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.

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