Short version: the fires in the Yosemite region are all doing very well, have remained within the control lines for at least a few days now and are producing little smoke. Air quality is very good and everything in the park that was closed by the fire has reopened. No sequoia trees were lost and the Mariposa Grove, including the grove shuttle, has reopened. The one exception is the Washburn Trail, which is where the fire started, presumably because of hazardous trees.
We have long since resumed our normal activities. Tom went for a nice 9-mile run on July 30 with great views and we have resumed climbing and running and hiking and are taking a few days off next week to go backpacking. Conditions are currently excellent.
The Washburn Fire started July 7 and currently stands at 4,886 acres. It has seen no growth in four days and has only grown 30 acres in the last 10 or 11 days. It is 97% contained and the remaining 3% is burning in rocky terrain at low intensity within the control lines. Fire crews have almost fully demobilized from that fire.
The official source of information, as for all wildfires on federal lands, is the Inciweb page for the Washburn Fire. As the Washburn crews demobilize, there is no longer a daily briefing because for all intents and purposes, this fire is done. You can view the actual operations briefing for the fire crews on the YosemiteFire Facebook page.
The Oak Fire started July 22 and currently 19,244 acres, which is unchanged over the last few days. Almost all residential areas have been repopulated, with a couple of small exceptions as fire crews continue to work on a small section on the NE flank and as the power company crews try to secure the electrical system in communities that were hit by the fire. The NE flank is still not marked as controlled, but according to the recent morning briefings, they have made a lot of progress and are in a mop up mode as they strengthen and deepen those lines until they feel confident to declare it contained.
The best source of information on the Oak Fire is on the CalFire Oak Fire Incident page. You can view the daily operations briefing on the CalFireMMU Facebook page. These briefings are usually under three minutes and give a great overview of what’s happening on the fire.
Western Fire Chiefs Association fire map. Super helpful map that shows very clearly growth from the current day, the previous day and prior to that. You can also click on the fire and it will give you growth in the last 24 hours. This is a national map that updates in real time as new data is released.
Smoke impacts tend to be most intense during periods of fast fire growth and these fires have been no exception. During the fast-growth phase of both fires, we had really really bad air. After a respite and some great conditions as they got a handle on the Washburn, the Oak put an end to that.
Air quality in the last several days has been good to excellent. We have generally been within the EPA “Good” range, which means better than most days in Los Angeles. If we are going to have bad air, it will not be from these two fires.
Air quality can vary a lot with conditions (wind direction, fire intensity, inversion layers). Air quality forecasts tend to be rough estimates and much less accurate than weather forecasts.
Real time air quality from AirNow.gov (search on Wawona, CA, to zoom in on the right spot). This map shows both regulatory-grade and low-cost sensors. The regulatory grade are more accurate. The low-cost sensors are mostly Purple Air, which tend to be way off without the woodsmoke correction factor. It is better to view those on Purple Air and apply the proper correction.
Purple Air. These are cheap sensors that can be way off, but there are more of them in more places, so they help round out the picture. If you compare the regulatory-grade sensors in Wawona and Yosemite Valley to Purple Air sensors right near them, you can see a major variance. Sometimes Purple Air is very low. Sometimes it is very high.
Smoke Forecast. From Hanford weather station. Take with a grain of salt, but these forecasts seem to be getting better each year.
This is a short hike to a historic fire tower with a nice view of the canyon formed by the South Fork of the Merced River. It is also a relatively open area with a helipad, so if it is a good place to go for stargazing. Just make sure you have flashlights for the hike back.
Normally, you can park on Azalea Lane. Use common sense and be respectful though. Do not block driveways or the road or dumpsters or the access road and, of course, do not park here during snow removal. If you cannot safely and practically park on Azalea, you can park in the circle on the street next to it (Dogwood Lane) or down at the large parking lot at the condominiums. Neither of these options adds a whole lot of distance.
To get there from Alpine Escape, drive up out of the neighborhood like you are returning to the highway. At the mailbox shed, instead of making the left to the highway, take a right up past the condominiums. At the T-intersection, turn left, take the right turn, pass Dogwood Lane, then take a left into Azalea Lane.
Continue past the end of Azalea Lane where the road turn to dirt. Just past the steel gate, take a right up the hill. If going up for sunset or stargazing, make a careful note of the intersection. We have had a guest get go up to the lookout for sunset and get turned around in the dark on the way back. Instead of taking the left back to their car (only 100 steps away at that point), they took the right downhill and wandered for two hours in the dark.
After an S-turn above the water tanks, the grade relaxes and you have an easy walk to the fire tower. You’re there!
Early Snow, Mariposa Grove New Year… and nothing until April
We had a promising start to winter with a couple of feet of snow in early December and then about three feet just after Christmas.
For several years, we have known that you could camp in the upper reaches of the Mariposa Grove (above the Clothespin Tree) in winter. But whenever we had time, there was no good snow and when the snow was good, we didn’t have time. This year we finally made it happen and spent New Year’s Eve in the Mariposa Grove.
Then it all dried up. Instead of shoveling, Tom was taking allergy medication because of the heavy pollen. By April 1, the snow survey crews were reporting 41% of normal snowpack. It turns out we did a poor job of documenting the melt off, so the one picture taken while climbing will have to stand in for three months without precipitation.
Fortunately, we finished with an unusually snowy April with over two feet of snow, most of it falling in a single late-April storm. It was enough to get in one last ski. We’ll see soon how that impacts the May 1 snowpack, but we’re hoping the cold weather and additional snow will help us claw back a bit from that low April 1 snowpack.
Tom snapped the last photo up at the Yosemite West guardrail at the end of the storm on his way back from plowing after one of the smaller storms.
Spring visitors to Yosemite, looking around and seeing only deer with no antlers, sometimes ask rangers, “Where are all the bucks?”
People more familiar with deer will know that bucks lose their antlers in late winter and regrow them over the course of the spring and summer. So when you see a deer in March, whether male or female, you won’t see those characteristic antlers.
Pause for just a second to think about how amazing it is that these animals regrow and then shed their antlers every year. Deer antlers are unlike anything else in the mammal world. They are among the fastest growing tissue in the entire animal kingdom. They are not just majestic, but also fascinating to medical science and to casual observers like us!
And that’s just the beginning. Did you know scientists can get mice to grow antlers? Do you know about the unique antlers of Yosemite’s most famous deer ever? Did you know that some Asian deer don’t have antlers at all, but something much scarier?
Look at these two guys below who stopped by the house on April 26 with just their short spring antlers. We don’t know at this point how large these antlers will get.
A healthy, mature male with excellent nutrition will grow these out to a majestic “rack” with over three feet of “spread” by September. Mule deer average about a quarter to a half inch per day of antler growth throughout spring and summer.
Other members of the deer family (Cervidae) are even more impressive. In a single day, elk can grow an inch of antler and moose can add a full pound. Still, this is nothing compared to the extinct Irish Elk (actually a deer, not an elk). It could grow and regrow antlers up to twelve feet (3.5m) across.
Just how do they do that?
That’s just what scientists trying to understand bone growth, regeneration, and other basic science questions want to know.
Wait, Antlers are Bones?
Yes! Antlers are bones. People sometimes confuse antlers with horns, but they are very different. Horns are mostly keratin, the protein that makes up hair, claws, hooves, feathers and, yes, horns. Horns are found on both males and females, grow continuously, are permanent, hollow, and grow from the base. They are found in cattle, bison, buffalo, sheep and several other mammal families.
Antlers are altogether different. Antlers are unique to deer and only found among males except in reindeer, including caribou. Most uniquely, though, they are shed and regrown every year.
That requires a significant outlay of energy and nutrients for the male deer. Just like other bones of the body, the thickest part of the antlers have a spongy interior that contains bone marrow, which is where the body makes blood cells. In other words, the antlers are full-fledged bones that do all the things bones do.
During the growing phase they are soft and made up mostly of water and protein. They are covered with “velvet” that is rich in nerves and blood vessels. As summer ends, antlers stop growing, mineralize and harden in time for “rutting” season when the bucks use their antlers to compete in pushing contests. The winner is the one who gets to mate.
The fuzzy velvet that covers a deer’s antlers during the growth phase is how all the nutrients get to those growing bones. Because these growing antlers are mostly water and protein, they are relatively fragile.
So in addition to having a rich blood supply, the velvet is full of nerves and highly sensitive. In fact, it’s so sensitive that deer can be seen gingerly avoiding branches and brush in order to avoid injuring the velvet. This helps ensure they get a nice, symmetrical rack to increase their chances of mating in the fall.
We might think that antlers are a formidable weapon for defense, but that’s only true once they harden and shed their velvet. Their main purpose is to challenge other bucks during the rut and to display dominance, not to fight off coyotes. If a buck in the velvet phase is forced to fight off a predator, he will actually fight with his hooves and protect those antlers from damage. They are too precious to risk in a fight, and too soft and too sensitive to be effective anyway.
It is only late in the season, when the antlers are fully formed and hardened and ready for contests with other bucks that the velvet dies and falls off. And what does a deer do with that discarded velvet? It eats it. Can’t let all that good protein go to waste!
The Life Cycle of a Yosemite Deer’s Antlers
Of course, this cycle is more or less the same everywhere, though the timing might differ a bit here and there due to climate.
March. Bucks shed antlers as early as January, but rarely. Shedding is most common in March.
April. New growth starts 2-4 weeks after shedding.
July. First forking of antlers is achieved. Before this, all bucks will have just a single spike. Once they reach full size, they will begin to harden and mineralize.
September. Antlers have grown to full size and strength. At this point the velvet dies and bucks then start “horning” brush and trees to scrape it off.
October or November. Necks swell to prepare for rutting contests.
November to January. Rutting Season. Mostly a pushing contest where the goal is to drive the rival to his knees. Once achieved, the dominant male “runs” a female for several days until she lets him mate with her. Once that’s done, he starts running another female. This lasts into January, sometimes into February.
Once the mating season is over, the bucks shed their antlers and the cycle starts all over again.
Notice in the photos below how the bucks sparring in the top photo from September still have thin necks. In the second photo, where they are in it for real, the necks have thickened and are ready for the real contest.
Where Do All the Antlers Go?
The deer population of Yosemite probably numbers in the thousands. If only a thousand bucks are shedding 2,000 antlers every year, where do they all go? You would think that 2,000 antlers shed year after year would start to become a bit of nuisance. Why don’t we see them all the time on hikes?
There are a few reasons. The first is that the deer don’t follow our trails, so a lot of the antlers end up in places humans don’t frequent. In addition, the deer often go to lower altitude to shed antlers. Still we see deer tracks in our area all winter, so they must be shedding antlers in our area.
So after many years, shouldn’t there be antlers everywhere?
Mature, hardened antlers are about 40% protein and 60% minerals. That makes them a great nutritional supplement for squirrels and other rodents who do not have subscriptions to Amazon Prime and can’t get their calcium supplements delivered by UPS. Also, rodents need to gnaw in order to maintain their teeth. When they find an antler, they gnaw on it. Porcupines are particular fans of deer antler, but in our area they only inhabit the lower reaches of the deer’s range. That leaves squirrels as the great recyclers of all that calcium, phosphorous and protein tied up in deer antlers. And thanks to them, the woods are not littered with years of antler accumulation.
What would happen if there were no squirrels? It turns out that we know the answer. The squirrel population of California generally and Yosemite in particular was devastated by disease in the early 1920s. For years at a time into the 1930s, as few as a single pair of squirrels were seen in Yosemite Valley. The grey squirrel almost went extinct in much of California. In 1925, a few years after the collapse of the squirrel population, park naturalist Carl Russell went walking an area where deer were known shed antlers. He found more than two dozen single antlers in less than a mile without leaving the trail. Without the squirrel helpers to break down the antlers, they apparently did start to accumulate in the 1920s.
Antlers and Medical Science
Antlers are the only appendage that any mammal regenerates. They also grow faster than almost any tissue in the animal kingdom and are probably the fastest growing bone in the world. You can see why scientists are interested in antlers. If we understood antlers better, we might conceivably be able to regenerate a lost finger, heal broken bones faster or prevent and reverse osteoporosis.
Scientists have long known that there was something special about the cells at the base of the antler, the pedicle, from which the antler regrows every year. In the 1960s, researchers transplanted pedicle cells to the leg of a deer and it started to grow an antler on the leg! Even more surprising, they have transplanted pedicle cells to the forehead of a mouse and guess what? The result is this somewhat disturbing picture of a mouse with a sort of unicorn in its head. Do not try this at home!
More recently, scientists have discovered the key genes that allow the deer to grow bone so quickly. In 2018, researchers at Stanford identified one gene that promotes the exceptionally rapid growth of antlers and another that promotes the exceptionally rapid hardening of antlers. Both of these genes are present in humans and linked to bone development. Understanding them better could lead to therapies for osteoporosis and other bone diseases.
And that’s not all. There could even be implications for cancer research. Why can’t other mammals regenerate appendages? Nobody knows for sure, but deer commonly suffer from deformities or uncontrolled growth of their antlers. It appears there might be some sort of tradeoff. You can have rapid growth and regeneration, but it might come at the cost of being more susceptible to that other form of rapid growth, cancer. So the study of deer antlers might have clues to what causes runaway cell growth and how to control it.
More Fun Facts About Antlers
If a deer is injured in the right front leg while the antlers are growing, the right antler will be deformed or stunted. But if the deer is injured in the right hind leg, the left antler will be deformed or stunted.
Mule deer antlers can weigh over 30 pounds, much of which is calcium.
To get all the calcium they need for their antlers, deer take it from their own bones, by preference non-weight-bearing bones like ribs. This means they get temporary osteoporosis every year.
Antlers have been important to humans for thousands of years – they are one of the primary tools used for flintknapping, that is making arrowheads, spearheads and the like from flint and obsidian.
The number of points on an antler do not indicate the age of the deer. In general, antlers get larger with age up until about 5.5 years old (the buck’s sixth summer) then stabilize. As a deer ages they can get smaller each year.
If you’ve made it this far, now we get to the really crazy stuff! Here’s a quick bit about Yosemite’s most famous deer and deer species that don’t grown antlers at all, but something much scarier looking.
Yosemite’s “Rhino Buck”
Unquestionably, the most famous deer in the history of Yosemite was an ancient old buck people called Old Horny. He got his name because he had a third antler growing out of his forehead. Three-antlered deer are rare, but not unheard of. Typically, however, the third antler grows out of the frontal bone like the other two. Old Horny is believed to be unique in that his third antler grew out of the nasal bone.
He was much beloved by visitors in the 1920s who frequently fed him buttered toast, back when feeding the animals was a standard part of a national park visit (please don’t revive that tradition!). When he finally died, it was discovered that he was exceptionally old. His teeth had been ground all the way down to the gums, a sign of extreme old age in a deer.
That’s not a surprise — antler deformities are more common as deer age and Old Horny’s twisted antlers were another testament to his advanced age.
What could be stranger than a three-antlered deer? How about a saber-toothed deer! If you live in parts of Asia where the water deer come from, or in the UK where they are considered invasive, you might know about deer with tusks. For most of us in North America, though, the thought of innocent little Bambi with deadly tusks is a bit unsettling.
How in the world do you end up with a saber-toothed deer? There are in fact several species with tusks. It turns out, that antler size correlates to the size of the animal and, below a certain size, antlers are just not effective fighting tools. All the deer with tusks are under 15kg.
They also live in dense forests or jungle and are solitary rather than herd animals. This is important because antlers allow for bloodless competition among bucks. Herd animals do not want to shed blood, because they do not want to draw predators to the herd. Also, deer with antlers tend to live in open areas where they can display their large antlers from a distance as a dominance display. In tight vegetation, there’s no advantage to a big rack visible across distance and it just gets hung up in the vegetation. So these small, solitary jungle dwellers have tusks.
It turns out that ancient deer may have had both tusks and antlers, but as they evolved, one came to dominate based on the size, habitat and social life of the deer. However, even our nice Bambi mule deer have to potential to grow tusks. On occasion, hunters who kill a mule deer find that in fact it has canines up to an inch long. In other words, the basic genetics for tusks remains latent, it just is not expressed since antlers are so much more useful in the places mule deer live, like Yosemite.
All of that is somewhat theoretical, but it’s the best guess of the scientists who published the wonderfully-named most recent research article on this: “Stabbing Slinkers: Tusk Evolution Among Artiodactyls,” by Doreen Cabrera and Theodore Stankowich in Journal of Mammalian Evolution, Vol. 27, Iss. 2, (Jun 2020): 265-272.
Wrap Up: Your Turn.
I hope all that deepens your knowledge of our deer, and yours too if you have them near your home. I also hope that the images of the “stabbing slinkers” will not trouble your dreams!
There’s a lot more one could say about antlers, but maybe we already said too much. Our goal with these articles is to expand people’s knowledge and appreciation of the natural world around them. We find these explorations interesting, but maybe you would rather read about different things. If you have ideas for things related to Yosemite nature or history that you would like to read about, let us know by email or in the comments. We would love to read your suggestions!
There are countless articles about antlers on everything from the Smithsonian website to hunting blogs. A lot of state departments of wildlife have nice pages too. These are some fun articles as well as some of the more esoteric, academic sources that played into this article.
Fun and not too scholarly:
What are antlers and why do deer have them? at Wildlife Online. This is a great, detailed, non-scholarly overview with some excellent photos, including photos of sectioned antlers, infrared photos of deer during the antler growth phase and after and lots of interesting stuff.
Update, May 27, 2022: Tioga Pass Road is open for the season. There may be construction delays.
In general, there are no set dates for any of these events. The roads close when we get snow and they reopen when the plows punch through. Sometimes in a low-snow year, it can still take time to get the roads open. In 2021, for example, we had a drought year, but clearing Glacier Point Road was slowed by the large number of downed trees from the Mono Wind event.
In other words, there is no scheduled opening date and we usually do not know when the road will open until shortly before it does.
If you’re a bit of a gambler, you can make an educated guess based on the full list of opening and closing dates since 1996. As all the investment houses say, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Next year could be the snowiest year on record or the driest year on record.
Still, you can run some basic calculations. See below the videos to see what the odds are that a given road is opened or closed by a given date.
Why Does It Take So Long?
This video from an April flyover from 2017 (a big snow year) shows the scope of the task.
And this tells you a bit about the plowing process:
If you’re a gambler and you want to play the odds, you can make some guesses based the NPS list of opening and closing dates. That list gives more details, but here are the running tallies for how common it has been for the roads to be opened by a given date.
Glacier Point (1995 to 2020)
Opened by Mar 31: 4%
Opened by Apr 30: 19%
Opened by May 10: 38%
Opened by May 20: 58%
Opened by May 31: 88%
Opened by Jun 11: 92%
Opened by Jul 01: 100%
The median opening date for the Glacier Point Road is May 16 (1996 to 2015).
Tioga Road (1995 to 2020)
Opened by May 01: 0%
Opened by May 15: 27%
Opened by May 31: 62%
Opened by Jun 10: 65%
Opened by Jun 20: 81%
Opened by Jul 01: 100%
The median opening date for Tioga Road is May 21 (1996 to 2015).
The short answer on this question is that there is a very good chance both roads will be open in early November and a very good chance both roads will be closed by early December.
If we look at the 21 years from 1995 to 2015, inclusive:
Glacier Point Road (discounting three years with no records)
Closed on or before November 10 seven times (39% of years)
Closed on or before November 20 twelve times (67% of years)
Closed on or before November 30 fifteen times (83% of years)
Closed on or before December 10 sixteen times (89% of years)
Closed on or before December 20 eighteen times (100%)
In short, it’s rare for Glacier Point Road to close before November 1, but if you want a better than 50% chance of being able to drive out Glacier Point Road, come in early November.
Closed on or before October 31 three times (14% of years)
Closed on or before November 10 eight times (38% of years)
Closed on or before November 20 fifteen times (71% of years)
Closed on or before November 30 eighteen times (86% of years)
Closed on or before December 10 nineteen times (90% of years)
Closed on or before December 20 twenty times (95% of years)
In the 2011 season, the Tioga Road did not actually close until January 17, 2012.
As for Glacier Point, you have a good chance in early November, but in late November not so much.
You come to Yosemite to be in the great outdoors where transmission is extremely rare. Why does Covid still matter? Why are there limited services? The short version:
Covid creates special challenges for hiring and housing a large seasonal staff in the normal congregate living situations
Welcoming visitors from all over the country means that even when local infection rates are low, there are still potentially a lot of infected people in the park
Not all outdoor recreation happens outdoors as traditionally people would be crowded into shuttles, bathrooms, grocery store lines and so forth.
Agree with them or not, these considerations and probably many others have led the National Park Service to implement the day-use reservation system and limit some other services.
Typical housing in Yosemite involves two or three employees to a room. Even in “good” housing where an employee has his or her own room, it is in most cases with shared bathrooms, showers, kitchens and commons areas. In short, it is “congregate living” like a college dorm with similar complications of a fluid, seasonal population coming from all over the country and arriving in large numbers at the start of the season.
The housing guidelines for the park require single-occupancy rooms for the duration of 2021. This means a substantial reduction in the work force and that makes for a reduction in services.
The upshot of this is that the park will be operating with far fewer employees than in a normal year. That means a reduction in services.
2. Visitors from Everywhere
Our second challenge is that our visitors come from all over. County health officials have been monitoring sewage from Yosemite since early in the pandemic. Before we had any cases reported among park staff and residents, we had detectable Covid in the sewage coming out of Yosemite Valley suggesting that as many as 170 people present in the park over the July 4, 2020, weekend were infected with Covid. All of which is to say that our small rural community is exceptionally porous and is a true mixing pot for people from low-Covid and high-Covid areas.
3. Not all “outdoor recreation” takes place outdoors
People think in terms of what it’s like out on the trails. Sure, trails are sometimes very crowded, but all the research shows that outdoor transmission is exceedingly rare, especially from casual contact like passing someone on the trail. So why the worry?
Most of the concern comes from the parts of a traditional Yosemite trip that are not outdoors: bathrooms, the massive lines at the Village Store, crowded restaurants and so forth. One solution might be to simply close these facilities, but we saw from the government shutdown what happens when people are left to fend for themselves in the park. It was not a viable situation even in the low season.
4. No Shuttles
For various reasons (staffing, crowding), the shuttle system did not operate in 2020 or 2021. That means it takes fewer visitors to create traffic jams. During an April 8, 2021, call with the community, the superintendent said that over Easter weekend, they saw one-hour response times for emergency services to get to Curry Village. This is a 5-minute bike ride, but already traffic was so tight that it took one hour for an ambulance to get through. If we don’t have shuttles, we cannot safely have “normal” visitations levels.
It may seem that there should be no restrictions on people going hiking and therefore no limitations on Yosemite visitation as a result of Covid, but as you can see, it is a complicated situation.
Bette Davis said it best in All About Eve: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” But hopefully, some of the measures put in place will make it less bumpy. In general, those visitors who come find it to be a vastly superior experience with the reduced numbers being a more than adequate compensation for the reduced services!
The 2022 peak-hour reservation system is a bit different than in the past couple of years. It’s purpose is to alleviate traffic jams and peak-hour congestion. Between the hours of 6am and 4pm, you will need a reservation to drive your vehicle through the gate. For our guests, your overnight reservation is your park-entry reservation. You do not need any additional reservation. We are still waiting on the details, but in 2021 we simply entered your information in a database that was available at all entrance gates.
For the most accurate and up-to-date information, always refer not to this page, but to the official park service pages:
A rehabilitation project for the Glacier Point Road has been in the works for several years, and it looks like this year they are finally going to get started on it. The project is planned to span all of 2022 and extend into 2023. That means that the road will be closed throughout the 2022 summer season, and we’ll expect delays in 2023. (Biking will not be allowed on the road during the construction project closure.)
On the bright side, the trails to Glacier Point – the 4-Mile Trail, Panorama Trail, and the Pohono Trail will all remain open. Although these are strenuous/steep trails, those who are able to make the hike will get to enjoy some extra solitude at the top.
Winter Snowpack and Water
The winter season got off to an early start in late 2021 with record December snowfalls, followed by a warm and dry January. The February 1 snowpack was still over 90% of average, but with very little snow after that promising start, the all-important April 1 snow survey weighed in at 41% of normal.
That has several implications. Of course, it means the skiing was not what we would have liked. More importantly, it likely means a return to high tree mortality with two dry winters in a row and hardships for California farmers who will be forced to leave large amounts of land fallow. And, from the visitor perspective, it means an early peak and an early drying of the waterfalls. In dry years, the falls typically peak in early May, as opposed to late May or even early June in a very wet year (the median peak is May 26). In a “normal” year, Yosemite Falls usually goes dry sometime in late August or September. In a dry year, that will happen somewhat earlier.
Shuttle buses didn’t run in the summers of 2020 or 2021 – not in Yosemite Valley, Tuolumne Meadows, or the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. The Yosemite Valley shuttle restarted in December 2021 and the plan is to keep it running from now on, as usual, but Covid outbreaks continue to make staffing difficult in many units in the park. The plan is to run shuttles within Tuolumne Meadows as well as the “hikers’ bus” that runs once daily between Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows.
Mariposa Grove Shuttle Restarting
For the Mariposa Grove, there was more to the decision than Covid and staffing. On January 18, 2021, a devastating Mono Wind damaged infrastructure in the grove – including the new restroom facilities. This impacted the visitor capacity of the grove, and park managers were afraid that the number of visitors that could ride the shuttle buses would overwhelm the portable toilet facilities.
The current schedule is to complete repairs on the bathrooms and restart the shuttle service for Memorial Day Weekend (also based on the January Gateway Partners meeting). Of course, constructions schedules can slide, but that is the current goal.
Tuolumne Campground Closed 2022-2023
The Tuolumne Campground is also beginning an extensive restoration project that is expected to take two years. While this is unlikely to have a direct effect on people renting our home in Yosemite West, we may also see reduced services along that corridor that would normally have been supported by the campground visitors.
On the bright side, Tuolumne Rangers say that they notice a significant increase in visitation when the campground opens, so if you decide to make the trip you may have more of the place to yourself.
We do our best to maintain our place in good condition, but we also try to make upgrades every couple of years so that when our guests return, they find it just a little better than last time. Here are some of the major changes we’ve made. We didn’t start keeping this list until 2021, so things get a bit hazier as we go back in time.
2021: Solar Panels and Battery
In 2021, we added a 3kWh solar array and a battery backup to our house. We have frequent power outages, which can get frustrating, but no more! We now have a battery backup that is tied to the grid, the solar system and, if need be, a portable generator. The first time we had a power outage, we didn’t even notice until the power had been out for a couple of hours, at which point we did a happy dance in the living room.
In the summer, the system lets us run essentially indefinitely, because we generate more juice than we use. In the winter, we will get about a day or two out of the batteries, and then might need to fire up a generator to recharge.
Our location is not great for solar power, but we estimate we will generate about half of our own electricity over the year. As of May 1, 2022, we’re currently generating more than we use. Hopefully that will get even better over the summer. That number would be more, but we’ve been slowly electrifying our appliances to reduce our carbon footprint. Given how unreliable our electricity is, though, we are still on propane for heat.
Also, if you are curious why we chose Simpliphi batteries instead of, say, a Tesla Powerwall or any questions like that, get in touch. Battery tech is changing all the time, but we’re happy to share what we’ve learned.
Other changes in 2021
Added Dish TV. We’ve gone back and forth on this for years. We’re not TV people, but we finally decided to get it for the rental, but not for ourselves. We know that some people will like it and some people won’t. But now guests can perhaps watch the big game.
Adapters to connect iPhone and Android (USB-C) phones to the TV so you can download movies to your phone and play on the TV. Due to the poor internet here, that’s how we do it. We typically download movies over LTE somewhere with a good signal, then watch at home.
Living/Dining upgrades: New dining chairs, ottoman, dishwasher.
Switch to Hughesnet satellite internet. This is not exactly an upgrade. When it works, it’s faster than the T1, but it’s still sub-standard internet and it is less reliable than the T1 which was slow, but rock solid. In any case, we had no choice. AT&T is in the process of shutting off all T1 lines worldwide.
2020: Soundproofing Upgrades
We started 2020 by closing for three months to rip out all the ceilings and upgrade the soundproofing. We got it done just in time to get shut down for another three months due to Covid. Basically, the ceiling is now a double layer of drywall attached to mini shock absorbers. It still isn’t perfect, but it has cut down dramatically on transmission of voice and somewhat, though not as much as we had hoped, on the sound of footsteps above coming through to the downstairs. All in all, though, it’s a substantial reduction in noise transmission between our home and your home.
Other changes in 2020
New refrigerator, which wouldn’t be that noteworthy but for the worldwide refrigerator shortage.
Pergola added to patio. The umbrella on the bistro table just didn’t add enough shade on a sunny day.
2016: Air Conditioning
We added A/C to Alpine Escape mostly because we found a lot of guests from Southern California and the Southeast expect it. But in recent years, it’s also been rather hot and sometimes there’s smoke or pollen or simply noise from down the street in the air. As of 2021, Tom has still never lived in a house with A/C, but now that Alpine Escape has it, he’s starting to get jealous!
Patio seating area. Table for four out under the sugar pine. Actually, a tiny bistro table, but there are four chairs.
2014: Gas Fireplace
Sure, the ambiance of a fireplace is nice. It takes the chill off. It’s romantic. But best of all, it runs without electricity, so when we lost power, there’s a backup heat source. And indeed, we lost power for five days in the winter of 2011 and decided that backup heat was a good idea. As of 2021, we also have a whole-house battery backup, so now it’s sort of a belt and suspenders thing. But the ambiance is still nice on chilly winter eve!
2010-2012: First Years
We did our best to anticipate our guests’ needs, but there was a lot we missed. For the first two years we asked almost every guest: “If there was one thing you could have had that would have made you more comfortable, what would it be?” We got a ton of great suggestions — an ottoman, shelves in the bathroom, a better can opener and so on. Sometimes in later years people would say, “You thought of everything,” and we would say, “No, our early guests thought of half this stuff.” We’re immensely grateful for the insights all our guests have shared over the years, but the guests in these first years really helped us with ideas.
Coming to Yosemite to watch flowers open may sound like the beginning of a joke — Did you hear the one about the guy who went to Yosemite to watch the flowers open?
And yet, when the deer are kind to us, watching the evening primroses open in our yard is one of our great pleasures of summer. The nightly show is so stunning that it was once one of the principal attractions of Yosemite, rivaling Half Dome and the giant sequoias with visitors in the early 1900s. And then, just as Yosemite became world-famous for those blooms, they were gone forever. The story of the evening primrose and how they mostly disappeared touches on a surprising range of topic from the history of the Ahwahnechee, their expulsion from Yosemite, the commercialization of the park, the history of color and motion picture photography, and ultimately humans’ relationship to nature. That’s a lot for one little flower.
Read on to learn about evening primroses.
Part I: The Natural History of the Evening Primrose
Why is watching a flower exciting?
A bit about their ecology.
Part II: Cultural History: The Rise and Fall of Evening Primroses in Yosemite
How they came to be a major attraction in Yosemite around 1900.
How they came to disappear.
What the story of the evening primrose says about the human presence in Yosemite and our relationship with nature.
Part II really gets down in the weeds (bad pun, I know), but if that does not interest you, you can just look at the pictures and videos. Do not skip the video.
What’s so exciting about watching a flower blossom?
In the case of Oenothera elata, aka Hooker’s evening primrose, the yellow blossom almost the size of the palm of your hand opens most of the way in just a few seconds. When people see video of an evening primrose opening, they usually think it’s a time-lapse. On the best nights at our house, it happens over 100 times in about 40 minutes.
A few years ago, our friend Russ of Yosemite Hikes fame took this one-minute video in our yard. It will give you a sense of how fast the evening primrose opens. This real time, not a time lapse:
This shorter video is a time-lapse that shows a five blossoms opening in 15 minutes and 17 seconds, compressed into about 12 seconds.
Basic Evening Primrose Ecology
The evening primrose is a biennial. The first year it grows with just a basal cluster of leaves — no stalk and no flowers. It’s just putting out leaves and capturing as much solar energy as it can and storing that energy in its roots for the big show the next year.
That second summer, it uses the stored energy and the new energy coming in to grow as high as four feet tall and can have a few dozen blossoms. The blossoms last for only one night, coming out at sunset in order to avoid having their precious pollen and nectar taken by day-flying pollen thieves (no judgement, this is just what botanists call an insect that takes pollen and nectar without pollinating the flower). To be effective gathering and spreading the gooey, filamentous pollen strands of an evening primrose, the insect needs to be properly equipped. No insect is so well-equipped for the task as the sphinx moth, who we will meet in a moment.
These blossoms really are intended for the night flyers first and foremost — in the full heat of the summer, the blossoms will be wilted and “dead” by 11am, sometimes earlier.
The pistil, that long thread with the cross at the end (called the stigma) in the middle of the blossom, is the pollen receiver. If you pull it out, the filament is 2-3 inches long. Around it are the stamens with a sort of gooey pollen that sticks to the moths and travels with them to the next blossom. The pollen grain brushes off on the cross-shaped stigma, then travels all the way down that tube to the ovaries to fertilize the seeds. It has to complete that journey overnight before the flower wilts.
The plant then makes hundreds of seeds for every seed pod. The pods eventually dry out and open and that tall plant, blowing back and forth in the wind, ejects the seeds a fair distance, like Father O’Connor spraying the congregation with holy water.
Notice the supporting cast in that video. It looks almost like a hummingbird when you first see it flying, but you will soon see that it is the gorgeous White-lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata).
The sphinx moth’s secret weapon is a very long proboscis that lets it reach deep into flowers that have a large nectar reward. They are known to frequent columbines and we have seen them on pennyroyal, but the evening primrose is clearly a favorite. The sphinx moth is a major evening primrose pollinator. In return, the evening primrose provides food not just for the adults who come for the nectar, but for the caterpillars as well.
Their timing is impressive. We rarely see these moths, but within minutes of the first blossom opening, they arrive. To our human noses, the smell of the evening primroses is subtle, not like the powerfully-scented flowers like azalea. Apparently for a sphinx moth, it’s like Mama Ciccardi’s famous marinara sauce cooking on the stove on a summer evening — within minutes, the smell wafting from the flowers calls them to dinner from the far corners of the neighborhood.
The sphinx moth is not the only pollinator. We see other insects in the flowers sometimes, but typically only in the morning. Carpenter bees (specifically Xylocopa tabaniformis) can be a major pollinator. The overlap in the range between the Xylocopa tabaniformis and the Oenothera elata suggests this is an ancient relationship developed through long co-evolution (Barthell and Knops). In our experience, though, it is the sphinx moth who rules the skies over and around the evening primroses when they open.
When does this happen?
In drought years and wet years, hot years and cool years, the first blossoms are always within a couple of days of Theresa’s birthday at the end of June. The show reaches its peak in early July and goes strong through most of the month and fades by early August, after which it’s just a few blossoms here and there. We’ll still get the occasional blossom into October, sometimes on plants that appear all but dead.
Where does this happen?
The evening primrose is not a rare plant, but it is a favorite food for deer. So while widespread, there are typically only a handful in Yosemite Valley that blossom each year. A century ago, that number was in the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands or even more, but those days are gone (that’s the story of Part II). To the best of our knowledge, the best places to see them are just east of Tioga Pass along Highway 120 (a terrific display there in good years) and at our house, except in those years like 2021 when the deer ravage “our” plants (they aren’t “ours” of course any more than we are theirs).
Taxonomy: a primrose by any other name
The evening primrose is not closely related to the primrose, just like the primrose is not closely related to the rose. They are three distinct flower families belonging to three separate orders. Roughly speaking, that means they share a great-grandparent. The evening primrose is actually somewhat more closely related to the rose than to the primrose. To get technical, roses (Rosaceae family) and evening primroses (Onagraceae family) both belong to the Rosids clade, while primroses (Primula family) belong to the Asterids clade.
Part II: The rise and fall of Yosemite Valley’s flowers
Today’s visitor often comes to Yosemite in hopes of seeing a bear, but very few people make the trip to Yosemite in hopes of seeing a flower open at sundown. In the early 1900s, it was the reverse. There were no bears in Yosemite Valley. When a bear did enter the Valley, most people thought it should be chased off or killed as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, they ranked wildflowers up there with El Capitan and Yosemite Falls as a must-see attraction. The wildflowers of Yosemite Valley inspired some of the earliest color photographs and the world’s first time-lapse movies of flowers. Indeed, time-lapse photography was virtually invented in Yosemite by Arthur Pillsbury, who held a photographic concession in the park from 1906 to 1922.
Among all the flowers of the park, the evening primrose was one of Pillsbury’s favorites. When he first came to Yosemite, he found entire meadows that would turn yellow as the flowers opened en masse. Our small patch on its best days sees 140 blossoms open in 40 minutes, peaking at perhaps 7-10 blossoms per minute. How big were the massive displays of Yosemite Valley, reputed to have turned entire meadows yellow? One hundred blossoms in the peak minute? Five hundred?
Wildflower Tourism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
Wildflowers were such an integral part of the Yosemite experience that when the National Geographic Society ran an article about the park in their weekly Geographic News Bulletin (vol. 1, n. 9; 3 April 1922), they titled it, “The Park of a Thousand Flowers — Yosemite,” and noted that “Yosemite National Park is beloved especially by children because of its many flowers.”
It seems strange, in our era of video games and Red Bull athletes to think that children were drawn to Yosemite for the flowers, but apparently it was so which speaks to a different aesthetic in 1922 than in 2022.
That publication was aimed at teachers and clearly some read it. Later that year, The Western Journal of Education (vol. 82, no. 7, p. 8-9) ran an article on “Yosemite National Park for the Educators” that described Yosemite Valley in these terms, highlighting the central importance of the evening primroses (my emphasis):
Decorate these walls with titanic structures — El Capitan, Half Dome, Sentinel Rock, Cathedral Spires, Cathedral Rocks — chiseled smooth as glass in many places, then stud these walls with foaming cataracts that flash in the sun, Yosemite Falls… Bridal Veil…. Carpet the meadows with Mariposa lilies and evening primroses and other blossoms which have made Yosemite known as the “Park of a Thousand Flowers.” This is Yosemite Valley.
Western Journal of Education, 1922
The “thousand flowers” referred to the thousand species of flowering plants, but writers also frequently mention the profusion of flowers on the Valley floor. In short, for the visitor of 1922, the flowers of Yosemite Valley rivaled El Capitan and Yosemite Falls in majesty in a way that is rarely the case a century later.
The Decline of the Evening Primrose
And yet, by the time these publications came out in 1922, the golden age of the Yosemite Valley flowers was over. In the Handbook of Yosemite National Park from 1921, the great botanist Willis Jepson wrote regarding the evening primroses (my emphasis):
One of the remarkable sights of the upper reaches of the Valley in midsummer are the fields of tall yellow Evening Primroses… In favorable seasons the dry open fields about Yosemite are often yellow with these stately plants. Many of the finest groups, however, are now a thing of the past, due to the mowing of the meadows for wild hay.
Jepson, Handbook, p. 254
In her 1929 survey of flowers in Yosemite Valley, the naturalist Enid Michael noted that, “June of the year 1920 witnessed the last great bloom on the floor of the Valley” (Giddens and Heady, p. 25). Joseph Dixon, writing in 1934, said that in a survey of Yosemite Valley in the late 1920s, only six evening primrose plants had been found in the whole valley (Dixon, p. ?? [get page no. from copy in Yosemite Research Library]).
A few years later, the Wildflower Man of Yosemite himself, photographer Arthur Pillsbury, wrote (my emphasis):
Unhappily this Primrose is now almost extinct in the Yosemite meadows. The mowing machine took its toll and since it has been put on the protected list the deer have acquired a fondness for the leaves, not hesitating, either, at blossoms.
Pillsbury, Picturing, p. 54
What was still a highlight of a Yosemite trip in 1910 had all but disappeared by the 1920s. The naturalists lamenting the loss of the evening primroses typically point to two factors: farming and deer.
Why did deer become a problem for Yosemite flowers in the 1920s? What changed? Why were there so many flowers in 1910 and why were they all but gone by 1922?
Flowers in the Valley before 1900
After the glaciers receded, Yosemite Valley was a wetland or a lake. As the lands silted up and the waters receded, there is some evidence of ancient forest in Yosemite that was wiped by either rock slides or fires, either natural or manmade (Gibbens and Heady, p. 8-9).
For at least a few thousand years, inhabitants of Yosemite Valley set fire to the meadows annually, typically in the autumn. This made it easier to harvest fallen acorns and promoted the growth of plants with edible bulbs and tubers. Many of the common flowers we know today were prized as root crops, like Elegant Brodiaea (Brodiaea elegans), Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum), Mariposa Lilies (various Calochortus species), and many more. See the wonderful article by M. Kat Anderson and Frank K. Lake on the various “geophytes” (roughly speaking, “root crops”) prized and eaten traditionally in California.
The meadows were also important for plants such as dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum). Dogbane was not an important food crop. As the name suggests, it’s poisonous at least to dogs. It was essential for making twine which could be used to make nets, traps and anything else requiring rope. It was therefore an essential material for the residents of Yosemite Valley.
The Valley was sometimes described as “swampy,” but the new guardians of the Valley brought changes. It’s likely that swampy crops like onion were common, though they are rare today. Meanwhile, those same moisture levels made the meadows inhospitable to the native pines, firs and oaks. The Ahwahnechee practice of burning the meadows was important also kept tree encroachment at bay.
It also appears that the Ahwahneechee used fire to hunt the deer in Yosemite Valley, and probably elsewhere (Ernst, p. 39). So the fire that kept the trees from overtaking the Valley also helped keep the deer population down and, therefore, prevented the deer from eating so many of the Valley’s flowers. Indeed, oral tales speak of the Ahwahneechee going up to the Valley rim to hunt for deer, presumably because deer were not sufficiently abundant on the Valley floor.
As soon as the burning stopped, the size the of the meadows started to decrease. The European-American methods of controlling the brush through cutting was far more labor intensive than burning. It was impossible to keep the overgrowth at bay and the meadows began to fill with brush and forest. A survey in 1868 found that there were 745 acres of meadow in Yosemite Valley. By 1937, only 327 acres of meadow remained (Gibbens and Heady, p. 24).
In addition, the European-Americans changed the hydrology of the Valley. Blasting the recessional moraine near El Capitan in 1878 for the express purpose of draining the Valley had a major impact on the meadows. Road building and utility pipes, often becoming cracked and abandoned, also impacted the hydrology of the Valley and accelerated the drying of the meadows (Gibbens and Heady, p. 8 and passim). With the drying came more brush, more trees, and fewer flowers.
All of these changes that came with the expulsion of the Ahwahnechee combined to create a Valley floor that had far less meadow and much more undergrowth than it had in perhaps thousands of years. Still, the 1937 state of the Valley was far less forested than what we have become accustomed to in the twenty-first century. In addition, the absence of grazing animals there, either wild or domestic, meant there was a lot less predation of those flowers that did grow. The result was undoubtedly a greater quantity of flowers than we know today, but beyond that we mostly know only about the species that were used for food, and precious little even about those.
Yosemite Valley from Invasion to National Park
After the Ahwahneechee attacked a couple of trading posts, the Mariposa Battalion invaded Yosemite Valley in 1851 and forced the Ahwahneechee out for the first time. The tribe returned that winter, but most were forced out definitively in 1852. Though a small number resided in the Valley into the 1960s, they effectively lost control of their lands and therefore the meadow burning stopped in the 1850s and the meadow drying began soon after, with the consequences we’ve just seen.
Those consequences did not, of course, happen immediately. In 1855, just four years after the initial invasion by the Mariposa Battalion, an early tourist wrote that Valley was rich with strawberries:
The wag of our party said that any man who would find three feet square in a space of six hundred acres, where we encamped, that did not have the strawberry on it, should have the pleasure of shooting through his hat. The search was made for the space; but our friend says his hat will never have a hole through it from this proposition.
Reprinted in Browing, p. 219.
In 1864, Yosemite Valley became a California state park, but it was managed much less actively than today. Despite its status as a park, settlers and business people soon began grazing cattle and horses and plowing for crops. At least 20 acres of El Capitan meadow were plowed and sown with fodder for horses and cattle. Many other meadows were plowed or used as pasture for both horses and cattle. By 1887, 150 acres of Stoneman Meadow was under active cultivation. People began to complain and in 1890 new rules were passed to reduce farming in Yosemite Valley. Nevertheless, the government plowed and planted Ahwahnee Meadow from 1910 to 1914. Other meadows were not plowed, but they were mowed for “wild hay” as late as 1924 (Gibbens and Heady, pp. 4, 21-22).
Despite this history of plowing and mowing, Yosemite Valley nevertheless had breathtaking displays of flowers, with the evening primrose as one of the stars, perhaps the star of the show. How is it, then, that the evening primroses thrived in the presence of mowing, and yet disappeared about the time mowing stopped?
Naturalists of the time point to two factors. First, before the mowing ended, it moved to new locations and wiped out some of the best surviving collections of flowers. Second, the deer population boomed. By the time the plowing and mowing stopped, the number of deer was sufficient, as it is now, to all but eliminate the evening primrose from the valley.
Yosemite Valley: Death Trap to Animals (Or: Why the Deer Didn’t Eat All the Flowers in 1900)
We think of deer as numerous and ubiquitous in Yosemite Valley, but it wasn’t always the case. As we saw in the discussion of Ahwahnechee practices, deer had probably been rare on the Valley floor for hundred, perhaps thousands of years. With the influx of settlers and their guns in substantial numbers, along with most large animals, were hunted to extinction on the Valley floor.
Though the national park had been created in 1890, Yosemite Valley remained a state park under state management. Rules against hunting were widely ignored. In 1905, Yosemite Valley became part of Yosemite National Park. The next year, the U.S. Army, who managed the larger national park, took over management of Yosemite Valley as well. In his 1906 report, Acting Superintendent Major Harry Benson reported to Washington about the conditions he found on taking charge of the Valley (my emphasis):
The Yosemite Valley itself has, during recent years, been a death trap to all game that was unfortunate enough to enter it. Practically every person living in the valley kept a rifle, shotgun, and revolver, and any animal or bird that was unfortunate enough to enter the valley was immediately pursued by the entire contingent, and either captured or killed. A bear pen constructed about three years ago was found by me within 400 yards of the Sentinel Hotel.
During the early part of September two bears entered the valley, causing great consternation among those people who had been living here for some time, and they all seemed to think that these bears should at once be pursued and driven out.
Benson, Report, p. 10.
To make matters worse, during those years, the army only managed the park from May through October. The rest of the year, only two rangers oversaw the entire park. Benson noted that, as the two rangers did little patrolling, “the game scarcely receives any protection from them.”
Those conditions were terrible for the deer, but marvelous for flowers. The valley floor was reputed to be white with camas lily in the early season and yellow with evening primrose in July. It was during this period that Arthur Pillsbury took his famous hand-tinted photos of evening primroses and, later, his time-lapse movies of them opening.
As late as 1908, Acting Superintendent Benson was still worried about the low deer population and intensive hunting. But from 1909 on, the annual reports of the Acting Superintendents repeated every year that the deer population was increasing. This hurt, above all, the evening primroses. As we have found in our yard, the deer seem to love this plant as much as we do. Of course, the process took time. In his 1910 book, The Yosemite Valley, Galen Clark still noted that the evening primrose was “very common in Yosemite.”
After about 1910, the evening primroses faced greater pressure from both deer and mowing. Initially, the rise of the automobile reduced the need to grow hay and graze the meadows as there was no longer a need to feed and stable the horses that brought tourists to Yosemite (Gibbens and Heady, p. 5). At the same time, the burgeoning tourist trade in Yosemite required fresh milk and meat. In the days before refrigerator trucks, fresh milk and meat required local cattle (and a slaughterhouse, from which Slaughterhouse Meadow in Yosemite Valley gets its name). And local cattle needed hay.
Despite the predations of the plowman and the deer, however, the flower remained an attraction. The July 31, 1922, issue of Yosemite Nature Notes still suggested that visitors go out into the meadows to watch the evening primroses open.
Sounding the Alarm in the 1920s
By the 1920s naturalists in the park had sounded the alarm: the flowers were disappearing. In response, the park service and the concessioner made various attempts to hold onto the tradition of Yosemite’s great flower displays. In the early 1920s, Yosemite’s Curry Company tried to plant wildflower gardens in Curry Village with poor results: “Although plants commonly grazed by deer were avoided, the project was abandoned after three years of unsuccessful attempts to keep out the deer.” (McLelland, Chapter 4, section “Grounds of the Concessionaires”).
During the planning of the Ahwahnee Hotel, a 1927 memo called for a “plant refuge” around the hotel because, “It is well remembered that the meadows many years ago were filled with evening primroses” and other plants (McClelland, Chapter IV, my emphasis). Note that already in 1927, people thought of the spectacular blooms as something that happened “many years ago.”
After a rough start, the plants were fenced in to protect them from deer and elk, the latter having been introduced into Yosemite. In 1929, Horace Albright, the new director of the National Park Service, commented that the Ahwahnee plant refuge was “‘the only place in the valley where native flowers’ could ‘be seen in any profusion’” (ibid.). Around 2010, as I was relating some of this history to long-time ranger Bob Roney, it sparked a memory. He told me that the evening primroses were still there in the early 1970s and, though he didn’t know the history, he remembered watching them open from a seat by the window in the Ahwahnee Dining Room the night he proposed to his wife.
Meanwhile, the park service began maintaining flower exhibits behind the new museum, first with cut flowers gathered from around the park and, beginning in 1929, with a live garden protected from deer. The garden expanded under the direction of naturalist-ranger Enid Michael. In 1935, the curators planted evening primrose. This collection of now-uncommon flowers “became the object of popular evening walks” (McClelland, Chapter IV and Chapter VI).
During my ranger days, I would occasionally encounter long-time park visitors who remembered going to the museum garden in the evening to see the evening primroses open. In 1941, Enid Michael wrote an article for Yosemite Nature Notes (vol. XX, no. 4, p. 30-31) on the “Guests of the Evening Primroses,” about the carpenter bees and sphinx moths. She still waxed poetic about the show the flowers put on as the sun went down, but she located that show in the Museum Garden, not in the meadows of Yosemite Valley as the author of the 1922 article had done.
Evening Primroses Today
Over time, even the Museum Garden and the Ahwahnee Hotel “plant refuge” disappeared. Now, only visitors with a sharp eye and good timing will find evening primrose blooming in Yosemite Valley. Every year there is at least one place in the disturbed soil along the roads in the Valley that you can find an evening primrose that has survived the deer. By far the best collection grows along the road just east of Tioga Pass. It is perhaps the last place where, on a good night, you can see hundreds of plants produce perhaps 1000 blossoms. The next best place is our house in a year when we succeed in keeping the deer away.
Humans, Nature and Evening Primroses
The story of the evening primrose in Yosemite raises some interesting questions about “natural” places and whether there is such a thing or, more precisely, whether there is a real difference between “natural” places and other places.
When I first came to Yosemite in 1985, I imagined I was walking through a landscape preserved through visionary action from time immemorial just as it always had been so I could appreciate it in its natural, almost primordial form. The naivete of that young rock climber shocks me now, but both the rock climber and the culture around him have evolved somewhat in the intervening forty years.
Of course, even the most superficial reflection reveals my naive first impression to be untrue — a landscape formed by the Big Bang, plate tectonics and glaciers has no “original” form outside the Singularity. A slightly deeper reflection would have highlighted the obvious fact that there were virtually no uninhabited places in America in 1450 and still less so in 1850, so there was no primordial, untouched place to preserve in 1864. Still, I imagined that it had changed little over the last few hundred years, setting aside the accoutrements of industrial tourism such as roads, trails, hotels, vacation rentals and rangers.
The understanding that the place I thought of as stable could have changed so much in 150 years took years to appreciate. The hotels were obvious as was the absence of Ahwahnechee hunters. Only over time and with increasing knowledge of natural history, though, did I come to see that large patches of the Valley are almost entirely populated with cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), which did not even exist in North America until the late 1800s. The common mullein (Verbascum thapsus), which grows widely throughout the Valley, was brought over by Europeans and planted as a medicinal (for stomach ailments). And many of the Valley meadows are full of Kentucky Bluegrass which, despite it’s name, is a Eurasian species, not a native of Kentucky let alone the Sierra Nevada. A century of fire suppression has radically changed the composition of our forests. They are far denser than before and biased toward small, shade-tolerant trees rather than the massive fire-tolerant (even fire loving) trees of the past.
All of that poses an obvious question: what do we mean when we talk about “natural” landscapes and going into the outdoors to experience “nature?” Is Yosemite today, with its roads, hotels, restaurants, exotic Eurasian plants, dense cedar and fir forests, and huge deer population, natural? Was the Yosemite of 1906, with no deer, plowed meadows and a magnificent show of evening primroses in unplowed areas, natural? Was the Yosemite of 1800, with double the meadow and a tiny fraction of the undergrowth that we know today thanks to annual fires set by the Ahwahneechee, natural? Was the marshy valley of 5000 years ago, before the arrival of people, ipso facto more natural than the dry valley that humans lived in? Do humans, by our very presence render a place less natural? It is now clear in the Anthropocene that there is no landscape that has not been influenced by humans, so how do we distinguish between a place like Yosemite Valley and a place like Manhattan?
Once you ask these questions, it becomes clear that simple words like “natural” and “wild” are inexact labels for slippery concepts. Better minds than mine have devoted entire books and careers to wrestling with those questions. Rather than hazarding an answer, I will end with a quote from historian William Cronon:
If wilderness can do this—if it can help us perceive and respect a nature we had forgotten to recognize as natural—then it will become part of the solution to our environmental dilemmas rather than part of the problem. This will only happen, however, if we abandon the dualism that sees the tree in the garden as artificial—completely fallen and unnatural—and the tree in the wilderness as natural—completely pristine and wild. Both trees in some ultimate sense are wild; both in a practical sense now depend on our management and care. We are responsible for both, even though we can claim credit for neither.
Cronon, The Trouble with Wilderness
And that is why I have avoided calling the evening primroses that grow near our house “our plants.” We feel responsible for them, but we cannot claim credit. They are their own plants.
Many sources are either cited in full or linked in the text. The sources that are mentioned just by author name are here given in full:
Barthell, John F. and Johannes M. H. Knops. “Visitation of Evening Primrose by Carpenter Bees: Evidence of a ‘Mixed’ Pollination Syndrome,” The Southwestern Naturalist, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Mar., 1997), pp. 86-93.
Benson, Harry C. The Report of the Acting Superintendent of Yosemite National Park to the Secretary of the Interior, 1906 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1906). For other reports (1908, 1909, etc), it’s a simple matter of looking to the subsection “Game” for the acting superintendent’s comments on the deer population.
When we explain our recycling guidelines to people, they are often surprised and say things like, “In our town, they recycling all plastics #1 through #7.” This is based on a misconception about the difference between what is accepted and what is recycled, and there is a huge difference indeed.
Aluminum cans, pure aluminum foil. Aluminum is one of the most recyclable materials in the world. It takes 95% less energy to recycling aluminum than to make more from scratch and the resulting product is just as good as the virgin material. If nothing else, recycle this.
Clean steel cans.
Clean #1 and #2 bottles without full-length sleeves, round tubs and pails. No other plastics, no clamshells, blister packs, black microwave trays even if labelled #1 or #2.
Put These in the Trash:
Paper: Coffee cups, take-out food containers, paper plates, cash-register receipts, paper towels, napkins, facial tissue, wax-coated cardboard, pizza boxes, frozen food boxes, label backing sheets; or paper coated with food, wax, foil or plastic. No waxy refrigerator cartons such as milk & juice cartons or shelf-stable cartons such as soup, soy milk, juice & wine cartons
Glass: drinking glasses, window glass.
Aluminum: if you aren’t sure it’s “real” foil, trash it. Wish-cycling an aluminum composite (e.g. Tetra pack) could contaminate a load.
Plastic: All plastics except #1 and #2 bottles, round, food-grade containers and tubs. That means that all of the following go in the trash: small bits of plastic, almost all packaging, yogurt containers, clamshells, blister packs, all plastic bags. Even though marked as #1 or #2, black microwave trays are not actually recyclable either.
Batteries are special
Please leave spent batteries on the counter. California law prohibits batteries in either recycling or trash. They have to be handled specially.
In my town they accept all plastics. Why not here?
Plastics #3 to #7 were never actually recycled. Up until 2018, plastics 3-7 were sent to China and mostly incinerated or landfilled. However, large amounts of them washed into the ocean. Much of the ocean plastic is the result of all of us well-meaning recyclers putting plastics 3-7 into the recycling for 20 or 30 years.
In 2018, China stopped accepting the world’s garbage, but the US and UK still export most plastic waste to poorer countries where they often cannot properly handle them.
For five years, Recology employed a chemical engineer with 25 years of plastics manufacturing experience. He was given the mission to find something that we can do to with single-use plastic waste; his work netted no practical results… there exist few, if any, viable end markets for the material. Which makes reuse impossible.
That sad truth is that, for the most part, we were simply told a comfortable myth by plastic manufacturers that made it feel good to put the plastic in the blue bin instead of the brown one, but we likely did more harm than good in doing so.
Now China won’t take our trash and 180 countries have agreed to the Basel Convention agreeing that OECD countries will not send their plastic trash to non-OECD countries. However, the United States and the United Kingdom (as a result of Brexit) are not signatories to this agreement. The result is that we still send our low-grade plastics to poorer countries or, as The Guardian reveals, simply landfill it from Los Angeles to Florida.
A Guardian investigation reveals that cities around the country are no longer recycling many types of plastic dropped into recycling bins. Instead, they are being landfilled, burned or stockpiled. From Los Angeles to Florida to the Arizona desert, officials say, vast quantities of plastic are now no better than garbage.
Of course the article is wrong when it says this plastic is now no better than garbage. In fact, it never was.
Isn’t it better to put it in recycling just in case?
Actually wish-cycling is worse than throwing it in the trash.
Contamination. First and foremost, you can contaminate the entire load, leading it to be landfilled even though it has recyclable materials. So wish-cycling can be like a form of negative recycling that negates the effort of getting high-quality materials into the blue bin.
Energy cost and carbon footprint. Our trash needs to be shipped only 52 miles to our landfill, while “recycling” needs to be shipped hundreds, even thousands, perhaps across the ocean. It’s not even clear it’s worth it for good plastic, but it is definitely not worth it for plastic that just gets landfilled at its faraway destination. It’s just an expensive trip around the globe for what is actually trash.
Ocean plastic. Our local landfill is a modern facility that sequesters toxic materials and covers the trash with dirt at the end of each day. Of course, some plastic escapes, but little of it makes its way into waterways and oceans. If, instead, I put my #3 plastic in the blue bin, it gets a long trip to an open dump in Malaysia, where it has a high probability of ending in the ocean. It really is worse. This opinion is shared by the New York Times: “Though many American communities dutifully collect plastic for recycling, much of the scrap has been sent overseas, where it frequently ends up in landfills, or in rivers, streams and the ocean.”
Fairness. Is it fair for us to export our pollution to poor communities in foreign countries? Strangely, through decades of indoctrination, it feels like the right thing to do, but it really isn’t until such time as domestic recycling capabilities improve.
Is this really true? Can I read more?
This is a topic I have been reading about and following for years, but I am not an expert. It’s just what I’ve learned from a variety of publicly-available sources, corroborated by what I hear from a friend who attends conferences on waste management, zero-waste efforts and recycling. But if you have a reliable source that contradicts, corrects, updates or adds to this, I’d love to hear it. My goal is not to take a position, but to find and share the best available information.
How can I learn more?
For a quick and fun overview, see John Oliver’s take which seems to mostly agree with the more “serious” sources I read.
A March, 2021, article from the New York Times reveals that the US is still shipping much of it’s non-recyclable plastic to poor countries with poor waste management facilities even though 180 countries have signed a ban on the practice. The reason is simple, the US did not sign the accord.
A brief, clear overview from Frontline. Frontline points out that “recyclable” does not necessarily mean better — some recyclable materials take much more energy than their non-recyclable counterparts, even if recycling is taken into account.