Yosemite 2015: Fun, Too Warm and Dry, and Tinged with Sadness

I write this a few hours after Nancy and I returned from our annual pilgrimage to Yosemite National Park for its annual Chef’s Holidays. We’ve been going for several years and have always enjoyed it. Their staff is second to none and now several of them recognize us. It’s three days of good hiking, superior food, and an opportunity for Nancy to interact with some of the best chefs in the country.

That said we did see some disturbing things there. First was the weather: the elevation on the valley floor is nearly 4000 feet above sea level and from there we can see peaks of over 8000 feet. Several times over the years we’ve seen snow on the valley floor and I don’t remember ever not seeing snow on the top of Half Dome; this year we didn’t see any snow that high. To be fair Half Dome has had snow this season but it melted within a few weeks. Simply put it’s too warm.

It’s also too dry. Much of California has been suffering a drought for a few years. Precipitation that falls as snow in the higher elevations gives the rest of us water for much of the year as the snow melts and flows down to lower elevations. We can see this clearly in Yosemite Valley through the falls, Bridalveil and Yosemite being the most common. Water flow changes dramatically during the year, but they should be fairly robust at this time of year and they weren’t. This past year wildfires have come dangerously close to popular areas of the park. It’s hard to imagine but there is no way to avoid the reality that climate change is badly affecting the park.

My next concern follows from a conversation we had with one of the park rangers. We often joke with park rangers about silly questions they get from park guests, but a few struck me as more concerning than silly. The ranger was walking along a trail and met a group of hikers; she told them that she saw a bobcat nearby and hopefully they would too. One of the hikers said: “Oh, did you just let him out?” Later that season (in the autumn when the falls often run dry) a woman asked her to “turn on the falls” since she had come all the way from England.

Both these encounters point to a troubling reality: we’ve become so acclimated to being spectators in a planned experience that we don’t recognize when we are truly “in the wild.” I call this the “Disney effect.” Instead of going into the wilderness and observing what nature has to teach us, we think that the whole thing is a staged event we can manipulate. Do you want to see the falls? Don’t worry that you’ve come at a time of year where water rarely falls, we can turn it on. Do you want to see one of the native animals? Let us know and we’ll release him.

This reality robs us of the opportunity to do exactly what the early Yosemite caretakers wished: to see how natural beauty and breathtaking scenery can transform our lives long after we leave the valley. John Muir (1838-1914) and countless others dreamed of a place that would teach us, not entertain us. They wanted us to leave the valley with a greater understanding of and respect for nature; this understanding and respect would compel us to treat the rest of the earth with the wisdom we gained there. It has with me, and I hope it has with others.

At the beginning of this post I spoke of a “tinge of sadness.” On our trip to Yosemite I received word that my Aunt Eva died after a short illness. She was married to my father’s oldest brother, Uncle Ed. Aunt Eva was a wonderful woman. She was born in Gardner, Massachusetts to immigrants from Kent County, New Brunswick (Canada). She married Uncle Ed in 1952 and had two of my favorite cousins: David and Terry. I don’t remember visiting Gardner (as a child or an adult) without a trip to 69 Baker St. I also don’t remember not being treated to her famous fricot. If you’ve never had the joy of eating fricot you need to put this on your bucket list. It’s not a dish for the wealthy. It’s a dish for good, hardworking people who want a simple, elegant meal at the end of a hard day’s work. It always made me feel loved, and in touch with those ancestors whose hard work made my success in life possible. Aunt Eva, I’ll miss you.

Freedom of Speech: Can We Take a Breath and Be More Accurate?

There is much to talk about with the events of the last month, but I’m going to focus in on the abuse of the phrase “free speech.”

Last month the movie The Interview was roundly criticized by North Korea. This is not surprising as the point of the movie is the assassination of their leader Kim Jong Un. It was produced by Columbia Pictures (owned by Sony) and it became clear that its Christmas debut was problematic: many Americans feared seeing the movie because of threats of violence against the theaters. Because of that the film was pulled.

Almost anyone could have predicted the backlash. Threats of revenge, realistic or not, created pressure to on Sony to cancel the premier. Then another backlash caused Sony to release it and make it available for download. Many felt that Sony’s decision to block the release was an attack on free speech.

As an American I applaud the conversation but I am troubled by some of the debate. The idea of Sony’s action was attack on free speech made it seem that the decision by Sony was somehow unconstitutional.

As this discussion was quieting we read, to our horror, of the assassination in Paris at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Charlie Hebdo is a satiric periodical that has parodied, among others, Jesus, the Pope, the prophet Mohammed, and others. Many of us find some of these images troubling and even offensive and, as a result, don’t subscribe. But a few terrorists, who claim to be Muslims, decided that these images allowed them to murder.

This, also, created a backlash where many of us expressed our support for Charlie Hebdo and satirists over the world.

I support neither North Korea nor those who killed the good people in Paris (which also included 2 police officers and 4 hostages in a neighboring Jewish market) but I don’t think these are attacks on freedom of speech. Please understand that I am, in no way, excusing or supporting these attacks.

When we think of “freedom of speech” we normally think of the Constitution and we all revere what it protects. But it protects only one thing: you cannot be arrested, prosecuted, or imprisoned for expressing your opinion. It does not protect you from the consequences of your speech. In other words, if I say something hurtful or offensive to my wife, I’m not protected from her reaction. It only means I can’t be arrested.

If I choose to view the movie or read Charlie Hebdo, I’m not celebrating freedom of speech. The Constitution has nothing to say about this. But I will be making a statement about freedom from fear. The phrase “freedom from fear” should ring a bell: In his State of the Union in 1941 President Roosevelt spoke of freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom of fear. A few months later the artist Norman Rockwell painted his interpretation of freedom from fear onto canvas.

I celebrate both freedom of speech and freedom from fear and am grateful that I can live in a place and time where I can do both. But as a student of American Constitutional history I feel a need to make a distinction between the two. Maybe nobody except me cares about this, but these freedoms are not the same thing.

If you choose to see the movie or buy the magazine, know you are celebrating freedom from fear and not freedom of speech.