Ansel Adams.

Conversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 online

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there was about six inches of snow. I didn't know it until I woke
up, feeling a pressure. "Oh, oh." I reached out and found all
this snow. I got out and looked about and everything was covered
with fresh snow, including Mr. Holman 's clothes, hanging on the
tree his shirts, trousers, underwear, socks everything encrusted
with snow. And Mr. Holman blissfully sleeping in a nightshirt in a
sleeping bag. [Laughter]

Well, the danger was that with it snowing it would be very
hard for the donkeys to get out, because we were at nearly ten
thousand feet. So we had to wake up Uncle Frank. And Mr. Schu and
I got as big a fire as we could going, and we thawed out his clothes.


Adams: In other words, we got the snow off! And he had to put them on and
they were damp. He went through agony, and we packed up and got
out and went all the way to Yosemite Valley, over thirty miles.
Got in at nine o'clock at night. That was the final trip of that

Well, that's going apart, a little, from the conservation idea.
Teiser: Well, those are typical trips, I suppose.

Adams: Yes, and they were marvelous. And Holman, of course, was very

conservation-minded, in a different way. He was collecting birds
for the Academy of Sciences, and he was disturbed by the sheep.

Animals and People in the National Parks

Teiser: Were the sheep always a kind of a bugaboo of the Sierra Club people?

Adams: Well, the sheep at one time were terrible. In fact, someone said
the other day that the damage done by the sheep in the late 1800s
is still apparent in the high country. It'll take many, many years
to return to the original condition. When first Muir came, the
whole High Sierra was completely overrun with sheep even to the
highest passes. So the wildf lowers and the meadows were in a
pretty sad state. So one of the first objectives of the Sierra
Club was, of course, to eliminate the sheep from the very high
meadows. That was very difficult to do because it was public
domain. But when we got out of the parks and into the National
Forest, then sheep were everywhere very apparent and odoriferous.
Sometimes, we'd have a hard time finding enough grass for the
donkeys, because a whole flock of sheep had gone right through the
high meadows for miles. You see, they might start from Bakersfield,
go into the Tehachapi Mountains, then up the Kern River. Sometimes
they'd have to go out to the desert on the east for provisions and
supplies. The shepherds and their flocks were out for quite a few
months .

Teiser: But cattle, if you control the number of them, are not so destructive?

Adams: Well, they don't go to the high elevations as much, you see. But

they can do just as much damage on the lower ones. They can chew up
fine meadows like Horse Corral Meadow or Big Meadow, near Yosemite.
And when they go to certain types of forest with the green under
growth, they can do a lot of damage.


Adams: A national park can't logically exist with sheep or cattle in it.
In the early days, the Yosemite rangers would find a shepherd and
a flock up in the northern part of the park, say near Tower Peak.
They would scatter the flock and take the shepherd all the way to
Wawona at the southern end of the park for trial, and then he'd
spend the rest of the summer trying to gather his sheep. Pretty

When I told people in the East that Yosemite Park is nearly
twelve hundred square miles, they'd say, "Oh, you mean acres." Oh,
no. (It's 1200 square miles, and Yellowstone is 3200 or 3300.
Glacier Bay National Monument is going to be 4000.) So to find
anybody in Yosemite Park or to locate a herd of sheep would really
be not too easy. And the shepherds would sneak in around the
borders and take the grass. They'd have lookouts and if they'd see
a ranger camp or a patrol, they'd move out.

Well then, my first idea of conservation as such came about
when I met Mr. Colby and got into the Sierra Club. And you have to
remember the Sierra Club started as a social group of elitists and
intellectuals. They were very fine people university people,
lawyers and doctors. They were trying to help John Muir in keeping
the sheep out and preserving the national park. Muir wanted the
whole High Sierra to be a park.

The outings were started with the idea of bringing people into
the mountains to experience them so they would appreciate their
beauty and then work to protect them through congressional laws
and regulations. The first motto of the club was "to explore,
enjoy, and render accessible." And what they meant was this:
accessible for the elitist group directly, and for all people of
that persuasion who wanted to come to the mountains without any
idea at all of how many would eventually come. So the idea of even
roads was not anathema at all trails, preferably, but roads to
trailheads were acceptable. Around 1908 Colby told me this, but
I can't remember his exact date he and John Muir were standing
at Glacier Point. You see, Colby was a great Muir disciple Muir
could do no wrong whatsoever. (Muir was a great man. He made a
few mistakes, and he wasn't perfect. Neither was Colby, and
neither is anybody else, for that matter.)

Muir stood at Glacier Point and said to Colby, "Bill, won't
it be wonderful when one million people can see what we are seeing
today." And that's about 1908! Of course, one million people
didn't have any real meaning. He meant a good quantity, a number
of people. He couldn't conceive of such a number. Well, many
millions of people have seen it, as you know.


Adams: The preservationist extremists have been fighting against that broad
viewpoint. They say that only the most hardy people should be
privileged. They'd like to close Yosemite off at El Portal, make
everybody walk in with a pack on their back, assuming this would be
a great experience. When you think of the humanistic balance, that
would be an impossibility. There should be some places left like
that, but I can't imagine closing off Yosemite. It would be the
utmost of selfishness.

Colby had a very wonderful idea, and of course at that time he
didn't realize all the hazards. So when we were fighting, say, the
Chamber of Commerce kind of development, the park motto in the
thirties and forties was, "Make every year a national park year."
Everybody should get traveling, and come and see the parks. And
all the concessioners thought it was wonderful. So they were
building up this travel scheme which very quickly just overpowered

Then we had the problem of too many people and people of the
wrong kind. And that came to a head several years ago at Yosemite
when we had that riot and all kinds of questionable people appeared.
It was a pretty difficult situation. Then suddenly it changed, and
just the type of people we wanted to come to Yosemite came. All
the young people who wanted to climb and hike and pack most of
them very good people perhaps only about 10 percent were bad. And
some communes were established in Little Yosemite and other places,
which caused a great deal of worry very unsanitary, for one thing.
But, in the main, there's this wonderful group of young people, just
the kind of people we always thought should experience the park.
Now there's too many of them; even though they're all the ideal
kind, there are too many.

For years, the club has been trying to justify its outings, and
we finally had to capitulate. We were doing a great deal of damage
with all our horses and mules us plus other outings, and the
hunters. Things were getting in pretty bad shape. There wasn't
enough firewood, so we brought in gas tanks. Whole strings of mules
now come in to the mountains with gas cylinders; we cook with propane
and butane whatever it is.

Now the mules are causing a problem! So the only answer is the
helicopter to fly in and deposit supply dumps on a schedule
rigorously controlled. It would do far less damage. Of course,
the purists again say that it's a mechanical intrusion. "It spoils
my mood to hear a plane." Well, the planes are going overhead by
fifty to a hundred a day anyway. It's commercial planes the skies
are filled with jet trails. So it seems to me a rather ridiculous
thing to say, in this age of the helicopter, that you can't come in
at a given time and make a large deposit of supplies needed and get


Adams: out. People go in with the last word in outing equipment and

camping equipment and portable radios, and the whole matter becomes
very difficult. Just what is wilderness? If you want to really
face the wilderness, you'd go to the borders of Yosemite and divest
yourself of all your clothes, hardware, and food and just walk in
and see what would happen!

Teiser: With the good equipment that people have now, however, how far do
you think you would get with just what you could carry?

Adams: Well, I think if I were strong and could carry a good pack and I

had a fishing line but didn't include camera equipment I think I
could probably go for thirty days probably more than that.

John Salathe, who made the first ascent of the Lost Arrow,
was a "fruititarian." That is, he wouldn't eat any vegetables that
grew underground peanuts, for instance. He'd consume bananas and
nuts and fruit juice and pineapple juice, and so on. He had the
stamina, but when you'd shake hands with him, it was shaking a glove
full of cotton. He seemed to have relatively small protein
structure. Dr. Stern at Yosemite was very much interested in him
medically. He said, "Where does he get his protein? I can
understand where he gets energy (winos get energy just from wine) ,
but he must have proteins because of his physical expenditure of
muscle. So what does he eat?" I said, "He eats nuts, bananas,
walnuts." I think he talked to him one time and found out what it
was probably from nuts.

Teiser: What did you say he'd climbed?

Adams: He made the first ascent of the Lost Arrow. That was the first

really great single rock climb in history in our part of the country.
It was done with expansion bolts four days of hard work! And Ax
Nelson, who was a six footer plus a great big strong guy was his
companion. They made it and came to our house in Yosemite afterwards
for dinner that evening. Ax Nelson went through a couple of steaks
that would have fed a regiment totally exhausted. John Salathe
was sitting there smiling, eating raisins and a couple of bananas;
he was in perfect shape. He'd done this arduous thing with a
minimum of nourishment. [Laughter]

Of course, Muir said, "Well, you just take some crusts of
bread and a little tea." Well, that is physiologically impossible.
I mean, Muir must have had something else. Because you're not
going to live on a few crusts of bread and tea and raise 180 or 190
pounds, whatever you weigh, so many thousand feet. I mean, you get
to the old BTU principle. So Muir was guilty of very frequent
flamboyant and happy exaggerations, which were made with the
acceptable exaggerations of the times.


Adams: We used to go on trips with mush and rice and bacon and sugar and
salt and flour and some tins of jam and some canned butter and
canned milk, and we'd be out for weeks. Nothing more than that.
We'd catch some fish sometimes. None of the amenities. But we had
enough food.

Teiser: You never caught small game?

Adams: You can't in the park. We never did that. That's something that

the old pioneers did and the shepherds; they did shoot deer and dry
meat and so on. They didn't have other things much to fall back on.

We'd have a couple of kayaks and packs on the donkeys just
filled up canvas sacks of rice and flour and salt. The LeContes
are small people really tiny; you know, I think I ate as much as
any three of them. When we planned a trip, they had to just
figure out what they'd eat and then double it, because I ate a
whole pot of mush in the morning. I don't know where it went. I
must have had a distended digestive system, because I would eat an
entire pot of oatmeal. [Laughter] Loaded with sugar. Joe LeConte
would always stop on the trail for lunch, and we all had our little
duties we'd dash off to attend to them. One person would water
and stake out the donkey, another one would get firewood, and
another one would start cooking, and Joe LeConte would make the
biscuit dough, somebody would get the reflector oven set up, and
in about twenty minutes we'd be having hot biscuits with canned
butter or jam. Helen LeConte will remember that very well. Then
we'd relax for a while, and then Joe or I would go and get the mule
and Helen would wash the dishes and Joe would get the packs
balanced. Sometimes if you don't balance your packs on a donkey
or a mule, you have trouble, because they slide over. There's
nothing more awful than to have a pack reverse itself on a panicky
animal. You're really in trouble then. So we'd balance the packs,
and some of the less scrupulous people would throw a rock in a light
pack, just to balance it.

There were always the nested pots. The job of getting the soot
off the outside of the pot was a daily ritual. But you finally
learned to do it so fast that we could clear camp in ten minutes.

One thing that was very painful, though, was going out on a
frosty morning and undoing the tie ropes for the donkey, which were
frozen; your fingers are aching and you're walking up to your knees
in wet, cold, dewy grass, and everything is sort of soaked from the
knees down, and the donkey is shivering, and giving you a reproach
ful look. [Laughter] That was extraordinary.

Teiser: When you went on those trips, were you doing anything that would have
been common then and not thought to be harmful, that would not be done
now other than cutting pine boughs?



Adams :


Yes. We cut wood to build fires. We were always very careful with
fires. We put fires out with care, although on a couple of
occasions one got away from me. Came back one time to a camp in
Illilouette Valley and found the fire I'd built had gotten into
roots and was really spreading, and I spent a whole day getting
that thing out, scared to death. That happens to everybody. We
were extremely careful about it, but we weren't as careful then as
we are now.

You gathered your wood as you went?

We just gathered the wood; the wood was everywhere. Now there's
hardly any available wood along the trails. The tragedy is in the
High Sierra, way up high, where the beautiful white albicaulis are
dead white branches. Now people go as much as a mile off the trail
to gather those. This was typical of the High Sierra. This kind of
white flame has largely been burned up.

I remember at Moraine Lake, the Sierra Club lit up a great
dead Foxtail pine. It was standing right in the middle of a sandy
area. We built wood against that and lit it, and the tree went up
like a four-hundred-foot torch. Well, we wouldn't even think of
doing that now. But there were just thousands of dead trees and a
few score people.

How did you handle your garbage?
it now?

Any differently than you'd handle

Adams: Well, we always dug a hole, which we know now that the bears always
came along very promptly and undug. With a small party, that isn't
too bad, because there isn't very much. We always buried the cans.
One way to do it is to put them down crevices in rocks and put
rocks on top of them.

But the Sierra Club garbage pits used to be dug six to eight
feet deep, and the bears would get into that. So we used to get
roars from the Forest Service people about it.

Teiser: Is that bad for the bears?

Adams: I don't think anything can hurt a bear much.

Teiser: But I suppose they scattered stuff.

Adams: Oh yes, they dug it up, and there were cans all over the place.

A terrible mess. The forest rangers would have to rebury it. Bears
are really terrible what they can do. They can smell through many
feet of earth, and they'd dig down deep and get it and just scatter
it over a large area.


Adams: So now we pack out everything, you see. All the cans are smashed,
compacted. There's nothing wrong with organics. That's the thing
we have to remember, that organic garbage food wastes and peelings
and all that. We go up to the rocks and scatter them, because the
animals will eat it, and it will naturally go back into the soil.
But it's the foils and the cans and glass and the plastics that
cause the trouble.

Teiser: Has there been a need to control the bear population?

Adams: It's controlled very stringently. They have what they call bear
traps, and they'll catch a bear and take him way out fifty or
sixty miles. Then of course he'll probably come back. And they
shoot a certain number in the national parks. They have to do that
with deer. Deer are very bad. Because the deer proliferate and
the predators are minor, and people feed deer all kinds of tidbits
and garbage, and the deer suffer. At the Grand Canyon, I never saw
so many awful- looking deer. I think they had a real cleanup and
shot hundreds of them; they had to, they were in such bad shape.

But, you see, there was a bounty on mountain lions, so the
mountain lion population dropped, and it knocked the balance of
nature out. The same applies to the coyotes.

Teiser: There's been some effort to save mountain lions now.

Adams: Yes, there's so few of them. But as soon as there's a few more of
them, then they'll start doing damage to the herds again, and then
the cattlemen will object strongly. It's a very difficult thing
because coyotes and mountain lions do raise serious problems for
the ranchers. It's awfully hard to know just what is the right or
the wrong thing to do. If I say now to certain people that parks
are for people, why, I'm branded a traitor to the cause. I strongly
believe that, but under strict controls. But how do you justify
predators doing serious damage to herds? We put ant powder around
when the ants get in our sink. I'm trying to find the essential
logic, which I find very difficult sometimes.

Teiser: I was reading a quite superficial account yesterday which was

indicating that at one time there were two opposing camps: the
Muir people, who wanted to protect everything, and the Gifford
Pinchot people, who wanted multiple use!

Adams: Yes. The argument still goes on. [Interruption]


Sierra Club Indoctrination, 1923

Adams: My first direct contact with the Sierra Club, other than personally
knowing Mr. Colby and the LeContes earlier, was in 1923 when the
club came to Yosemite when I was custodian of the LeConte Memorial
Lodge. They started out from Yosemite, up the Yosemite Falls Trail,
Yosemite Creek, over to Waterwheel Falls and down to Pate Valley,
and then they went up the Tuolumne River to Tuolumne Meadows.

Mr. Colby asked me if I'd come with them for the first part
of this trip, just for a few days, and I did. I went up to
Yosemite Creek with them and on up to Ten Lakes and then dashed
back to Yosemite because I had to keep the LeConte Memorial open.
But Glair Tappaan, Judge Tappaan from Los Angeles (his son is
Francis Tappaan, who's still living manager of the outings later
on and a very fine lawyer) he left me his big car, an "Oakland
Eight," an open car which was really a huge hunk of machinery. The
club had gone to the northern part of the park and about half way
through they'd come back to Tuolumne Meadows, and Mr. Morley, a
mining engineer, had been on a rock climb with some of the people
on what they call now Matthes Crest (which is near Coxcomb Crest of
the Cathedral range). He had slipped and fallen and had mortally
injured himself; he had a basal skull fracture. They carried him
back miles to the meadows, and I got a telephone message to bring
up the car. I'd just been up the day before with seven hundred
pounds of meat, which I had loaded up at the village store. I
drove up, spent the day, and came back early the next day, then
that night proceeded to bring up the car again.

Dr. Walter Alvarez and Dr. Herbert Evans were at the LeConte
Memorial planning to go in the next day for the beginning of the
second two weeks of the trip. We drove up, leaving at midnight.
There was nothing we could do much for Mr. Morley. He lived about
a week in the Parsons Lodge. And Mrs. Morley came in by taxi from
San Francisco and we were all very grim. The [club] trip was
modified somewhat because some of the people had to stay there with

Well, it was on that first trip when I got the indoctrination
of the Sierra Club ideals. That was my basic introduction to the
conservation world. (I put that in different terms from the
natural world, because the conservation world is the world of
people relating to regulations and laws and procedures, really
trying to accomplish things.) So I had a chance to talk to many
people at that time, and I really learned a great deal.


Concepts and Techniques of Conservation

Adams: I would say that was the first time I was really aware of the what
do you call it the real meaning of the word "conservation," which
is of course a very bad word, because it relates to the conservation
of everything, from oil to bad habits. [Laughter] "Ecology" is an
equally dangerous word to use, because it is a scientific discipline.
I think the term "environment" or "environmental procedure" is good
because environment implies conscience; it's everybody's environment,
yours and mine, and the quality of conscience comes in there. So
what we're trying to do is to preserve an environment, which of
course is subject to many definitions, but never out of a certain
logical pattern. Conservation was the accepted catchword, and was
used by Gifford Pinchot in the conservation of lumber and the
conservation of oil and the conservation of natural resources and,
perhaps, the conservation of scenery. So, to many minds, it has
many meanings, and that's I think an important point.

Well, the Forest Service, representing Gifford Pinchot's
philosophy, is very powerful. We can't forget that the Forest
Service was set up as a conserving organization to control the
management of forests for the benefit of lumber people in the
country at large lumbering and the lumber industry, and by
implication, the people at large who wouldn't want to cut down all
the forest because there wouldn't be any more lumber. It was an
economic not a "spiritual" conservation.

[End Tape 24, Side 1]
[Begin Tape 24, Side 2]

Adams: This is a very complex thing that few people really know about now,
except those that were in the field.

The Forest Service was set up to preserve the forests for the
economic integrity. That is, to manage them, and in that proportion
their cutting and their control and their replanting for definite
economic purposes, because people had gotten into the forests and
were devastating tremendous areas, with great damage to watershed.
And the Forest Service also took over grazing. The interplay of
watershed was terribly important. So this was really management of
natural resources, primarily for economic reasons.

Pinchot was very much against Muir and everything he represented.
He fought Muir on the Hetch Hetchy [dam] and many other things. His idea
was, well, it was nice to go out in the woods, but the woods, of
course, are for the benefit of people at the economic level.


Adams: Our former director, Bestor Robinson, a lawyer, was very close to
the Service and did a terrific amount of good in adjusting Sierra
Club policy to the Service and getting the Service to realize they
had to have a little conservation of another kind too. As the
Forest Service progressed, we were able to define the first concept
of "wilderness areas" and also to open up areas for recreation.
I remember in the early twenties we felt that things were sometimes
more intense and more untouched and more "unmanicured" in the Forest
Service areas than in the park areas. And we used to go over Isberg
Pass in Yosemite into the Forest Service area where there 'd be mines
and sheep, and we'd find a "human touch." We didn't fully recognize
what this meant, but there was something "human" going on there.
They were a different kind of people than just tourists there were
miners and sheepherders and cattle people. They were all a pretty
well bunch of people. And we weren't too conscious of breakdown
because, again, there just weren't that many people involved. Sure,
we were annoyed by the sheep and it was sometimes difficult to find
a campsite that you could stand, but that seemed all part of life.

And many friends used to come to Yosemite and say, "Oh, the hell
with the mountains. I just like the natural life and picking up and

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 59 of 76)