Year in Yosemite: On the Wing
On a recent outing to Yosemite Valley, my family and I visited the Indian Museum. Amid the basketry, hunting tools, dioramas and clothing, there hung an exquisite "skirt" made of luminescent feathers of dark brown flecked with shimmering gold. It was breathtaking. Apparently used for ceremonial purposes by Yosemite's Miwok people, I assumed that anything so beautiful and precious must have been made from the feathers of a golden eagle.
My reasons for this assumption were logical enough. With all due respect to Ben Franklin and his love for the wild turkey, in America, eagles are king. Plus, since moving to Yosemite, I've seen golden eagles in the wild. Their feathers are indeed brown touched with shimmering gold, but, in this case, I was very wrong. Reading the sign, I learned these feathers were not from an eagle but from a flicker, and although I know birders are cringing at this moment, that word meant nothing to me. In almost three years in Yosemite, to my knowledge I'd never seen one, but now I know I've heard them. According to Google, flickers are large woodpeckers.
But I've spent the last few weeks reading the 1850's diary of a man who came across America during California's Gold Rush. As he made his way into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, he wrote about packs of wolves, massive herds of antelope, "clouds of wild geese" and skies so filled with crows they blotted out the sun.*
To be in Yosemite now is to live with the blessings of quiet, peace and serenity. But always tickling the back of my mind is the larger question: What have we missed? What was it like when grizzlies roamed the forests? When mountain lions reigned supreme and birds flew by the thousands? Only the Miwok and Paiute will ever know and their numbers have dwindled at the same alarming rate as the fauna.
In the 1980s I spent six months in Africa, almost two months of it in Botswana's Okavango Delta. At that time there were no rules about how one traveled there. You got in your car (preferably a four-wheeler) and drove around on your own across the countryside with no regard for roads (there were hardly any), then threw your sleeping bag on the ground at night. Rangers were as rare as leopards. Yet almost daily I was awed by the sight of thousands of zebras and wildebeest migrating in single file across the horizon, prides of lions, herds of elephants, mother cheetahs keeping watch over their babies and dazzling, abundant birdlife. At the time, I kept telling myself, "You aren't seeing what people saw ten years ago and ten years from now people won't see as much as you." I've tried to apply the same reasoning to Yosemite, but some part of me feels cheated.
And yet, on the very same day we visited the Indian Museum, we left The Ahwanhee Hotel to see one lone bird feeding from the lawn outside the portico. Over and over, it bobbed its long, curved beak into the earth looking for dinner. Its wings were golden flecked with brown, across its cheeks was a flash of red. It seemed so magnificent, I had to ask its name. "A flicker," answered my husband. I stood, took in its singular beauty and was grateful.
*A Doctor’s Gold Rush Journey to California, Israel Shipman Pelton Lord, University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
-- Jamie Simons
In May 2009, while hiking in Yosemite National Park, long-time Los Angeles resident Jamie Simons turned to her husband and said, "I want to live here." Jamie and her family have since lived in the park. Check out all of her blog articles by clicking here.
(top image: Flickr user wpclipart; bottom image: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)