New Directions and a Second Century
As the twentieth century drew to a close, after 150
years of increasingly intense European occupation of the Great Central
Valley of California, Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks lay cut
off and isolated from the seamless natural world that had surrounded
them only a few generations earlier.
Where once had lapped the waters of the great Tulare
Lake, with its expansive, reed-covered marshlands and countless
waterfowl, there now stretched only giant, straight-plowed fields of
cotton. Here and there a few of the ancient blue-green tules lingered in
the irrigation canals, the last reminder of an obliterated natural
world. On the east side of the now-dry lake basin, straightened canals
flowed in place of the meandering, tree-lined sloughs that once brought
mountain water to the lake. In most years little water now reached the
lake basin, for farmers diverted nearly all of it to feed their hundreds
of thousands of acres of irrigated fields, orchards, and pastures.
Through the croplands that stretched towards the
Sierra from the eastern shore of the old lake, and along the channelized
river beds, could be found occasional ancient oakshuge lonely
trees six feet in diameter, often towering more than a hundred feet
above the surrounding walnuts or summer corn. Here and there a small
remnant of forest survived, perpetuated as a county park with green lawn
or a setting for an old farm house. But the isolated remnants gave
little life to the stories of endless summer shade and wild grapevines.
Gone, too, were the herds of tule elk and pronghorn, their ghosts living
on in the valley with the ghosts of the Native Americans who had once
hunted them. In their place were people and cities.
From the fields and cities that had replaced the oak
forest, something else was missingthe view of the mountains that
had so dominated the forest clearings in earlier times. To the east,
where once the miles-high wall of the Sierra had risen so distinctly,
now could be seen only a flat, hazy horizon, and perhaps a few brown
foothills. The mountains remained, of course, but the summer smog
generated by the several million human residents of the valley often
obscured the range from view. Sometimes people now came to live where
the oak forest had once prospered and resided there for months before
they realized that the mountains even existed. After winter storms,
however, the air often briefly regained its old clarity, and then the
grand Sierra again dominated the landscape.
On those occasional winter days when rains washed the
air of all its modern contents, it was possible still to study from afar
the shape and condition of the range. Three zones of color still
appeared, as they had in centuries past. In the lowest mountains a
confused color scheme of oak and grass persevered. In summer the
foothill grass now browned sooner, for the native perennials, which
remained green through much of the summer, had long since given way to
short-lived Eurasian annuals, which died and paled each year by early
May. Scattered through the spare oak forest could be seen the countless
barns, ranch houses, and suburban homes the people had built.
Above the foothills, a darker blue-green forest still
clothed the slopes. Here, for the first time, it appeared that nothing
had changed from the old times. Endlessly the forest stretched north and
south, blanketing each ridge. And from the forest, in sheltered
locations, ruddy-trunked giants still protruded rudely, reducing all
their neighbors to insignificance. Crowning the range, as in times past,
could still be seen the barren, shining granite summits, still spare,
still angular. Only in the mountainside forests and on the granite
summits did life continue almost as it had in times past. On the
mountains, bear and deer still roamed, coyotes still hunted at night,
and ancient trees lived out their lives without disturbance.
The natural world of the mountains had survived as
long as it had because the people of the cities protected, even
treasured it. But now, their daily activities threatened even the
mountain forests a mile above their valley homes. Ultimately the people
of the valley ruled the entire landscape, and all its inhabitants lived
in their shadow.