A common refrain heard during all HSW workshops and courses is to step back and assess the scene. Especially during the Yosemite workshops, when it takes nothing to be in complete and utter awe at the grandiose scene of towering granite domes and cascading dramatic waterfalls laid before our eyes.

But yet, even during this exercise of patience and focus, it doesn’t take much to have a simple distraction enter the scene and wreck havoc on the moment. Much like the well-loved “Doug” from the Pixar film “Up”, it can be something as simple as a squirrel bounding across the road that results in a gaggle of photographers chasing after it.

It often leaves me chuckling … that here we are in what is arguably a cathedral of nature with stunning vistas before us, and we tend to focus on the little common things that can easily disrupt our attention span.

Is is that hard to be “one with nature”? To immerse ourselves into the photographic opportunity presented to us … thankful, grateful and respectful for what is so easily accessible and attainable?

I was at our local Natural History Museum library just the other day and found a 1977 copy of Yosemite Nature Notes, a journal of essays and writings on various Yosemite subjects, written by park staff.

Some of our readers might recognize the Nature Notes name, as it can be found yet today, but in the modern form of a regular video series on YouTube. We regularly profile some of these video episodes when they relate to HSW offerings in Yosemite.

But in this 1977 original, bound, printed edition of Yosemite Nature Notes, the monthly magazine opened with an essay by Yosemite National Park interperative staffer Will Neely, titled “Pine Trees, Barnacles, and Everything.”

And apparently, even over 35 years later, nothing has changed when it comes to the tourists in Yosemite!


The disease is called “looking at”.

Busloads on scenic tours — Americans, Germans, Japanese, get out and “look at” because, geologically, we are all of us new here. But the geologic perspective is lost. We prefer the close-at-hand, not the domes or the glacier-worn canyons, but the squirrels and squawking jays.

We must look at, try to tame, feed, hold, possess and eventually love to death, any flower, animal or landscape. The compulsion to feed an animal is such that visitors do it in spite of the signs saying “no!”.

We are so alone, so divorced from nature! We want to be part of it, as though someone had not invited us; we don’t know how to join the mysterious brotherhood of wilderness, but must try to bring wilderness to our own terms of understanding. We cannot leave it alone, unmanaged. We tempt the animals with baits, hold out our hands and get bitten.

The Indians left alone.

They left alone, they had no desire to hold, have, pet and love to death. They were inside and didn’t worry about an invitation. We stand dismally outside, peering through the window, looking at. We try to get closer by building roads into the wilderness, by buying more camping gear, and where the road leaves off, then the wilderness, like a mirage, dries up, not leaving a wet place where it once was supposed to be.

To get closer to nature we drown ourselves in “facts”. We buy maps, guide books, we read “all about it”, circling around, armed with information. The closest we get to nature, I believe, is when we scratch a mosquito bite.

In spite of the barrier of facts, some of us innocently do get close. We kick a pine cone on the trail, we loll around in the grass, we pretend to fish when really we want to watch the languid water go by. We rub our hands on a smooth rock, not for the history it imparts, but just because it feels good.

The unthinking, uninformed moment scarcely slips by impoverished. We are enrichened by knowledge, for out of the shrubbery jumps a guide, well-meaning and well-structured with facts to enrich our diet. We are led by the nose to some object or other and submit to an account of its history. No matter what we do in the quiet of wilderness, we cannot hide any unpurposeful activity.

I tried to float a dry leaf in a quiet pool the other day and a passing hiker looked at me. I had to explain that I was studying the wind and currents and their significance to national security. What he later did not see was that I put my toes into the water, too, and happily wiggled them. . . . without a thought for national security.

Naturalists, and I am one, have a tendency to ramble. To ramble is to poke your nose into every conceivable crack in nature. Joseph LeConte wrote “Ramblings in the High Sierra” and it is well-respected. A symptom of rambling is meandering off into the countryside, unstructured and unguided, and somehow coming back alive to tell the tale.

It is a natural disease. There is no cure but to stick to doctor’s orders . . . find some fact, any one will do, isolate it, structure it and set it, well-cemented, as a monument to the public.

But nature has no set boundaries on facts; facts flow as easily as the imagination in a gentle tide, or, if well-cemented like a barnacle, it clamps up tight and lets the public pry away, then suddenly eases itself wide open, as one steams open a love letter, only to find the same old substance inside the mysterious shell, the same substance that everything else in nature is made of.

No wonder naturalists ramble. All nature is one continuous flowing and ebbing from form to form. You might as well talk of coyotes as of pine trees or the microbes that eat both of them. You are simply describing the shell, the boundaries, the limitations. That is called “looking at”.

I shall continue to float vagrant leaves and wiggle my toes in the water, and shall, eventually, like the barnacle, shut up.

Michael A. Mariant is the founder and Director of Workshop Operations for High Sierra Workshops. Michael leads several workshops and courses with HSW, including “Advanced Photography: The Zen of Thinking in Yosemite“, “Yosemite in Winter”, “Yosemite in Spring”, “Death Valley”, “Time Lapse Photography”, “Eastern Sierra & Owens Valley” and the highly-acclaimed and immensely popularUltimate Travel Photography Workshop”.