The principles of “leave no trace” were our religion. We thought we were safeguarding a hallowed place. But we were learning how to swim when a tsunami was coming.
Back then, I fell hard for Yosemite’s awesome beauty. But over those months of reaching deep into its canyons and meadows along the veins of hiking trails, what awed me most was its might, its invincibility. Those 3,000-foot cliff drops and rushing waters were gorgeous, but they were threatening, too. Yosemite’s — and by extension, nature’s — power felt limitless.
The park’s magisterial hunks of granite have been there for what feels like forever. Part of the Sierra Nevada range that forms the backbone of eastern California, they were shoved up into peaks millions of years ago. Later, a glacier carved the U-shaped valley. We humans, I was sure, could do nothing to this place by comparison.
Now, almost 30 years later, in what might be the most profound shift of all, the power dynamic between humans and Yosemite has changed. To see nature so vulnerable not only feels depressing, but wrong, disorienting and scary.
“It’s reminiscent of that moment when an adult child starts to experience their parent not just as a caregiver, but as someone who is starting to need care,” Alejandro Strong, an environmental philosopher who founded Apeiron Expeditions to lead people on trips into the wilderness, told me after I’d returned home.
We talked about the transcendentalists. “Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller — their accounts of nature are that it’s perfect,” Dr. Strong said. “You would go and learn from this limitless teacher. Nature was pure truth. It offered access to the infinite, a stand-in for God.” Yosemite brought to its knees shows how naïve it was to think so.
We’ve had it upside down all along. Nature wasn’t ever invincible — and we know this because we’ve been able to hurt it so much, Dr. Strong says. Because we had a long period of stability until recently, we thought nature was all powerful, that it would be here forever. “We’re being shocked out of that now,” he said.