Sunday, July 31, 2011

Re-Emerging Romanticism at Yosemite

The Management at Yosemite National Park is planning to cut many trees.  Here is the story: “Thousands of younger pines and cedars will be cut down this fall to restore many of the park's original scenic vistas that in previous decades were managed by natural and controlled fires”.

At first glance, I have to ask Why is this news?  The NPS has been managing vistas since day one of their mission.  At Yellowstone earlier this month, every vista we stopped at had cut tress lying about.  Every roadway showed signs of tree thinning.  National Parks are managed properties; to think that they are untouched by human agency is silly.

Upon deeper thought, I think this issue at Yosemite represents, although subtly, the ideas expressed in this blog.  The conflict that park officials are facing is one of shifting metaphors, from Modernism to the new romanticism.

Under Modernism, there is a well-defined division between man and nature, or culture and nature.  The news article expressed this in its opening statement that vistas were “managed by natural and controlled fires.”  Natural here is a reference to non-human events such as lightning strikes; controlled fires refers to human events.  The complex metaphor underlying it all is that human behavior and natural events are two separate processes--that humans are exclusive of nature.  Additionally, modernists generally believe they can control nature, and, for certain parks, “wilderness” areas are set aside such that nature can run amok within controlled spaces.  Modernism is about human imposed order on the world and entropic processes are placed, categorized, within controlled boxes (here).

The Yosemite scenic vista plan continues this philosophy in its Abstract:  “Yosemite National Park is an icon of scenic grandeur.  When set aside in 1864, Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove were the first scenic natural areas in the United States protected for public benefit and appreciation of the scenic landscape…The purpose of the Scenic Vista Management Plan is to develop a systematic program to document, protect, and reestablish Yosemite's important viewpoints and vistas, consistent with the natural processes and human influences that created them’ [emphasis added].

I bolded the modernist ideas, those that express man controlling nature.  The abstract also retains a 19th century romantic idea that certain scenic areas need to be protected “for public benefit and appreciation.”  Beautiful vistas should be shared and enjoyed by all.

If the NPS were operating within a fully romantic metaphor, the statement would read something like this:  Yosemite National Park is an icon of scenic grandeur.  When set aside in 1864, Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove were the first scenic areas in the United States to be reserved for public benefit and appreciation because of their scenic beauty.  The purpose of the Scenic Vista Management Plan is to outline the choreography that will be used to embellish those scenic vistas that have been identified as having been diminished by vegetation encroachment.  The NPS believes that public benefit and appreciation of the vistas will be greatly enhanced once the work is completed.  Recognizing that other opinions about this are important, the NPS solicited public comments and offered replies, and these are included at the end of this document.

Our new romanticism starts with the basic idea that humans are natural and that culture is a subset of nature.  Humanity is inclusive of nature.  Humans engage with their environment and they manipulate it.  That environment includes other animals, vegetation, water, air, asphalt, concrete, and glass.

This perspective then provides clarity to the NPS problem:  how much human agency do we want within a park such as Yosemite?  What percentage of the park is to be biotic versus non-biotic, what species do you want, and what photographs do people generally want to take at what vistas?

There is a reason that Artist Point and Inspiration Point are popular places at Yellowstone and Yosemite—their names are perfect for what they are, places for and of artistry and inspiration.

The NPS is shifting to this new romantic perspective but like any federal agency the meaning changes before the actual words do.  NPS employees are operating romantically even though their management plans are a confusing blend of old and new metaphors.  The news article reports:

"We are managing the park for people," said Kevin McCardle, a park service historical architect who headed up the scenic vista team.  "We have to create roads, we have to create parking lots, we have to create space for people.  We are creating space for visitors to see the park."

Yes they are.  National Parks are for people's imagination.  The NPS needs to change some more.  I have no argument with an historical architect heading up a scenic vista team; understanding view sheds is what they do.  That team should also include a poet, a writer, a photographer, and a painter.  If cutting trees will enhance the awesomeness of the below view, and I assume it can be done, then please, cut some trees.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Yellowstone in July

My daughter and I spent the week in Yellowstone National Park. As always, it was beautiful.  And, not too crowded for the peak month.  We got to see most of the large animals that typically make up the usual venue: elk, deer, bison, bear, and wolf.  No moose this time.  Here are some photos (click on image for bigger view).

Old Faithful, our national icon.

Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River

 Lower Falls, 1979.  Note subtle changes in trees (some spots thinning, others filling in).

Lone wolf, between Norris and West Yellowstone.  Looks a little thin and sickly.

Grizzly bear in Lamar Valley, near a herd of bison.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The White House Needs a Pioneer

When Obama was elected I was generally pleased that someone from the South was not going to be president.  Unfortunately, he is such a mutt and vagabond that he doesn’t attach to any region.  I suspect that this is not good because he has no anchor, is listless and directionless.

I like the South in many ways, and much of my family history comes from there.  Great food and lovely ladies with nice accents can be found there.  But I am tired of the belligerent attitude that most southern politicians bring to DC; Eric Cantor being the most recent belligerent.  Since the early 1960s we have had the following southern presidents:  Johnson, Carter, Clinton, & Bush Jr.  Those 16 years with Clinton-Bush Jr. was too much.  It seems the South has risen again and is dictating national policy, just as they did in the antebellum years.  Well, yawl know where that led.

My preference is someone with alkali in their veins, who knows what Hantavirus is, and understands that immigrants are not aliens.   

My image of such a person is more the Pioneer rather than the Mountain Man or the Marlboro Man.  Someone who Walt Whitman or Willa Cather could write about, someone with a vision and a destination, and the will to carry it out.

“All the past we leave behind,
We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,
Pioneers! O pioneers!”

Sunday, July 3, 2011

July Fourth as Cultural Preservation

As we get ready to celebrate July 4th a comment about historic preservation is appropriate.

Those of us who work in this field protect from development, damage, or desecration, significant tangible evidences of our past.  “Our past” is understood from many levels (local, regional, national, world, or ethnic).  My own work pushes me to focus on the national because the National Historic Preservation Act is the primary driver of my work.

I am often asked why I do this type of work.  I rarely have a good answer.  Most of the stuff I get to protect doesn’t seem like much to others.  Sometimes I agree.

So, let me pose a hypothetical situation.  If China were to successfully invade North America through Puget Sound what do you suppose they would destroy?  After all, conquerors have to destroy something because the act is symbolic of the success. When our military took Baghdad, we toppled the statues of Saddam Hussein and occupied his palaces.  Oh, the desecration we did there.  It was all televised to prove that success was achieved.

I think China would target the Space Needle and trash Microsoft.  Those are easy targets that represent our technological prowess.  Given more time, they would also destroy all evidence of World War II and, more deeply, our cowboy culture.  World War II made America a super power; destroying its remnants proclaims that that heritage is dead.  Smashing the cowboy culture is a deeper expression of this too because the Cowboy is the global symbol of America.  The Marlboro Man still rides in the imagination of the world, which is why conservatives continue the image.  Kill the cowboy to symbolize that America has ridden into its sunset.  Burn the ranches, the hats, the boots, & kill the cows and horses.

Take away the symbols of a culture and it is dead.

Historic preservationists work to protect those symbols, even the small humble ones that don’t obviously suggest national greatness but likely do contribute in some small way.

What about the intangibles, those ideas that sustain America?  What are they?

William G. McLoughlin [1] provided the following as the basics of American ideology:
a)  We are a chosen people;
b)  We have a manifest (or latent) destiny to lead the world to the millennium;
c)  Our democratic-republican institutions, our bountiful natural resources, our concept of free and morally responsible individuals, all operate under a body of higher moral laws (and to transgress from them threatens our destiny);
d)  And, our personal and social ethic (aka the American dream, the protestant work ethic, the success myth) causes the general welfare to thrive by allowing the greatest possible free play and equal opportunity to each individual to fulfill his/her potential.

These are the simple recurring ideas that have sustained “America” from its earliest puritan days.

Where are they now?  They seem to be lost to most Americans; and in some cases, they reek of a conservatism that is not appealing anymore.  They need to be reborn.

They have not been destroyed; they are now latent as we go though our great secular crisis (here & here).  We will begin to recover and reinvent ourselves when these ideas are reworked to guide our future.

America’s recurring transformation is well underway.  It will have turned a corner and we will be able to see the light at the end of its dark tunnel when these ideas are transformed to meet the needs of the 21st century.

July 4 (1776), Gettysburg, and D Day are all great turning points in American crises.  We will have another one soon. 

If China was successful as described they would also ban Fourth of July celebrations because they are acts of historic and cultural preservation.

Enjoy your BBQs and parades.

1.  William G McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform, Chicago, 1978, pg. xiv.