And I’ve been to the groves of Sequoia Big Trees,
Where beauty and grandeur combine,
Grand Temples of Nature for worship and ease,
Enchanting, Inspiring, Sublime!
– From The Big Trees of California by Galen Clark
I cry every time I visit the Mariposa Grove. The forest of Giant Sequoias, our planet’s largest living things, surround me with a feeling so sacred I practically want to throw my arms above my head while prostrating myself and whispering – because the grove is like a temple or a cathedral, shouting hardly seems appropriate – “We’re not worthy!”
Protected more than 150 years ago by a president who never even set foot in the Sierra Nevada, President Abraham Lincoln set the Mariposa Grove and the Yosemite Valley aside as one of the world’s first protected areas – for all Californians, for all time. When the grove and the valley were made into a unit of the newly formed National Park Service 125 years ago, even more Americans and global citizens came to see the bounty of nature’s glacial-carved offerings.
I remember Yosemite Superintendent Don Neubacher telling a gathering of Yosemite supporters in 2011 that he often chose not to wear his Park Service uniform so that visitors, not knowing who he was, might share what they really thought about the park. He had been strolling around Glacier Point, and many visitors had asked him to take their photograph, including a group of women from Cleveland who made him do several takes in case any of them had closed their eyes in the pictures. Neubacher then ran across a woman in a dreamy trance, her gaze resting on Half Dome. She told Neubacher what a wonderful time she was having, that she was visiting from Germany, and that she couldn’t get over the vista before her. That’s wonderful, Neubacher said. I saved my entire life to come here, the woman added. That struck a chord with Neubacher, who can still be taken aback by the lengths to which people will go to see Yosemite.
The stories in the needles, the bark, the cones, the seeds of the Mariposa Grove, are what get me – for this is the birthplace of conservation, land protection, the national park movement, the environmental cause and the power of people to change the course of our planet.
Take Galen Clark – a hapless widow and father of five who in 1853 traveled alone from Philadelphia to California to make some money in the goldfields; he hoped to send a substantial sum back to his children. Unsuccessful in striking gold, he kept camps for a mining company. He was nearly penniless and destitute and on top of that he became so ill with a respiratory ailment that he was given practically no chance of survival.
Following the publication of the Mariposa Gazette’s article on Yosemite by James Mason Hutchings, Clark accompanied a group of men to see the Valley for themselves. Clark, like any visitor today, found Half Dome’s height a true wonder. But he liked the meadows near present day Wawona even more. He filed an agricultural claim in 1856 and built his own station to welcome travelers weary from the spine-crushing stagecoach rides.
But Clark’s health declined precipitously as his lungs hemorrhaged; Clark figured he had little time left, so he set out to make the best of it and walked without a hat and without any shoes in order to improve his blood flow. Instead of getting worse, he got better and one year later stumbled upon more than 500 Giant Sequoia trees. Timber harvesters were on the move, eager to fell the spectacular trees. Clark dedicated the remainder of his life to saving the big trees near his cabin. Clark counted every single tree and made measurements of their circumference as part of a scientific baseline inventory. He called the stand of trees the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees in honor of the county where they stood. Abhorring attention, he tore down a sign that friends attached to one of the trees, “Galen Clark Tree.” Clark was the first appointed “ranger” after the area was saved from development and lumber harvesters. He later befriended a botanist and budding writer on his first visit to the Mariposa Grove – John Muir. Galen Clark died at the age of 96, having infected many a traveler with the passion of the big trees, including Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Galen Clark is part of a long line of people who stood up for nature. That legacy continues. Thanks to a public-private partnership between the National Park Service and Yosemite Conservancy, the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias will be restored in order to safeguard these irreplaceable trees and improve our ability to not only go on protecting them, but to enjoy them in the way that Galen Clark would have appreciated – with reverence and gratitude for their majesty and miracle of survival. Unfortunately, the Mariposa Grove is also a place where one can study how we used to think natural resources ought to be managed. We built asphalt roads and parking lots near the Giant Sequoias’ root systems, we drove tourist trams on routes so narrow that the tram cars sometimes scraped the sides of the trees and we failed to prepare for the crowds, many of whom missed the meaning and educational opportunities within the Grove.
Today, trees such as the Fallen Monarch, the Bachelor and Three Graces and the Grizzly Giant, still stand (or in the case of the Monarch, lie down) in the Mariposa Grove. But you’ll have to go soon. The Park will close most of the grove for the next two years so that a critical habitat restoration and visitor experience project can get underway (you will still be able to access the Outer Loop Trail by foot or horseback using trails from Wawona and Fish Camp; the upper grove includes the fallen Wawona Tunnel Tree, Telescope Tree, and the Mariposa Grove Museum.)
It is essential that we support the Park Service’s closure in order to give the trees a fighting chance against the march of time and a climate that’s heating up. When the restoration is complete, the Mariposa Grove will tell its stories even more effectively and create a sanctuary from our daily anxieties and fears. Inside the quiet of the forest, we will not only remember Galen Clark and John Muir, but also the men and women who restored the forest, and the public and private capital that made it happen. Gifts of $10 as well as gifts of millions bring us all together to repair the damage done.
We have made many mistakes when it comes to preserving the heritage of the plants and animals that share this planet, but we also have the power to do something about it. That, the big trees may well agree, makes us worthy.