land ownership, Henry thinks; it's a modern myth. You can buy and sell rights to use the land; you can't actually own it. He tries to remember who said, the land doesn't belong to you, you belong to the land; the author was certainly Native American, but he can't pin down the source."

    "He remembers what the visionary...Black Elk, a Lakota said – man's scratching of the earth causes disease like cancer. He meant the mining and drilling for coal, gas, oil and uranium. The scratching brings up the things deep in the earth that should have stayed down there. Henry shudders."