Inspiration Points

Happy Isles in Yosemite was the site of a massive rock slide in 1996. Today you can see the remains of the rockfall in boulders, broken trees, and disrupted landscape. One trunk, still standing but broken and hollowed, reminded me of “Spire”, Andy Goldsworthy’s artwork in San Francisco’s Presidio.

Spire is a carefully constructed tapered column of cypress logs, held together in such a way as to look entirely natural and effortless. The column rises 90 feet above the floor of the Presidio, near an aptly chosen location, Inspiration Point. It is an art work typical of Andy Goldsworthy.

Goldsworthy, a British artist who oversaw this project in 2008, is known for creating works of natural materials, in natural settings, and subject to the changes that occur in the outdoors. His creations fit into their settings, yet surprise us with their unusual order or patterns. The artist’s hand is invisible but implied. So, for example, Goldsworthy’s Wood Line (2011), also in the Presidio, is a series of Eucalyptus trunks arranged in a curved line through the Eucalyptus forest. The Eucalypus trunks are expected; the orderly curves are not.

Conceiving of Spire and constructing Spire, Goldsworthy faced challenges. The logs were chosen from an inventory of fallen trees left from the culling of the forest. Their trunks were massive, weighing as much as 17,000 lbs. each. Their trunks were not always straight, and had to be bent to fit the tapering vision. The construction had to be strong but unseen, managed with cranes and cherry pickers.

This “Spire” takes its place among San Francisco’s other spires. The church spire of Saint Ignatius, and the Transamerica Pyramid once dominated the landscape, but now disappear among other skyscrapers. Likewise, “Spire” dominates its setting today, but in time will disappear among the younger and replanted trees.

Hiking in Yosemite High Country

Last week we hiked and backpacked in Yosemite with an able and informative guide, Kari. In 3 days we hiked 24 miles along the Pohono, Panorama, and the John Muir Trails, and camped for 2 nights. Our route started at the Tunnel View trailhead, with a steep uphill climb over a rocky (Kari called it “technical”) and unshaded path. My first impression was regret that I had committed myself to 3 days of this exercise. It was hard to appreciate the scenery as I stepped gingerly over loose rocks and dry sandy soil.

Our first break was a viewpoint at Mile 1.3, Inspiration Point; and it is aptly named. By this time we had climbed to 5,390 elevation, and had earned a view of Yosemite Valley and Bridalveil Fall. John Muir took Teddy Roosevelt to Inspiration Point in 1903 when they explored Yosemite together.

Our next two days consisted of one breathtaking view after another breath-taking hike.

In time, I came to enjoy the exercise, and the atmosphere. Kari was a wealth of knowledge about the names and features of flowers, birds, trees, and geologic forms. We passed by Stanford Point, Crocker Point, Dewey Point, Taft Point, Glacier Point and others.

The trees provided welcome shade along our route. We hiked through white fir, red fir, sugar pine, lodgepole pine, ponderosa pine and others. The ponderosa pine has long needles, in bundles of 3, with a jigsaw puzzle bark. At higher elevations, 7,000 feet, it yields to Jeffrey pine, with similar features but a fragrant, vanilla-smelling bark. The lodgepole pine twists in the wind and often twists further as it declines and dies. You can see these unique curves in the grain in one of the lodgepole pine trunks at our first campsite.

Purple, white and yellow wildflowers abound in Yosemite this time of year. But a highlight was certainly the snow flower. This striking stalk-like plant shoots straight up, with an unapologetic bright red coloring. It contrasts sharply with the forest floor, seemingly out of place. Kari explained that it is named for its tendency to poke noticeably out of the snow, early in the spring. Lacking chlorophyll, it is a parasite, feeding off the fungi of tree roots. It blooms from May to July in Yosemite, part of the heath family.

When we reached Sentinel Dome, Kari asked us if we wanted to add 1 mile to our itinerary and climb the Dome for another excellent view. I surprised myself by agreeing. Sentinel Dome offers 360 degree view of the Valley, Half Dome, and points beyond. The skeletal Jeffrey Pine tree on top was once photographed by Ansel Adams (1940) but has since died.

By our third day of hiking, I was stronger and more ambitious. I had acquired a newfound respect for the grandeur of Yosemite and a better understanding of experiencing the park out of the crowded Valley.

Native Craft in Yosemite Valley


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Last month I visited Yosemite again. Spring is a wonderful time of year …early for tourists but not for wildflowers, blooming dogwood, or cascading waterfalls. This time I visited the Yosemite Indian Museum and walked through the replica village located behind the museum. The displays and interpretive boards tell of various native customs and crafts, but also announce the decline and disappearance of many of the customs and their practitioners.

Fortunately, inside the museum, Julia Parker is quietly preserving the basket making craft for all visitors. At age 85 she is the longest serving employee in Yosemite. As a Native American (Kashaya Pomo and Coast Miwok who married a Mono Lake Paiute) she learned her skills from the best basket makers of the past. Today she is the best: an artist, a teacher, and a preservationist.

Baskets were always important to the natives in California and came in all shapes and sizes depending on their use. We know that the indigenous peoples tended their land carefully to produce the sedge and deer grasses they needed to create fibers of the right shapes and lengths. They used fire as a catalyst for plant growth and to remove pests and debris.

The women in the tribes wove conical “burden baskets” for gathering and storage. They created flat-bottomed “cooking baskets” for preparing food. They wove flat “seed beater” and “winnowing baskets” and small gift baskets…all served a purpose in their society.

Native women became so skilled at making baskets that even at advanced ages, eyesight failing, they could create useful works of art.

Julia gives credit for the beauty and utility of her baskets to her plants and fibers. She gathers her raw materials in winter from local streambeds. Some favorites are willow and red bud. When she harvests, she takes care to say a prayer, ask “please” and say “thank you” to the earth. She takes only what she needs. Each fiber is stripped, dried and bundled in preparation for the work. The willow creates a light yellow background while red bud creates red-colored designs. If bracken fern is used, it creates black highlights. Designs are not pre-drawn, but are conceived in the artist’s head and materialize. Julia prefers designs with triangles and zigzags and she may add some sparkle on occasion.

Julia’s work can be viewed in Yosemite, in the Smithsonian, and in other museums around the world She is proud to have been selected to create a basket for Queen Elizabeth on her visit to Yosemite in 1983.

If you visit Yosemite in late September 2014, Julia will be giving a basket weaving class with her daughter and granddaughter. She will help you make your first basket and then, as Native American tradition dictates, she will instruct you to give your first basket away.