Introduction to Tom Murphy’s book The Abundance of Summer
Yellowstone is one of the finest wild lands left in the world and millions of people go every year to see it. Before 1872 when it was set aside as the world’s first national park, few white people had seen this wild land. Archaeological evidence clearly shows that people were here for at least 10,000 years. Pre-literate people traveled across it to reach other parts of the intermountain west or they occupied it seasonally to utilize its wildlife and other resources. A few small groups lived permanently in the northern areas at lower elevations where the climate is more moderate.
When modern Europeans arrived here in the 1830s they came to take the easy riches, primarily the furs of otter and beaver. When the fur wealth was exhausted, the area was largely ignored until the next wave of white people came looking for gold and silver, though they found little since the Yellowstone plateau is primarily volcanic.
As the wealth of Europeans and Americans increased, more people had leisure time to travel for sightseeing, to enjoy the experiences of places unfamiliar to them, and to learn about them. The first white settlers in what became Yellowstone Park tried to profit from the tourists and travelers. James McCartney and Henry Horrs’ baths and “hotel” at Mammoth, McGuirk’s claim of the Boiling River for a hot bath house, and Jack Barronette’s Yellowstone toll bridge, were all established in 1870 and 1871 before Ferdinand Hayden came in the fall of 1871 to investigate the geothermal curiosities for the U S Government and before Yellowstone was made a park on March 1, 1872.
The world benefited because a small group of people saw the possibilities for a new concept for preservation and conservation, a national park. The national park idea was the best idea this country ever had according to writer Wallace Stegner.
Three things came together to allow the Park to happen. First, few white people had any prior claim to this government land. An argument at the time for the establishment of this area as a Park was that the land was worthless. It had no minerals and poor quality timber, it was too cold for agriculture, and too remote to be of value for anything else except sightseeing. Second, in 1870 and 1871 a few influential individuals rejected the chance to claim private ownership of geysers, lakes, and waterfalls and worked for the common good to make it a place that remained virtually untouched for everyone to enjoy. Third, the Northern Pacific Railroad, a land grant railroad with a route planned in the 1860’s up the Yellowstone River north of the Yellowstone Plateau and on west to Tacoma, saw a National Park as a great possibility for commerce. They supported the Park’s establishment because they could see good business possibilities hauling tourists to this place. Railroads were powerful and influential, and with their political and economic clout, they supported the National Park bill.
Congressmen voting in January and February of 1872 had no idea that this new creation would successfully be copied by other countries around the world. The National Park, was a virtual orphan at the start. The altruistic language of its organic act unfortunately provided no guidance for practical management and no money was allocated for six years to even put up a sign. The first superintendent only visited the place a couple of times in his five-year tenure.
There was powerful criticism of the idea to exclude private ownership and commerce, an argument we still hear today concerning our public lands. There was no model in place for managing, promoting, and policing a remote communally-owned park. The Park was nearly voted out of existence by Congress in 1885, in a secret scheme by the superintendent Robert Carpenter and his friends in Congress to abolish the Park and to steal the land around Old Faithful and other popular geysers and the Lower Falls. After struggles with legal jurisdiction, poaching, hotel concession rights and anti-park sentiments, the Secretary of the Interior Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar sent the army to manage the place in 1886. The army and their acting superintendents did a good job of managing the Park until the National Park Service was established in 1916, and a force of civilian managers and law enforcement officers took control.
For the first forty years of its history, Yellowstone was promoted as civilization surrounded by wilderness. Now it is perceived as wilderness surrounded by civilization. Many of today’s visitors come to see the wild character of Yellowstone. Wildlife is visible every day from the roads and parking pullouts. With some luck, viewers can witness some of the daily life stories of animals ranging from warblers and jays, to elk and bison, to wolves and grizzly bears. Yellowstone is still a sanctuary and nursery for nearly all of the Northern Rocky Mountain wildlife that existed here in proto-historic time.
The Park contains the majority of all the world’s geysers. Geysers are rare geothermal features found only in volcanic regions. Most geyser basins in the rest of the world have been severely damaged or destroyed by humans. Yellowstone’s geyser basins and wild ecosystems are still mostly intact and relatively secure because of the continuing force of the original altruistic ideals of the National Park founders. Despite the 466 miles of roads in Yellowstone, most of the Park retains a powerful wilderness character. The back-country is de facto wilderness because the Park’s ecosystems are maintained for processes of natural abundance, diversity, and ecological health.
The infinite variety offered by the natural wildness, unmodified landscape, and clear dark skies are infinitely varied and beautiful. One can walk to the most remote occupied building outside of Alaska, the Thorofare Backcountry Ranger Cabin. One can paddle 141 miles around the perimeter of one of the most beautiful, wild lakes in the world, Yellowstone Lake. One can climb some of the least visited peaks in the lower 48 states in the Absaroka and Gallatin Ranges. One can hike over 1000 miles of established backcountry trails and expect to see no one for days at a time on most of the trails.
Under some of the clearest skies, and beside some of the cleanest water in the world, you can rest your heart in the peace, continuity, and strength of a residual piece of healthy, dynamic land where life goes on without our interference as it has in its wisdom and power for thousands of years. The connection to this force of continuity and strength will rejuvenate you every time you get close to the heart of Yellowstone. This can begin even when looking out the windshield of a car, but we truly connect when we get out on the land and walk. This connection to the dirt, to the sage, to the rocks and rough barked pine trees is real. The connection to the dew-covered grasses soaking your pant legs, to the sharp tangy smell of sulfur springs, to the flutter of a junco’s wings, to the repetitious chirps of robins from the aspen groves along Slough Creek at sunrise is real. The connection to the quiet sigh and little splashes of the small morning waves on the Southeast Arm of the Lake, to the full moon rising over the Trident above a marshy meadow full of monkshood, gentian and elephant head flowers along the Thorofare is as real and honest as anything you will ever witness.
I was sitting on a hillside near Lynx Creek watching the evening sunlight as it stretched across the valley to Bridger Lake. After having seen no one for a week, I glanced at a cobble of petrified wood at my feet and realized that it had been flaked by someone, possibly thousands of years before, who scattered pieces down the slope while making a tool and watching the same landscape under a similar late afternoon sky.
While climbing among the ridges near Parker Peak I discovered a rock structure about 6’x8′ on a cliff edge overlooking the head of the Lamar River. Hoodoo Peak, Lamar Mountain, Pollux and Castor Peaks, and the Grand Teton in the faint distance spread for miles before me. This rock enclosure was typical of vision quest sites where prehistoric people went to get a sense of who they were and what they could do with their lives. It was still an appropriate place to seek the answers to the same questions in the modern world. The mountains all around are nearly unchanged from the past hundreds or thousands of years. The answers can still be found in wild places like this, places that are still honest without human economic forces dominating them, without “civilized” roads, ski lifts, power lines, hydroelectric dams, houses and yard lights, which twist and damage places to serve our wants, while destroying the complex lives and needs of things like butterflies, grizzlies and pine nuts.
We seek the answers to our own existence, but we must consider the rest of our neighbors. Our neighbors include all creatures because we all share the same planet. Going to a wild place like the Yellowstone backcountry makes it easier to listen because the source is pure and clear. It is closer to the basics of reality. It can be difficult to stop and listen even in a wild place like Yellowstone. It takes some open-minded effort to go to these mountains and hear the song of life and truth in the quest for answers. After we get past our need for basic life sustenance and a community of other people, the next step is to connect with the community of all life, to recognize that we are only a part of it, with responsibilities to support every single part of our world community as equals.
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After dark one August, on the east side of the Lake, lightning flickered way off to the west. For the first ten minutes I couldn’t hear any thunder. The storm front came on toward me from the southwest until I could see the twisted, bright fingers of the lightning. I could count to three before the sound hit the trees above me and passed over me to hit the ridge behind me. After another three or four seconds, the echo came back from the east muffled a little by the trees. Then after another few seconds an even more faint rumble came from the echo which had bounced off hillsides to the south. When the storm was all around me each flash of lightning created a series of sounds mimicking the first sharp boom followed by different deeper echoing tones, funnelled and bounced off the clouds above, muffled by vegetation, pulled sideways by wind, and acoustically modified by concave rock faces.
While hiking near the base of Mount Stevenson, I was caught in a sudden, heavy rain shower. I crawled under a large spruce tree below its soft, springy, drooping branches. It was a perfect umbrella. Sitting in the dry dusty needles and bark chips heaped up at the base of its two and a half foot diameter trunk, I watched from my refuge an amazing cascade of raindrops. At first the big drops smacked into the earth and raised tiny clouds of dust, but soon everything was wet, and then the big drops raised little plops of muddy water. The grasses hissed and bent from the raking sheets of rain. Small muddy rivulets formed everywhere within five minutes. Water rushed down the slopes and pushed or carried needles, stems, mud and pebbles. It created puddles and pools that looked as if they were boiling from thousands of rain drops. A few pieces of hail and ice appeared even though the temperature had been nearly 80º a few minutes before. Looking more closely at my retreat under the spruce tree, I watched shiny black ants climbing over the debris I sat on, and I saw spider webs clinging to the low branches around me. After about ten minutes of heavy rain, I started to wonder when the moisture would penetrate the branches above me. So far they had worked like shingled thatch to channel the rain away from the trunk and down to the needles’ tips. Then water started to drip through the branches straight down the back of my neck. The tree was becoming saturated from top to bottom, and I was at the bottom. I noticed a spot of sun appearing below the dark cloud which was the source of this fantastic rain show. When I pulled my light jacket out of my pack to put over my head, I noticed my hair was full of pine needles, and I sneezed from all the dust I had disturbed. After a couple more minutes it stopped raining. Now it was dripping quite a lot under the tree, so I crawled out to let all that moisture soak the dusty needles there. I walked out in the muddy open. My pant legs and shoes were soaked after walking only a hundred yards, but the world smelled like the beginning of everything good. The muddy rivulets were murmuring, and you could hear little pebbles being tumbled in the water. Gusts of wind fluttered the trees, shaking buckets worth of large water drops out of them. The birds, silent during the rain and probably doing just what I had done, started to sing and move around again. The warm earth steamed a little and produced a rich aroma of vegetation, mushrooms, sweet flowers and composting organisms.
During my climb up Cache Creek drainage toward Republic Pass the air had been getting a little cooler each mile. It had been hot half an hour before and the still air had felt as though it was sticking to me. The bugs freely whizzed around me, sometimes landed and bit my neck, face, and arms. I noticed a low moaning sound and saw the tree-tops off to my right and all around me moving. Little random puffs of wind started to pat me on the face and flutter my pant cuffs. I welcomed the wind to cool me off and blow the bugs away. Ahead of me in a large meadow I could see the wind tearing along through the grass, picking up bits of loose grass and leaves and rushing away with them in spiraling loops. When I walked out into the full force of the wind, dirt filled my eyes. I had to stop and rub them clean before I could go on. The bugs were gone, perhaps clinging to trees, forgetting about me. The wind twisted my hair and pulled and slapped at my clothes. I was bodily pushed from behind with an occasional buffeting from either side which knocked me off balance. I could still hear the trees moaning and a few small brambles snapping behind me but louder than before. Some dead pines had tipped over and were caught partway down by neighboring trees. These logs, cradled on the branches of their neighbors, were making musical squeals, squawks, and thumps when they moved at different speeds and in different directions from their supporting neighbors. Once in a while in the distance I could hear a tree making an outrageous crackling thud when it toppled to the forest floor. When I turned to face the wind and looked behind at the dark cloud above me, the wind tried to pull my breath away or stuff it forcefully down my throat. All the motion, noise, and heightened smells changed my hiking experience to a much more complex one, one where all my senses were grabbed and shaken. I had to be even more conscious and aware of the risk of surprising a bear who was experiencing the same thing I was and couldn’t hear or smell me as easily. I felt more alive than I had all day. Watching for the possibility of a cold rain shower, I avoided the downwind side of dead trees leaning against other trees. Rubbing the dust and grass pieces out of my eyes regularly I let the wind pummel me and remind me that this was where I preferred to be.