Frederick Law Olmsted and Yosemite Valley

Excerpted from The Mountains That Remade America: How Sierra Nevada Geology Impacts Modern Life by Craig H. Jones

In June of 1864, with the Civil War raging and re-election uncertain, President Abraham Lincoln signed a relatively minor bill transferring Yosemite Valley to California to be held “inalienable” for “public use, resort, and recreation.” Governor Low provisionally accepted the grant shortly thereafter and named a commission to oversee the new park. He chose as the head of the commission Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect already known for work on New York’s Central Park but then acting as manager for the Las Mariposas estate in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Olmsted attempted to describe Yosemite for others (especially the lawmakers who had not visited it but would soon vote on accepting the park and funding it). First noting the great cliffs, the waterfalls, the broad meadows, and the qualities of the light and climate, he came to the essence of Yosemite:

There are falls of water elsewhere finer, there are more stupendous rocks, more beetling cliffs, there are deeper and more awful chasms, there may be as beautiful streams, as lovely meadows, there are larger trees. It is in no scene or scenes the charm consists, but in the miles of scenery where cliffs of awful height and rocks of vast magnitude and of varied and exquisite coloring, are banked and fringed and draped and shadowed by the tender foliage of noble and lovely trees and bushes, reflected from the most placid pools, and associated with the most tranquil meadows, the most playful streams, and every variety of soft and peaceful pastoral beauty.

The union of the deepest sublimity with the deepest beauty of nature, not in one feature or another, not in one part or one scene or another, not in any landscape that can be framed by itself, but all around and wherever the visitor goes, constitutes the Yosemite the greatest glory of nature.

The essence of the physical landscape was the juxtaposition of the steep cliffs with the flat valley floor. In numerous areas, the flat floor of the valley comes right to the base of the soaring cliffs, and through this valley the Merced River lazes its way along in view of the majestic falls. As Olmsted noted, other places had the same ingredients; Yosemite stood apart in the assembly of the parts.

If we ask what geologic process made Yosemite unique, the answer would have to be glaciers acting on very heterogeneous granitic rocks. Yosemite’s special nature relies on the far greater depth the glaciers cut compared with the other “yosemites,” (the other deep glacial canyons of the Sierra) and this was made possible by the vulnerabilities of its complex geology. While California’s state geologist Josiah Whitney was therefore unquestionably wrong in arguing that Yosemite was created by faulting and John Muir, despite exaggeration, correct in identifying glaciers as the valley’s sculptors, neither fully traced back Yosemite’s origin to its roots. The awe-inspiring Yosemite Valley existed—and could serve as the template for the most extensive national park system in the world—because of the accident of many chemically different bodies of granitic rock coinciding with the right elevation in the Sierra Nevada where glaciers could carve a massive, steep-walled valley.


Craig H. Jones is Professor of Geological Sciences and Fellow with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has published peer-reviewed research in ScienceNature, and prominent earth-science journals, and he is also the coauthor of Introduction to Applied Geophysics. He blogs as the Grumpy Geophysicist.


Coasts in Crisis: Plastic on the Shoreline

by Gary Griggs, author of Coasts in Crisis: A Global Challenge

An Earth-changing development took place in New York City in 1907 when plastic was first synthesized. It had all the right stuff for a huge range of uses: lightweight, flexible, strong, moisture resistant, relatively inexpensive, and a quality that has plagued us ever since, durability. This stuff just doesn’t break down or go away very quickly. Throughout the 20th century the development and use of new kinds of plastics and new products and uses proliferated rapidly.

I have spent much of my life studying beaches and coastlines and over 50 years ago I started collecting beach sands from my travels. Each one is unique and I think of them as the DNA or the fingerprint of some particular set of geologic and oceanographic conditions. I now have about 300 or so sand samples stored in glass vials and spread around on windowsills, bookshelves, and in frames, both at home and in my office.

My collection has gotten the attention of a number of friends over the years that now send or bring back beach sand from various far-flung places around the planet. A few years ago, a good friend who travels a lot, usually to coastlines that are often remote and difficult to get to, sent back beach sand samples from the Andaman Islands. This archipelago of 572 islands, many uninhabited, lies in the Indian Ocean, about 350 miles west of Myanmar and about 800 miles east of India.

These islands are not on any of the usual travel paths and are not easy to get to but my friend and his family were able to charter a boat and visit a number of these isolated islands and bring sand home. One of his emails included some beautiful pictures and then the words: “Sadly, although inhabited, and remote, the island was covered with plastic!”

The widespread use and then disposal of plastic as well as other debris has become an issue of global proportions. With the durability of plastic beverage bottles, plastic bags, detergent and food containers, we believe that about 60-80 percent of all marine debris in the ocean is plastic and it’s found on the beaches of every continent and from Iceland to Antarctica, sad but true.

Despite a growing effort to reduce plastic use and consumption, single-use plastic bags and water bottles in particular, globally we produce about 360 million tons of plastic annually, without about one-third of that going into disposable, single use items. Estimates are that about one percent is recycled globally, with most of the rest ending up in landfills, or often transported or blow into coastal waters.

While over a billion people around the world lack access to safe drinking water, they usually aren’t the ones consuming all of the bottled water. Americans, who are almost all fortunate to have very good quality and regularly tested tap water, consumed 9.7 billion gallons of bottled water in 2012. This water was guzzled from 103 billion single-use plastic bottles, or 3,250 bottles emptied every second, all year long. Despite the prevalence of recycling programs and convenient containers for disposal, only about 20% of the bottles are recycled and the rest are discarded, ending up in dumps or in some cases, the ocean or on our beaches.

While cleaning up beaches is helpful and beneficial, the ultimate solution to the problem of plastic proliferation along our shorelines and in the oceans of the world isn’t clean up and removal, but in prevention- cutting off or eliminating the plastic, Styrofoam and other marine debris at the sources. It means taking every action necessary to keep the trash from getting into our rivers, waterways and oceans to begin with.


Gary Griggs is Distinguished Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is author or coauthor of Introduction to California’s Beaches and CoastLiving with the Changing California CoastCalifornia Coast from the Air, The Santa Cruz Coast (Then and Now), and Our Ocean Backyard.


A Fresh View of Floodplain Ecology and Management

by Jeff Opperman and Peter Moyle, co-authors of Floodplains: Processes and Management for Ecosystem Services

Last week, we saw tragic images of floods across the world, from Houston to Niger to south Asia, with more than 1,300 deaths from floods in India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Floods are among the most costly natural disasters worldwide and the loss of life and property, from Houston to Mumbai, gave a very human face to the impersonal statistics: in recent years, global damages have ranged between $30 and 60 billion and more than 100 million people have been displaced by flooding.

These events are also warnings about a likely future: in a warming world, many regions will experience more frequent and intense flooding.

It is hard to imagine a flood-management system that could have effectively contained the historic amount of rain that fell on southeast Texas—several feet in just a few days. However, even if all floods can’t be contained, governments must still invest in measures to improve safety for people and reduce damages. The key is to move beyond a primary focus on the structural measures—dams and levees—that strive to contain floods, and toward a “diversified portfolio” approach. Nonstructural measures—such as zoning, building codes and insurance—are key to keeping people out of harm’s way. Another critical strategy is to integrate green infrastructure—natural features such as wetlands and floodplains—into flood-management systems.

In river basins around the world, from the Mississippi to the Sacramento to the Rhine, managers have moved away from a strict reliance on engineered levees, which confine rivers and attempt to contain floods. Instead, they have moved towards reconnecting rivers to parts of their historic floodplains. On these reconnected floodplains, floodwaters can spread out and reduce risks to communities and farmland in other areas.

We have documented this trend, and reasons why green infrastructure can be so effective, in our book, Floodplains: Processes and Management for Ecosystem Services.

The book is based on our many years of studying floodplains in California, a leader in using floodplains for flood management. But we also explore other regions, especially Europe, Australia, and Asia, for new insights.

Our focus is reconciliation ecology, the science of integrating functioning ecosystems into landscapes dominated by people. This framework is key to understanding the full potential of green infrastructure: by reducing flood risk, wetlands and floodplains function as infrastructure. But they are also “green”—they are ecosystems that are influenced by complex and intertwined biophysical processes. The first part of our book reviews these processes—encompassing hydrology, geomorphology, biogeochemistry, and ecology—and how they respond to management interventions.

A hallmark of green infrastructure is that these ecosystem processes can provide multiple benefits beyond flood-risk reduction. For floodplains, these benefits include habitat for fish and wildlife, groundwater recharge, carbon sequestration, and open space and recreation. Thus, realizing the full potential of green infrastructure will come from an integrated approach, one in which engineers, scientists and planners collaborate on management to provide multiple benefits. The second part of the book includes a number of case studies of these new management approaches.

To be clear, we are not suggesting that floodplains and wetlands are the answer to reducing current and future flood risk. Rather, we think that a flood-management system that relies on green infrastructure in addition to engineered infrastructure and sound nonstructural policies, will increase safety for people and provide a broad range of other benefits.

The book’s closing paragraph articulates this optimism that integrated management can improve safety for people while promoting a range or natural services:

“Our time spent on rivers and floodplains has certainly shown us that much has changed and been lost over time. But we have seen more than just glimmers of hope in reconciled floodplains that are diverse and productive. We take heart from the huge flocks of migratory white geese and black ibis that congregate annually on California floodplains and from knowing that, beneath the floodwaters, juvenile salmon are swimming, feeding, and growing among cottonwoods and rice stalks, before heading out to sea. We can envision greatly expanded floodplains that are centerpieces of many regions, protecting people but also featuring wildlands, wildlife, and floodplain-friendly agriculture. Connectivity among floodplains, people and wild creatures is within reach, as is a future in which people work with natural processes rather than continually fighting them.”


Jeffrey J. Opperman is the global lead freshwater scientist for WWF and a research associate at the University of California, Davis.

Peter B. Moyle is Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology and Associate Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.


A Look at California Mexicana—An Upcoming Exhibition & Catalogue

Part of the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative, the California Mexicana: Missions to Murals, 1820–1930 exhibition opens on October 15th at the Laguna Art Museum.

Artistic and cultural exchange between California and Mexico has flourished since the time when California was part of the United States of Mexico. The exhibition highlights this vital aspect of the state’s history through a panorama of works by artists on both sides of the border, from scenes of mission and rancho life through images of romantic Old California, to the emergence of a cross-border modern art scene.

Cover image is a detail of La Plaza de Toros: Sunday Morning in Monterey, 1874, by Charles Christian Nahl.

Edited by curator Katherine Manthore, the beautifully illustrated catalogue addresses two key areas of inquiry: how Mexico became California, and how the visual arts reflected the shifting identity that grew out of that transformation.

Grizzly Bear of California, c. 1854, Charles Christian Nahl, Watercolor over graphite sketch, 7 ½ x 11 inches, City of Monterey Art Collection, gift from Mrs. Augusta Nahl Allen
Translation from the Maya, 1940, Dorr Bothwell, Oil on Celotex, 23 x 19 inches, Laguna Art Museum Collection Museum purchase with funds provided through prior gift of Lois Outerbridge
Fruit of the Vine, 1926, Norman Rockwell, Oil on canvas, 31 x 27 inches, Collection of the Sun-Maid Growers of California; on long-term loan to Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts
San Gabriel Mission, Ferdinand Deppe, Oil on canvas, c. 1832, 27 x 37 inches, Laguna Art Museum Collection, Gift of Nancy Dustin Wall Moure

As evidenced by the selected images above, the catalogue includes diverse works by a wide array of artists including Frida Kahlo, Juan Correa, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José María Velasco, Tina Modotti, Edward Weston, Maxine Albro, Thomas Moran, unknown artists, and many others, making it both a pleasure and an adventure to read.


A Yosemite National Park Reading List

On this day in 1864 President Lincoln signed a law leading to the protection of what we know today as Yosemite National Park. Dive deeper into the history of this iconic landscape with these books.

Yosemite: Art of an American Icon edited by Amy Scott

This lavishly illustrated volume offers a stunning new view of Yosemite’s visual history by presenting two hundred works of art together with provocative essays that explore the rich intersections between art and nature in this incomparable Sierra Nevada wilderness. Integrating the work of Native peoples, it provides the first inclusive view of the artists who helped create an icon of the American wilderness by featuring painting, photography, basketry, and other artworks from both well-known and little-studied artists from the nineteenth century to the present.

 

Glaciers of California: Modern Glaciers, Ice Age Glaciers, the Origen of Yosemite Valley, and a Glacier Tour in the Sierra Nevada by Bill Guyton

Bill Guyton summarizes the history of the discovery of Ice Age glaciation and modern-day glaciers in California, as well as the development of modern ideas about the state’s glacial history. He describes the controversy about the origin of Yosemite Valley and quotes from the colorful accounts of early mountain explorers such as John Muir, Josiah Whitney, and François Matthes.

 

Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Hidden Wars of the American West by Rebecca Solnit

In this foundational book of landscape theory and environmental thinking, Rebecca Solnit explores our national Eden and Armageddon and offers a pathbreaking history of the west, focusing on the relationship between culture and its implementation as politics. In a new preface, she considers the continuities and changes of these invisible wars in the context of our current climate change crisis, and reveals how the long arm of these histories continue to inspire her writing and hope.

The Mountains That Remade America: How Sierra Nevada Geology Impacts Modern Life by Craig H. Jones

This book combines geology with history to show how the particular forces and conditions that created the Sierra Nevada have effected broad outcomes and influenced daily life in the United States in the past and how they continue to do so today. Drawing connections between events in historical geology and contemporary society, Craig H. Jones makes geological science accessible and shows the vast impact this mountain range has had on the American West.

 

Uncertain Path: A Search for the Future of National Parks by William C. Tweed

Tweed, who worked among the Sierra Nevada’s big peaks and big trees for more than thirty years, has now hiked more than 200 miles along California’s John Muir Trail in a personal search for answers: How do we address the climate change we are seeing even now—in melting glaciers in Glacier National Park, changing rainy seasons on Mt Rainer, and more fire in the West’s iconic parks. Should we intervene where we can to preserve biodiversity? Should the parks merely become ecosystem museums that exhibit famous landscapes and species? Asking how we can make these magnificent parks relevant for the next generation, Tweed, through his journey, ultimately shows why we must do just that.


Big Sur and California’s Beloved Coastline

This post is part of our Earth Week blog series. Check back every day between now and Friday for new blog posts. 

by Shelley Alden Brooks, author of Big Sur: The Making of a Prized California Landscape

California’s world-famous coastline is integral to the state’s economy, to residents’ sense of well-being, and to the California Dream, but only since the 1970s has a groundswell of support emerged to protect this prized resource from spoliation. Alarm over rapid change along the coast, including its deterioration from residential and commercial development, disappearing wetlands, new marinas, and the proposed freeways and nuclear plants, catalyzed the people who had come to know the coast as the geographic “soul” of California. In 1976, the state legislature passed the Coastal Act to make permanent the California Coastal Commission, an agency created out of a ballot initiative passed four years earlier. The Coastal Commission’s efforts to guide sustainable coastal land use and increase coastal access have prompted support and appreciation from many Californians, as well as emulation from coastal governments around the country and the world. But there has also been pushback and resistance from the California industries, government officials, and private citizens who believe the Coastal Act gave the state agency too much power to regulate private property.

My book explores how locals in Big Sur (an exceptionally beautiful 75-mile stretch of California’s central coast) have worked alongside county and state officials to seek a balance between the priorities of preservation and property rights. Built into the parameters of Big Sur’s well-preserved scenery is an unusual conviction that preservation and habitation can be mutually supportive endeavors. In part this has been achieved because Monterey County and Big Sur residents began in the mid twentieth century to pioneer open-space planning, conservation easements, intergovernmental collaboration and citizen activism, and transfer development credits to accommodate the needs of Big Sur’s natural and human communities. But Big Sur’s unique status also derives from the mystique created by iconic writers such as Robinson Jeffers and Henry Miller who used their talents to showcase this unusual meeting of beauty and culture. Today, the name ‘Big Sur’ conjures up images of a place uniquely Californian, carved out of the geologic and cultural forces of which the state has a disproportionate share. While Big Sur’s well-preserved vistas and minimal development embody the Coastal Act’s mission, its high-end real estate and vacation homes reflect the steep social costs associated with preservation.

Big Sur, like any landscape, is not static; shifting economic realities and perceptions of nature’s worth can alter the place. Ansel Adams acknowledged this in 1980 when he unsuccessfully campaigned for a federal seashore. However, if the integrity of Big Sur’s Coastal Commission-approved land use plan is maintained, including the protection of Highway 1 as a two-lane road, minimal change will come to the built environment. But it is not so much the physical boundaries (though these are formidable) that prevent overdevelopment in Big Sur, as the social boundaries erected to preserve something unique along the California coast. Considerable momentum backs the commitment to Big Sur’s wild and storied land, and the status of both of these elements will continue to reveal a good deal about Californians’ relationship to their beloved coast.


Shelley Alden Brooks teaches Twentieth-Century U.S., California, and Environmental History at the University of California, Davis. She also works for the California History-Social Science Project and serves on the statewide Environmental Literacy Steering Committee.


4 Must-Read Journals at the 2016 Western History Association Conference

Get inspired at the 2016 Western History Association Annual Meeting (October 20-23, St. Paul, MN) with important Western History research from four UC Press journals: California History, Pacific Historical Review, Southern California Quarterly, and Boom: A Journal of CaliforniaIn celebration of this conference, each journal is offering free access to a special selection of #WHA2016 content—from WHA award-winning articles to virtual issues.

2016 WHA attendees: Be sure to visit UC Press at booth #29 to see our full list of books and journals in Western History.


California History

Editor: Josh Sides, California State University, Northridge

Screen Shot 2016-10-19 at 1.21.00 PMUnder the stewardship of the California Historical Society for nearly one hundred years, California History is pleased to offer a special virtual issue on Nature in California History. The virtual issue features historical research on the demise of the Galapagos Turtle during and after the Gold Rush; salt harvesting in Alameda County; the rise of sweet pea cultivation at the turn-of-the-nineteenth-century; irrigation in late nineteenth-century Los Angeles; Bee-keeping in early twentieth-century Los Angeles; the intrigue surrounding the killing of the second-to-last grizzly bear in California in 1916; and the “sprawl” of Yosemite after World War II.

 

 

Pacific Historical Review

Editors: Marc Rodriguez and Brenda D. Frink, Portland State University

Screen Shot 2016-10-19 at 1.30.49 PMThe official publication of the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association, the Pacific Historical Review has published dozens of award-winning articles. PHR is especially pleased to have been honored multiple times by the Western History Association. To celebrate two Western History Association prizes that will be awarded to PHR this year, we’re offering limited-time complimentary access to these new award-winning articles.

Ray Allen Billington Prize of the Western History Association

A Divide to Heal the Union: The Creation of the Continental Divide
James D. Drake, Vol. 84, No. 4 (November 2015): 409-47.

Jensen-Miller Award of the Western History Association

“A Little Home for Myself and Child”: The Women of the Quapaw Agency and the Policy of Competency
Katherine Ellinghaus, 

 

Southern California Quarterly

Editor: Merry Ovnick, California State University, Northridge

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The flagship publication of the Historical Society of Southern CaliforniaSouthern California Quarterly is pleased to present a special virtual issue on Home Strategies: Class, Race, Community, and Empowerment in 20th Century Los AngelesSince the journal’s first publication in 1884, Southern California Quarterly has consistently published articles that address housing development, discrimination, and empowerment, a sampling of which is showcased in this virtual issue.

 

 

 

Boom: A Journal of California

Editor: Jason Sexton, California State University, Fullerton

Screen Shot 2016-10-19 at 3.27.12 PMLed by guest editors Susan Moffat and Jonathan Crisman, and with contributions from UCLA and UC Berkeley’s Urban Humanities initiatives, Boom presents its Fall issue on “Urban Humanity.” The issue explores exciting and innovative ways that history, geography, and literature intersect with urban studies, art, and architecture to help us better engage with the world.

Read the entire issue for free at boom.ucpress.edu, and join the editors and contributors for special events in honor of the new publication.

 

Thursday, October 27, 5-7PM
UCLA, Perloff Hall courtyard, Los Angeles

Thursday, November 10, 5–7PM
UC Berkeley, 110 Wurster Hall, Berkeley


The 25th Anniversary of the Great Oakland Hills Fire

by Gregory L. Simon, author of Flame and Fortune in the American West: Urban Development, Environmental Change, and the Great Oakland Hills Fire

Flame and Fortune in the American West cover

Another day, another menacing wildfire. This appears to be the new fire regime for much of the American West. These days it is not uncommon to learn of several fire events each week – many of which threaten human settlements and force the evacuation of hundreds at the urban fringe. Meanwhile, tens of millions of dollars are spent fighting dangerous fires each month – an ever-expanding budget that reached nearly one billion in California alone during the 2016 fiscal year.

Continue reading “The 25th Anniversary of the Great Oakland Hills Fire”


Myriad Atlases: Now Available as E-Books

UC Press is pleased to announce that the following titles in the Myriad Atlas Series The Atlas of Climate Change, The Atlas of Religion, The Atlas of Food, The State of China Atlas, The Atlas of Global Inequalities, and The Atlas of California are now available for the first time, in addition to their print format versions, as e-book editions.

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Sample interior spreads (please click to expand):


CLIMATE-CHANGE-Low-carbon

CALIFORNIA-Health-care

FOOD-unequal-distrib.-food2

About Myriad Atlases:

Myriad’s award-winning atlases, some of which are published in the United States by University of California Press, are unique visual surveys of economic, political and social trends. By ingeniously transforming statistical data into valuable, user-friendly resources, they make a range of global issues – from climate change to world religions – accessible to general readers, students and professionals alike.


Once Is Not Enough

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Santa Margarita Lake-Explore #126 2/5/15” by Linda Tanner is licensed under CC BY 2.0

by David Carle, author of Introduction to Water in California, Second Edition

Water is the essence of life, the key to California’s history and its future. Today, water choices are complicated by ignorance about how water reaches faucets and farm fields and by our society’s unwillingness to step away from an historic attitude about water supply that might be characterized as: “Too much will never be enough.”

Must we choose massive twin tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta or expensive new dams that will yield only a small percentage of their constructed reservoir capacities? Does it make sense to build ultra-expensive ocean desalination plants? “Fish versus farmers?” Really? Must we go there? Why pump from groundwater basins at rates we know are unsustainable and irresponsible? Can’t we admit that returning water to the environment is not a new “water demand,” but belated recognition that far too much has been taken away?

Incredible progress is being made in this state, where cities and large water districts are weaning themselves from imported water. And much more is possible. Every Californian should know that:

  • Through conservation and highly-treated wastewater, the Water Replenishment District of Southern California (which used to import 80 percent of its supply for 4 million customers) aims for 100 percent reliance on stormwater and recycling in the near future.
  • The City of Santa Monica plans to eliminate use of imported water sources by 2020.
  • Los Angeles intends to cut its imported water purchases in half by 2025.
  • Agricultural efficiencies could save 4 to 6 million acre-feet of water a year in the state (according to several published studies; equivalent to what is diverted from the Delta each year).

Thirsts can be quenched by wiser use of water within cities and on farms. Let’s use local water again and again…and again. Once is not enough. New urban development should be designed to add nothing to the overall community “thirst.” The 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act set implementation goals in the year 2040; can’t that plodding approach be accelerated? Let’s push for irrigation and crop choices that reduce agricultural thirsts, because wiser farm production benefits the entire society.

The future we choose for California will continue to be shaped by decisions about water.

David Carle is a former park ranger and the author of California Natural History Guides about water, fire, air, and soil (UC Press), as well as other books in water history and management, including Drowning the Dream: California’s Water Choices at the Millennium and Water and the California Dream. His most recent UC Press book is Traveling the 38th Parallel: A Water Line around the World (2013).

The new, updated edition of Introduction to Water in California is available for purchase now. Order your copy here.