After the fall
On Dec. 19, 1913, the Hetch Hetchy Valley disappeared. With the stroke of a pen, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Congressional bill that authorized the construction of the O’Shaughnessy Dam. Ten years later, the Hetch Hetchy — 7 miles long and up to 1 mile wide, Yosemite’s northern twin — started to flood.
More than 90 years later, the decision still haunts. In 1987, Secretary of the Interior Donald Hodel proposed tearing the dam down, and similar rhetoric could be heard just last fall. Now the Schwarzenegger administration is studying the costs and benefits of restoring the valley. If studies prove correct, tearing down the dam is not complicated, but imagining the outcome is.
Novelist Greg Sarris has studied the environmental reports and historical documents, looked at the computer-generated designs and read the journals of one of the valley’s earliest chroniclers, John Muir. The result is a short story that takes us to an imagined future, Muir’s cathedral, where the law of unintended consequences is slowly unfolding.
The massive lake shinks; 360,000 acre feet of impounded water begins to disappear.
Stumps from giant oaks felled nearly a hundred years ago appear beneath the surface like shadows. What spirits rise?
Big news: After years of maneuvering, Congress authorizes the restoration of the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Pomp and circumstance, a formal ceremony will take place in four months on Dec. 19, the 100th anniversary of the Raker Act, which allowed San Francisco to build the O’Shaughnessy Dam and flood the valley. But already restoration has begun; the water is receding. The granite cliffs grow taller.
I am perched on a large boulder below Wapama Falls — a mere mossy dribble on this August day — and in the shade of a madrone. Noontime. My company: a scraggly pine on the cliff above, a stoic observer; and, flitting branch to branch in a nearby oak, a blue-tailed scrub jay breaking the warm stillness with a periodic squawk.
Little in the landscape indicates change thus far; nothing portends the future. The water level has dropped 10 feet, only slightly widening the watermark — that swath of bleached granite — surrounding the lake. Still, birds sing, trees and rocks absorb the sun. Across the lake’s glass, a motionless surface, the immense rock Kolana, 2,000 feet higher than the valley’s floor, stands like a sentinel clocking summer’s slow progress to autumn.
And the place — the granite walls, the flooded valley — begins to speak with a multitude of voices, a complex history — peoples, plants, animals, even water — rising, and the past is all I have. My Miwok ancestors said not to mention the dead. If spirits attempt to speak, they said, run. But the world is upside down. Spirits in this emptying place are all I have. What else can I do but consider them?
John Muir speaks to me. He saw what no one living has seen — the valley before it was drowned: “The pines sway dreamily, and you are shoulder deep in grass and flowers the sublime rocks of its walls seem to glow with life while birds, bees, and butterflies help the river and waterfalls to stir all the air into music .” He called it “a grand landscape garden.”
He first visited Hetch Hetchy in 1871. But he wasn’t the first nonnative visitor; nor was the garden exactly as the natives had known it. For at least 20 years cattle and horses from the westerly foothills had roamed into the valley, grazing and dropping dung loaded with nonnative seed stock. The shoulder-deep grass Muir speaks of was no doubt wild oat, a species that supplanted native grasses everywhere in California. Birds likewise aided the spread of foreign grass and plant species.
Before Muir: Joseph Screech, the first European known to have seen the valley, a mere passing hunter in 1850. “Mere,” for Hetch Hetchy, like its southern twin Yosemite, was “discovered” in 1851 by James Savage who led the Mariposa Battalion on a mission to capture the Ahwahneechee, a tribe of resistant Sierra Miwok, who had raided his trading post on the Fresno River before fleeing into the hills.
The discovery, thus, was an accident of war. As it was nearly 50 years earlier when an expedition of Spanish soldiers, sent from Mission San Juan Bautista to explore the territory as a possible locale for a new mission, was overwhelmed near this spot by a siege of monarch butterflies. Father Pedro Munoz, who accompanied the soldiers and kept a journal, wrote that the creatures became “extremely troublesome,” aggressive, so thick in numbers that “they obscure[d] the light of the sun.” Today the county is named Mariposa.
Later, the Spaniards came upon several abandoned villages along the Merced River. The native inhabitants, except for an old woman left behind, had fled into the hills, well ahead of the soldiers. When the soldiers approached, the old woman jumped into the rushing water and fought efforts to rescue her.
The Sierra Club’s dream is to return Hetch Hetchy to its native splendor. It will take between 80 and 120 years, they say — the reservoir emptied; O’Shaughnessy Dam completely removed; the Tuolumne River again free; the valley floor open, seven miles long, from a fourth- to a half-mile wide.
The plan, outlined in a National Park Service report in 1988, calls for a phased draw-down of the reservoir to manage the revegetation and reintroduction of animals. Each year countless native trees and shrubs will be planted and fenced — “at least 500 black oaks and a combined subtotal of 400 white alder, black cottonwood, Douglas fir, dogwood, willows, azaleas, manzanitas, and ceanothus.” Likewise with the animals — foxes, bighorn sheep and bobcats, a wide variety of bird species — except for wolves and grizzly bears. No one knows whether or not the wolf was ever an inhabitant.
The Park Service’s plan was drawn largely from Muir’s observations — and later photographs and paintings. Digital recreations show Muir’s majestic vistas: " the oaks assembled in magnificent groves with massive rugged trunks four to six feet in diameter, and broad, shady, wide-spreading heads. The shrubs forming conspicuous flowering clumps and tangles are manzanita, azalea, spiraea, brier rose, several species of ceanothus, calycanthus, philadelphus, wild cherry, etc.; the abundance of showy and fragrant herbaceous plants growing about them or out in the open beds by themselves — lilies, Mariposa tulips, brodiaeas, orchids, iris larkspur, columbine, goldenrods, sunflowers, mints of many species .”
I have to shut my eyes to see it. Today the hills are dry, a uniform straw color interrupted only by the green of occasional oaks and pines; and, farther below, the ashen gray of granite. Then the flat sea of water.
Shortly after I arrived this morning, I spotted a lone peregrine falcon circling over the lake. I was excited, thinking somehow the bird was an omen of great things, of stupendous finds, insight even. My plan was to traverse the circumference of the reservoir, stepping off the dam and starting along the eastern walls past Kolana, and then coming back west. Counterclockwise, the holy direction for the Sierra Miwok. But trails ended shortly, and steep cliffs made further travel impossible. Maybe the park ranger at the gate was right: “Not much to see at this point.”
Totoya, she’s another. Odd that she is the last I hear, but no wonder: The last Miwok to have memory of Yosemite — and presumably Hetch Hetchy — before European contact, she was the granddaughter of Tenaya, the Ahwahneechee chief who surrendered to Savage. One of her granddaughters had a son “under a tree by a stream” in the still-open valley, then later abandoned the child to relatives before marrying a dam builder.
Caretakers and destroyers married. And on April 20, 1931, Totoya — later called Maria Lebrado — died, not long after Hetch Hetchy was flooded.
And the future: Agents, all of us, to undo and restore, undrown and retrieve. What picture then? What story?
Might my companions — the stoic pine, the noisy jay — know something more than us, as if Hetch Hetchy were itself a single grand oak cracked apart, and this ring of bleached granite along its walls a chronicle of the 100-year flood? And the lone peregrine falcon this morning, was it seeing rabbits and squirrels beneath the lake’s glossy surface?
Tourists gather at the Visitor Center, which is modeled after an Indian roundhouse. Only much larger in scale — 400 feet in diameter, three stories high. Its granite gray walls look impenetrable. But inside, light pours from floor-to-ceiling transparent panes, lending the place an open, cathedral-like feel.
You don’t have to think here. Dozens of TV monitors tell you where you have been — the parking lot — and where you are going — the course of the park tour. You can know everything. For example, why you and your vehicle were so carefully scrutinized with X-ray cameras. The park is hyper-vigilant for environmental contaminants — oil on tires or the soles of your shoes — and invasive species — seeds in uncooked trail mix, a single spore attached to a pant leg.
On one screen there is a digitized history of Hetch Hetchy. I maneuver the film quickly forward, past the dismantling of O’Shaughnessy Dam and the present, to what I’ll never see — Muir’s Eden, 60 years yet to come.
Outside, the midmorning light is bright. “Park guides” lead tours through the valley. “Park gardeners” work in its groves and flower beds. Ten of us collect on a wide platform that overlooks the valley. Our guide provides a brief overview of what we’ll see, in case we hadn’t gleaned as much from the monitors. He is 20-something, enthusiastic. He explains the rules too: essentially that we mustn’t wander from the group or touch anything without first asking. His talk is peppered with environmental truisms and buzzwords. Survival of the wisest. Collectivize. Interrelate. Connect.
It’s been 30 years since my first visit. My ancestral homeland today: undrowned.
The long view is magnificent. The falls against the valley’s northern walls, Tueeulala and Wapama, are as Muir saw them: the former “waving like a downy scarf, silver bright, burning with white sun-fire in every fiber”; the latter, a short distance east, “thundering and beating in a shadowy gorge.” The freed Tuolumne River winds along, a ribbon of light, its banks dotted with clumps of willow and cottonwood. Orchards of oaks cluster farther from the river; and, spreading from the trees in every direction, carpeting the valley floor, flowers: a patchwork of purples, pinks, and yellows. Lupines and Mariposa tulips, goldenrods and sunflowers.
Our first stop is the nursery. Plexiglas hothouses protect peat beds of countless seedlings to be transplanted — grasses, plants, trees. Chicken-coop-like barns shelter birds and animals, fledglings and the infirm. Our guide gloats over three California condor chicks huddled under a heat lamp. We learn the condor was the last native bird to be introduced. The helpless chicks look like skinned rodents rolled in dandelion down.
The nursery was well-camouflaged behind a wall of pines. We didn’t see it from the platform that overlooks the valley. Likewise as we round a prominent granite cliff, traveling below the northern walls, the nursery disappears. Yet lower in the valley, closer to the river, signs of human intervention appear again: leaf-green nets draped over trees and across flower beds; mesh fences that enclose marshes. The park’s “intensive management program” at work.
On the trail we pass “gardeners” pushing wooden carts carrying young plants and tools, shovels and such. They wear earth-toned uniforms and pay little attention to us, even when we stand sometimes only 10 feet away as the guide explains what they’re doing: planting brodiaea bulbs, trimming deadwood from a copse of Douglas Fir, mapping with white flags a stretch of grass and unwanted fir and cedar saplings for the next prescribed burn.
We hike back out of the valley, then rest below Wapama Falls. It’s a remarkable view south across the river and flat meadows to mighty Kolana, what I couldn’t have imagined 30 years ago. The open landscape, a young — not yet bald — bald eagle soaring overhead, two fat pronghorn feeding on manzanita bark just below us.
Our guide notes that restoration is on schedule. Boundaries for most aboriginal plant communities have been established, some are stabilizing. Many of the trees have not reached their full height — the Douglas firs and incense cedars need another 40 years — but everything is in place.
As proof, he takes a folded reprint of a painting from his shirt pocket and asks us — shouting over the booming falls — to pass it around. The artist was William Keith who, on a trip with Muir in 1907, painted the view a year later. Indeed blotches of purple are in the same spot below Kolana: lupines. Yellow too, by a bend in the river: buttercup and sunflowers. Alders and cottonwoods and willows are where they should be; azaleas below the pines and dense ceanothus on the rocky rises.
Muir remained optimistic after Congress passed the Raker Act in 1913, proclaiming, “wrong cannot last, soon or late it must fall back home to Hades, while some compensating good must surely follow.”
The battle for Hetch Hetchy was the first Americans took against growth and development. It galvanized the Sierra Club, transforming a hiking association into arguably the nation’s most powerful conservation organization. The Sierra Club, 100 years after the Raker Act, got back Hetch Hetchy, in the end certainly a “compensating good.”
But it is not easy or perfect. Nor has it ever been. Strife persists. Nature’s strange dynamism is beyond our control. Two hundred years ago, wild oats overtook the native purple needle grass and clover. Later, Savage’s battalion colonized the Sierra Miwok. Today blackbirds and starlings are sworn enemies. Deer and big horn sheep wreak havoc on newly planted grass; raccoons retrieve reintroduced fish from the marshes.
Ever an end to nets and fences?
From here, above the valley floor, you can’t see these barricades. It’s a view, like Muir’s and Keith’s, that presumes an absence of human intervention, history. The landscape seems virgin. The viewer can even forget — certainly not be reminded of — his presence and effect on the land. Even Lafayette Bunnell, a member of the Mariposa Battalion, kept a memoir in which he described the bloody battles and then remarked on the landscape’s majestic beauty. We marvel at all we see.
Of course we now know the limits of the dream to restore Hetch Hetchy. There’s no shoulder-deep grass here and there never will be. We compromise and mutter: Easier to break something than to fix it.
My Miwok ancestors cultivated the oak groves. They gathered acorns, yes; but each fall raked away old leaves and nuts to prevent moth larvae from destroying the trees. They planted bulbs and thinned sedge along the marshes for better harvests. Seems a relative harmony.
But they had to learn. Archeological records indicate instances of environmental plunder: destruction of entire herds of buffalo over cliffs in Montana; overfishing — to the point of extinction — varieties of clams and mussels on the Pacific Coast. And not just learn but develop stories that shaped for them — always reminding them — of the necessity for a shared existence with the natural world.
But Indians had millenniums to learn; we don’t. The oceans rise. Glaciers that lined the spine of South America are completely gone. Deserts grow. Forests shrink. Invading species, new diseases. In the last century war forced the migration of untold millions. This century the culprit is environmental neglect.
No one here naively enjoys the view. No one came here for that. None of us is different. We’ve learned to hope. It’s an informed and urgent hope. We know all the words for nets and fences and know that if a better story isn’t made here, it won’t be made anywhere.
I sit below Wapama Falls; perhaps I’m on the same boulder you sat on when you first visited. Same company too: a squawking jay; a scraggly pine, stoic observer on the cliff above. But what I see you only imagined.
" the oaks with massive rugged trunks four to six feet in diameter” in full splendor, magnificent, each grove an immense edifice, a palace on the valley floor. Dwellings of willow and cottonwood and alder overlook the gold-lit Tuolumne and its bogs and marshes. Purples and yellows so intense in this light you’d think the flowers — irises, lupines, goldenrods and sunflowers — had swallowed a share of the sun.
Bighorn sheep travel east below Kolana, blending with the landscape but for their white rears. Below me, a deer exits her cover of manzanita; two fawns with faded white spots follow. What’s in the low brush I can’t tell — a coyote waking for its nighttime prowl, chipmunks, lizards?
Oh, and the birds . Close to me, in addition to the jay: a pileated woodpecker mounting the trunk of a sugar pine; smaller birds darting about the brush: finches, sparrows and wrens. Doves flap overhead, going north to roosts higher in the hills. A pair of peregrine falcons twirl and dive in the distance, not hunting; but joyously playing, if not merely boasting their skill in the air. A condor glides in this direction from Kolana. Its shadow across the valley floor is the size of a small airplane.
Five feet away is a bear trail. It leads east past the falls then north over the cliffs and out of the valley. Black bears have been back in Hetch Hetchy for years. They feed on the lush berry gardens and eat pine nuts and acorns. They are timid generally and hide. Though sometimes in the evening you can find them on their way into the valley to feed.
The world reveres this place. It’s a university with keys — stories, Grandfather — to our continued survival on the planet. Its natural libraries are the richest. Scholars worldwide come here looking for clues to replicate its beauty and harmony.
We know some important answers. There isn’t — and never will be — a virgin garden. Lest this work, this living museum, be diminished, human intervention is necessary, as you suspected, Grandfather. We are a part, not apart, and we play a role. Plant and animal communities have stabilized — yes, ponderosa pines and incense cedars are 125 to 150 feet high — but require constant attention.
Cameras the size of eraser heads strategically located in trees and cliffs monitor every creature, each blossom and blade of grass, all of which are accounted for in a master computer that helps determine any tension among species, overcrowding as well as undercrowding.
Removal of an extra raccoon or blue fox is simple and relatively painless. Inside each camera is a pin-sized stun gun that emits electronic rays temporarily sedating the animal until park gardeners can retrieve and relocate it.
Paths lead everywhere. Off the main trail that circles the valley you can explore shady canyons, see ferns 6 feet high; walk through bright meadows to the river, watch minnows bustle under the reeds.
I arrived early this morning, wanting a full day here. I walked, yes counterclockwise, starting below Kolana and completing a journey, Grandfather, you never could. On your last trip here tours traversed only the northern side of the valley . And today no guides are necessary. A chip placed in your cellphone provides a detailed map. A flashing green light indicates your precise location with respect to the Visitor Center — and allows it in turn to know your whereabouts — and a voice can guide you back or farther on according to your wishes. You can’t follow “the bathtub ring” any longer: all but gone, visible only in occasional spots — the almost unnatural mauves and chartreuses of the younger lichen.
It’s a joy to travel alone, stopping and pondering the landscape as I wished: a bed of pink orchids below the ferns, Mariposa tulips completely circling a marsh. I followed an eagle’s path, my head tilted back, until I was dizzy.
Of particular interest to me are the edible plants. Cities grow them in parks. Families plant backyards and front yards with them. There are many varieties of oaks here, in addition to the grand black oaks, for acorns — a food many in California and elsewhere eat regularly. Also bulbs, such as brodiaea and tule potatoes, healthful carbohydrate sources. Rosehips for vitamin C. Soaproot, not just for shampooing hair but for fishing — using the mashed bulb to intoxicate fish.
Alongside a vast pond at the far end of the valley, sometime past noon before I headed back in this direction, I watched park gardeners waist-deep in the water pulling up “Indian potatoes” from below the tules with their bare feet. Though they wore wetsuits — and had modern cut hair, various colors — I thought of our Miwok ancestors who had harvested the tubers the same way for 10,000 years.
In 1854, a Belgian miner named Perlot helped the defeated Ahwahneechee by arranging a treaty with the local white settlers. Later, he wrote: “But who can tell us that the progress of civilization will not bring us to the point where the Indian is .”
Such ruefulness will never be escaped.
Only today, the big news here is the sighting of a grizzly bear, the park’s only unwanted aboriginal inhabitant. It’s come out of nowhere — a thousand miles away, from the southern reaches of Montana? — as if the restored valley, missing the creature, called it home.
Once they were as numerous here as people. Muir suggested that there was a kind of agreement between them and the natives when Hetch Hetchy " was a home and stronghold of the Tuolumne Indians, as Ahwahne was of the grizzlies.” Indeed, throughout native California the grizzly was respected as the most powerful character of the landscape, both symbol and embodiment of nature’s capacity, stronger than any human capacity, for both evil and good.
Of course park officials’ first concern is safety. Uncertainty exists as to whether or not the electronic guns are powerful enough to stun the animal should a gardener or tourist be in danger, nevermind how it might affect the valley’s restored ecology.
I stopped here because of that bear. Of course it’s the place you viewed the valley from; and, in fact, I’ve been here a number of times. No, I’m not tempting fate. In a moment I’ll leave safely. But sitting on this rock, amid the deafening falls, and in the lengthening shadows, I gaze up the bear trail, beyond walls of laurel and into the darkness, thinking: This is how the first story started and maybe the last.
Greg Sarris is the author of the novel “Watermelon Nights” and a collection of short stories, “Grand Avenue.” He is the chairman of the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria.
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