Miwok Meadow

There hangs about Yosemite a strangely Victorian air. Perhaps it is just me, but is there not something of Balmoral in the valley, especially in the week between Christmas and New Year's? The royal holiday pilgrimage to the Highlands where the corgis can be let loose and chance meetings with stags may be interpreted as numinous experiences (The Queen, Stephen Frears, Dir., 2006), is echoed in the albeit more democratic visits to this National Park, where twenty bucks gets you in-and-out over seven days and the lobby, restaurants and restrooms (complete with uniformed attendant) of the stately Ahwahnee Hotel can be freely accessed by the hoi-poloi. The private rooms are 400-500 dollars extra a night.

Was there not a whiff of Scotland, if not a dim echo of the skirl of bagpipes, in the performance of the whistling waiter who rendered Frances Scott Keyes' 1812 anthem promptly at nine a.m. in the dining room of the Wawona, while guests breakfasted and the stars and stripes was unfurled on the front lawn? Neither the Ahwahnee nor Wawona Hotel is rendered in Scots Baronial like Balmoral (completed in 1856 and designed by William Smith with assistance from Prince Albert, Victoria's consort) but the 1876 Wawona is a classic of Victorian resort architecture and one of the oldest mountain hotels in California (Hotel California) while the 1927 Ahwahnee is a rustic pile rendered in what has become known as Parkitechture. Like Balmoral, themes from other times and other places have been incorporated into the housing of guests primarily bewitched by the grandeur of the surrounding landscape.

The best architecture I saw at Yosemite was in the redwood bark tepees provided as play-houses in the grounds of the Evergreen Lodge where we spent Christmas night through the 28th. December. This hotel has firmly plebeian roots having been developed as a work camp for the construction workers at Hetch Hetchy dam. The play houses are perfect miniatures of the winter cabins of the Miwok, who inhabited the valley floor before the arrival of Europeans in the 1830's; the native inhabitants numbered less than 500, now nearly four million people visit the park every year: none of them stays in a bark tepee.

These visitors celebrate the essential picturesque characteristics of the Valley landscape which was famously anthropomorphized by John Muir who proclaimed,

"Every rock in its walls seems to glow with life. Some lean back in majestic repose; others, absolutely sheer or nearly so for thousands of feet, advance beyond their companions in thoughtful attitudes, giving welcome to storms and calms alike.... Awful in stern, immovable majesty, how softly these rocks are adorned, and how fine and reassuring the company they keep: their feet among beautiful groves and meadows, their brows in the sky, a thousand flowers leaning confidingly against their feet, bathed in floods of water, floods of light.... as if into this one mountain mansion Nature had gathered her choicest treasures, to draw her lovers into close and confiding communion with her".

The picturesque, along with the formally symmetrical landscapes of the Renaissance form the yin and yang of European landscape appreciation - there is no room in this old-world canon for the random and undifferentiated which constitutes the vast majority of Californian landscapes, including, of course, most chaparral but also its desertscapes and coastal scrublands. Yosemite is revered for its atypicality and its transcendence of the norm. Its uniqueness is, by happenstance, synchronous with European ideals of composition, intimations of godliness and formal magnificence. None were more assiduous in making these connections than that intellectual-fashion-victim of his age, John Muir.

Strikingly, it seems a significant proportion of park visitors are now Chinese or South Asian. This impression is based on my climbing of the path up to Nevada Falls - a sort of poor-mans Inca trail - where the steeper portions are stepped in crudely shaped granite blocks, and informally surveying the hordes who clambered over the lower reaches, up to Vernal Falls, known as the Mist Trail. Possessed of strikingly different aesthetic traditions, what do they make of this temple to the most heroic and romantic traditions of nature worship?

Yosemite's overblown granitic imagery is of a power to register on even the most jaded consumer of today's amped-up media barrage which, by and large, follows a globalized, but primarily North American and European sourced, formal architecture (small a). Yosemite then, key in forging a Californian and American identity (The Democratic Republic of Chaparral) now entertains a world audience as a quasi-Natural experience capable of impacting our global neurasthenia. It is, of course, a Theme Park. The Theme, forshadowed by Muir, is necessarily bombastic, rather than quietly contemplative.

Yet there is about it (Yosemite National Park) a quaintness that bespeaks of an earlier age (hence those intimations of the Victorian). Despite the Marmot, Patagonia and North Face-clad multi-cultural youth who clambered over them, the craggy walls of the valley retain some of the mustiness of an earlier age when their discovery and of the giant trees that grow in their shadow, was truly earth-shattering. It is still a little Jules Verne-ish. A Voyage to the Bottom of the Valley. An air of Bugarach hung over us. (RV III, Coyote Dream)

Within the Park, we Californians are made to feel a little like the Marginales of Europe, the dispossessed. Keepers of Museum Grade wonders, custodians of the Mighty West, we must now bow before the global imperatives of the Market in Experiential Frisson, where Nature is but a poor and rickety thing capable of producing shock and awe only in its most egregiously Baroque manifestations.