DECEMBER 29, 2016
DOZENS OF BOOKS celebrate the visual wonders of Yosemite — yet none can match the Yosemite Conservancy’s new offering, A Sense of Yosemite, with its unique mix of waterfalls and watersheds, wildflowers and wildfires.
Clearly photographer Nancy Robbins knows the Valley’s shifting moods and shadows with unparalleled intimacy. Having lived and worked for more than a decade inside the Park, many of her images — such as those of a coyote hunting voles in deep snow — bear witness to years of patient observation. Yet as a truly 21st-century photographer, she must also bear witness to the emerging new era of climate change. Hence Robbins reframes Ansel Adams’s iconic image of a timeless Half Dome within a wreath of leaping flames and lurid smoke, captured during an unprecedented series of droughts and wildfires.
In dialogue with Robbins’s images are gentle essays by California author David Mas Masumoto, whose sharp and sensuous memoirs of rural life on his Japanese-American family’s farm in the Central Valley have delighted readers for decades. “The Masumoto’s Family Farm,” he explains, “is ninety minutes from the park’s South Entrance.” Yet reflecting on Robbins’s fiery image of Half Dome, he too writes, “As smoke from [the 2013 Rim Fire] drifted over our farm, I wondered, ‘What’s my connection with Yosemite?’” In an era of global climate disruption, that’s a question we must all confront now.
His answer: “All good farmers see their land through the lens of time and generations.” Having lived his entire life downstream from Yosemite’s alpine wonders, Masumoto’s meditations reconnect the Central Valley with Yosemite Valley ecologically, geologically, and culturally. Through a carefully sequenced series of essays entitled “The Nature We See,” “The Nature We Feel,” “The Nature We Smell,” “The Nature We Taste,” and “The Nature We Hear,” Masumoto reminds us that “even rocks carry a scent, released especially after a rain,” much as “the peaches, nectarines, and grapes that flourish on our organic farm share the soils that have eroded and washed down over centuries from the Sierra Nevada.”
In part, such shared visions are comforting. Soil and air, light and life are inseparable in A Sense of Yosemite, just as Yosemite Valley and the Central Valley are inseparable parts of the same bioregion. Perhaps only John Muir (who walked across a continuous carpet of Central Valley wildflowers to reach Yosemite on foot in 1868) can match Masumoto’s deeply rooted sense of these two watersheds flowing together as one.
These shared visions can be deeply humbling. “When I look at your photography,” Masumoto confesses to Robbins,
I’m reminded of old, tiny black-and-white photographs of my family from the late 1950s […] When I study them, I see we were dwarfed by Yosemite’s huge granite rocks and towering trees […] We worked our land daily surrounded by nature. We understood the fires of the wild. We lived and played in the dirt and rocks and the weather. We drew no lines between inside and outside.
Together, Robbins and Masumoto blur the lines between what lies inside, and what lies outside, the official boundaries of Yosemite National Park — where past, present, and future all flow together.
Naturally fire, flood, and drought were part of the ebb and flow of the Yosemite ecosystem for centuries, long before the Mariposa Battalion or John Muir first set foot there — as the indigenous tribes who inhabited the Sierra knew well. UC Davis bio-anthropologist M. Kat Anderson reminds us,
Staring in awe at the lengthy vistas of his beloved Yosemite Valley, or the extensive beds of golden and purple flowers in the Central Valley, Muir was eyeing what were really fertile seed, bulb, and greens gathering grounds of the Miwok and Yokuts Indians, kept open and productive by centuries of carefully planned indigenous burning, harvesting, and scattering.
Like Muir, most modern visitors are ignorant of basic facts about Yosemite Valley: that it was first “discovered” in 1851 by a US military expedition bent on capturing or killing Yosemite’s Ahwahneechee tribe; that the nearby Central Valley reservation to which Chief Tenaya and his people were exiled bordered the now-vanished Tulare Lake; that Tulare Lake was once the largest body of water west of the Mississippi and home to one of the richest and most diverse ecosystems on earth; that these wetlands, California’s lost Everglades, were drained and dredged so completely that, by the turn of the 20th century, Lake Tulare vanished from all modern maps forever.
By contrast, Muir’s modernist vision for the future of Yosemite — forged in partnership with Teddy Roosevelt during their famous camping trip in 1903 — was to wield the power of the federal government to protect Yosemite as a national treasure. To do so, Muir and Roosevelt argued, simply required drawing an invisible but impermeable political boundary around this, or any other, natural wonder — be it a National Park, a National Monument, or a National Forest.
A century later those same invisible political boundaries have been burned and breached completely — and the modernist model of conservation Muir and Roosevelt co-created has collapsed. Forty percent of the air pollution that falls into Yosemite Valley comes from across the Pacific. According to the latest USDA aerial survey, 62 million trees have died statewide in California in 2016 alone — a 100 percent increase in tree mortality since 2015. Yosemite Falls has all-too-often been choked to a tearful trickle. Species threatened by extinction now include several varieties of the Central Valley’s iconic oaks, as well as Yosemite’s own signature trees, the Giant Sequoias. Chillingly, both oaks and redwoods evolved to weather more than a million years of natural climatic variation, yet the unprecedented speed of human-enhanced climate change has overwhelmed their defenses in less than a decade.
Set against this apocalyptic background, A Sense of Yosemite embodies both the pleasures and the perils of nature photography in the looming age of the Anthropocene.