Where Trees Give Way: Views from the High Sierra
One of the best things my dad ever did was take us kids backpacking in the High Sierra. This was back in 1969, when the backcountry trails were still largely empty – before the backpacking craze of the early 1970’s changed all that. Our gear was cheap – we used a tarp for a tent and rain gear too frail for hail – but none of that mattered. What we lacked in comfort was more than made up for by the thrill of adventure.
For this boy growing up in California, those early backpacking trips left an indelible impression. And though each trip lasted not more than ten days, the memories forged lasted a lifetime – so remarkable were the conditions of their making. One never forgets a first love and I fell hard for the granite high country of the Sierra.
The terrain that sends me there is found at tree line, where the last stunted groves of white bark pine huddle beneath the towering peaks of granite. At this elevation, or more precisely, just below it – at roughly 10,500 feet in the central and southern Sierra, a thousand feet less in the north - the land opens up, revealing just the right balance between all of the things that comprise this provocative landscape. It was here at tree line, miles from the nearest road that, aside from the opening sequence of images from the Alabama Hills, all of these pictures were taken.
Few landscapes in the American West owe their beauty more to the absence of man than does this one. For unlike the rugged coastal terrain depicted in, Where Trees Give Way: views from the northwest coast, this landscape has little, if any, recuperative power. It’s a rarified ecosystem comprised entirely of the uppermost reach of this continent’s plant and animal life and as such, is particularly sensitive to change.
That the High Sierra exists today in the pristine state that it does is something of a miracle that can be traced back to a junior senator from California by the name of John Conness, who in 1864, at the height of the Civil War, brought to the floor Senate Bill 203 – The Yosemite Valley Grant Act. In it, he proposed doing something that had never been done: setting aside and protecting a piece of wilderness for the enjoyment of all. Well, not quite all – the bill and concept were uniquely American in that both specified the removal of the Indians. Up to this point no government or sovereign entity had ever considered protecting wilderness. Wilderness had been a thing to be tamed and conquered, like an enemy. Complicating matters, the American West was almost entirely wilderness, Manifest Destiny was still in high gear and the country was in the midst of the bloody and brutal civil war. If any of that gave Conness pause, he didn’t show it.
In his pitch on the senate floor, Conness bobbed and weaved, recounting the story of a remarkably beautiful piece of land out in California that - and this is where he fibbed - knowingly or otherwise, “ was for all public purposes worthless”, but nonetheless contained, “some of the greatest wonders of the world”. His fellow senators, distracted by the war tearing apart their states and not much interested in this remote western outpost quickly passed the bill with little debate. Soon thereafter it was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln, making it a national priority to protect wilderness for the aesthetic, scientific and recreational enjoyment of all.
While it was not recognized as such at the time, this signing constituted a threshold moment in our young nation’s history - and in our evolution as a species - that would lead, a few years later, to the creation of the world’s first national park, Yellowstone, and then its second, Yosemite. While John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt and others get their just rewards for the creation of these national treasures, arguably none would exist if not for the efforts of this one term senator named Conness, who after setting out West in the hopes of striking it rich in the gold laden hills and mountains of California, introduced a bill to protect for eternity the self same land he had traipsed across the country just fifteen years earlier to exploit.
Protecting a piece of land for eternity is a mighty tall order. In the relative blink that constitutes the last one hundred and fifty years, Man’s reach has extended up into the heavens, changing the very climate of our planet. As I write this, California is in the midst its worst drought on record. All of which might be chalked up to coincidence if not for the fact annual seasonal moisture in Northern California has, for the last four decades, been on a steady decline.
Regardless of the harm we unwittingly inflict on this unique mountain landscape, it will remain long after we don’t. The meadows may dry, the tarns shrink and perish, the last glaciers recede to dust, but the beauty and the grace of this place will persevere. In the High Sierra, if we are still around, we will continue to find what Frederick Law Olmstead found one hundred and fifty years ago, “the greatest glory of nature…the union of the deepest sublimity with the deepest beauty”.
Among our greatest achievements will be the things we could have done but chose not to do. Such restraint has been rare, in large part because it acknowledges the existence of something greater than Man. The High Sierra, for example. As I hiked its meadows and granite benches, I was reminded of the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson who, though inspired by another piece of Nature closer to home, could just have easily written the following about this one: “At the gates of the forest, the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish. The knapsack of custom falls off his back with the first step he takes into these precincts. Here is sanctity which shames our religions, and reality that discredits our heroes. Here we find Nature to be the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance, and judges like a god all men that come to her”.
The pictures that follow were made over the course of the last fifteen years and begin in the desert of the Owens Valley, ten miles east and 10,000 feet below Mt. Whitney. From there they head westward and upward until arriving at tree line. The locations are ones I know well and have been to multiple times. Most, but not all, are remote and reflect my preference for cross-country travel. All were places whose smallest details I can still recall, where I’d spent the better part of a day or two tirelessly exploring, where, to steal one last time from Emerson, “to have lived through all its sunny hours, seems longevity enough”.
It is my deepest hope that my grandchildren and their grandchildren will be able to one day make their way up into this spectacular country and witness first hand, as I did, a beauty so sublime as to stave off, and make worth dealing with later, the inevitable sense of loss that must follow.
About The Photographs
The photographs represented here were obtained with medium and large format equipment and derived from negatives printed on Agfa Portriga and Ilford Galerie paper toned in selenium for both visual enhancement and archival permanence.
Photos measure 19 x 14¾ inches.