July 29, 2010

Yosemite, Quarters, and Culture

Today the U.S. Mint released the Yosemite Quarter in its America The Beautiful series; I gave the keynote speech (and played some old Yosemite songs on the piano before and after the event). Here 'tis:

Today’s event raises a question about why people link things together that don’t seem to be related – in this case, quarters and Yosemite. By the way – have you noticed all the cameras around here?! I have this theory that the main cause for the erosion of Half Dome is from all the pictures that people take of it. But Ansel Adams liked to say that you don’t really take pictures – you make them. And for thousands of years people have come to Yosemite and made stuff – baskets, pictures, poems, legends, music – just all kinds of things.

My artist wife, Diane, explained this compulsion – she says: “I exist, therefore I make stuff.” One could argue that stuff – tee-shirts, ancient fire circles, ashtrays, bedrock mortars – all this stuff is in some way a part of Yosemite.  It’s my understanding that, a long time ago, this valley was a lake – full of water – no trees, no Visitor Center – it was maybe 8,000 years ago that the lake drained, and things started living here that scientists call indigenous, and, according to the archeological record, that would have to include people.

People – who instinctively make stuff, just as naturally as birds make nests and ground squirrels make holes – people, who make campgrounds, historic chapels, and those long strips of compacted soil we call hiking trails, all somehow a part of Yosemite.

Everybody brings their culture to Yosemite, whether it’s somebody a thousand years ago making a basket, or Bethany Gediman making this nice picture of El Capitan (used for the engraving on the back of the quarter), or John Muir making music to entertain a Douglas Squirrel. You do know John Muir sang to squirrels, right? It’s documented. Muir wrote “I would sing the songs of Robert Burns to the birds and squirrels, and they would be charmed out of their fear and all gather close about.” So, even John Muir brought his cultural behavior to Yosemite. This isn’t a disconnected ecosphere that we stand back and passively observe – consciously or unconsciously, we all weave our culture and ourselves into Yosemite.

Now, a magazine article in 1999 said this: “Over the years many entertainment-oriented events occurred in the park, most of which had little or nothing to do with Yosemite’s natural wonders. The motivation was simply to attract more visitors to the Valley.”

These sorts of statements are debatable. I don’t think that a thousand years ago the people who were dancing around fires here were trying to attract tourists, and isn’t Yosemite our motivation for coming here? – not the things we do to entertain ourselves once we get here. People sometimes question the presence of things they think are inappropriate in Yosemite – pizza, souvenirs, dancing, theater, entertainment – a music critic in 1927 complained that “jazz is a profanation,” and that people shouldn’t listen to jazz while they’re in Yosemite.

But one of our most venerated rangers, the late Dr. Carl Sharsmith, said he couldn’t hear that old dance song, “Smiles” – remember? – “There are smiles that make you happy…” that one – he said he couldn’t hear that song without it reminding him of Yosemite. So where’s the connection between a dance song and Yosemite? Where’s the link between a U-shaped glacial valley and a plastic souvenir? It’s in our hearts. Why put El Capitan on the back of a quarter? You get it. It’s a symbol, something physical we can carry around that’s connected to this place we love.

When I was a kid I bought this plastic compass, and on a bad day at school I could set the compass bearing to a certain number and it would point to our favorite campground – it was right over there, right that direction, just over the horizon.  So – when you find yourself in some unlikely place, maybe to buy a newspaper, and you pull out a quarter and suddenly see El Capitan, just think about the mountains of quarters that are spent by caring people for the protection of America the Beautiful. Look at the picture, and let it point your heart right over here, right this direction, just over the horizon – and you know what’ll happen. You’ll be right back here … right back in our beloved Yosemite. Thanks to the Mint! Well done! Thank you very much. I’ll see you in Wawona.