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

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looks awful. It loses its aesthetic quality; the mystique is gone.
If it was only once it would recover, but then they come in the next
four or five years and take another set of trees out. So the forest
is always in a state of surgical operation.

Now, with the complete clear-cut and a forest beginning again,
by just sowing seeds or planting at random you create a new forest
which is aesthetically much more important. But that's the problem
that I can't seem to get anywhere with, with people. Everybody has
totally different ideas.

I'm always interested in the young person who says, "I'm having
a new life style; I'm going out in the wilderness." So he goes out
in the wilderness with the best possible pack equipment and boots
and beautifully condensed food, right down to the limit, and a little
Probus stove and a transistor radio. He thinks he's facing nature.
Now, as soon as his things begin to wear out, he's in a terrible
situation. His radio can wear out that wouldn't kill him. But as
soon as his boots go, or his pants begin to tear, or suppose
something happens to his eyeglasses? I mean, just think of the fact
that indulging in the wilderness is an illusion. We don't indulge
in the wilderness, we indulge in the wilderness mystique. We have a
magnificent backdrop of natural beauty, which to us is very emotional
and gives us spiritual, emotional, and aesthetic benefit. The
aesthetic is something else that's a function of art.

You know, just go to talk to somebody who lives (and likes) south
of Market in San Francisco, or over on Telegraph in Berkeley or in
Harlem in New York, and try to figure out just what they think it is.
"Man, just what you talking about?" [Laughter] They wouldn't have
the slightest idea.


Balancing Preservation and Recreation

Adams: A director of the Park Service should be trying to achieve a

balance. We are trying to get park and recreation areas near big
centers. The whole concept of the park service system is changing.
We have to preserve wilderness, some of it, at least that's very
important. We have to provide much more recreation. But to say
"provide a wilderness experience for the multitude" is impossible,
because if the multitude is introduced to it, you no longer have
wilderness. It's a very serious question.

Teiser: I've always wondered about those Sierra Club trips, when two hundred
people go out at once.

Adams: Well, the only reason we tolerated that was, they were all of the
same sympathy and understanding. There were always some kooks on
it. There's about five difficult people on every outing. There
had to be. But everybody was there for the same purpose, and we
all tolerated the confusion. I used to think of that a great deal.
People would say to me, "You go out with two hundred people. How
do you enjoy the country?" I said, "Well, they are all enjoying
the same thing." So you are my brother or sister in wilderness,
and you do not bother me because you believe in what I believe in,
and vice versa.

Teiser: But can you all stand on the same rock at the same time?

Adams: No, it was really quite a remarkable thing. There was very seldom
any sense of confusion. Two hundred people isn't many spread out
over a large area. It's a "tribal" thing, let's put it that way.
And the other tribe of hunters, you see, or wealthy tourists coming
in with twenty mules for five people, these were the things we were
fighting. But the two hundred people who were of our tribe, that
was sort of a joyous exodus. It had its own particular psychology
and its own particular social validity. We could imagine at any
time certain people coming in that could have destroyed that. In
fact, we sometimes did have such people. As I say, there were
always four or five people in our group who weren't in sympathy.

But that same thing occurs in art and musical groups and any
group you can think of. I'm sure the California Historical Society
has got a few members in it that cause problems. But, after all,
what is history? What is wilderness? I think Ted [Eldridge T.]
Spencer, the architect, had by far the most enlightened concept of
development in.Yosemite, because he was fundamentally a humanist,
and extremely well trained as an architect in Europe, and his wife
a great authority in stained glass and a very fine artist. And
they looked at it humanistically and asked, "What are you trying to


Adams: preserve? Now you can't hurt the cliffs " (well, you could if you
wanted to really destroy them) . "You can hurt the meadows and the
floor of the valley." So here's a whole concept of development
which would put all construction in what we call the talus area.
That's the oak-covered area between the cliff and the meadow.
There structures could be built and hidden. You couldn't see them
from the meadow and you couldn't see them from the heights. And
the thing against that was it was rather expensive, putting in
sewers and water supplies and roads in a very complicated, rocky
talus area. The best example of that is the employee or executive
housing section that's just east of Yosemite Village. You can't
see it, and yet there's approximately twenty-five houses in there.
They're built right into the rock and the oak trees cover them;
you can't see it from above or below or from the side.

So in his concept the person coming to Yosemite has the
experience of the gigantic cliffs and the beautiful tranquil
river and the meadow, and that's it. And put your human elements
out of sight in the slope, where they could be hidden.

The new concept at Glacier, after the hotel burned down (which
was a total monstrosity only sad thing of its going, it burned up
a lot of nice trees too) is that there may be the esplanade.
You'll get off the bus or the tram or what ever 's there, and nothing
will interfere with the view. You'll walk out and have one of the
great views in the world in front of you. And then you will go
downstairs to accommodations and restaurants and gift shops and
things, and they will be below esplanade level. There won't be
anything above. Of course, this is a tremendous concept, and a lot
of the stupid concessioner types will say, "We want people to see
our gift shop!" And at Glacier Point, you used to get out and walk
into the hotel to the front porch to get the view, and you went
through what is probably the worst gift shop that I've ever seen
in my life, which is not a preparation for this tremendous view.
And yet I'm quite sure that the average person didn't have much of
a sensitive response to it. They go and buy an Indian pennant
pillow or a crazy curio and then go right on and look at the view.
But it really wasn't any reparation for this particular experience,
which should be of almost religious dignity.

I remember going into the chapel at Princeton, which was the
last gothic building built in this country my friend [David]
McAlpin insisted we go in. And we sat down and the organ was
playing (the music department kept the organ going most of the
time) . And he insisted we sit down at one of the pews at the end
and look at the windows; then we moved down closer and looked at
another window, then we went over and looked into the apse, or
whatever they call it perfectly beautiful windows and this
gorgeous music, and this was certainly a "preparation." Well, why
not? Things like that could happen in a great park.


Adams: I became rapidly conservationist and skeptically political, and I
guess I did the job I had to do. But, as I look at it now, I'm
trying to recognize the fact that there are millions of people who
have the right or the privilege to experience certain things. And
certain things cannot take more than a certain impact, or else the
experience is damaged or lost. So how do you show millions of
people Yosemite without destroying Yosemite? And how do you
maintain a little wilderness where somebody, kids especially, can
go and camp and experience some degree of solitude? How many can
do that without destroying the very thing that's important?

[End Tape 24, Side 2]

Sierra Club People

[Interview XXI (Sierra Club Interview II) 11 August 1972]
[Begin Tape 25, Side 1]

Teiser: I've been reading Helen LeConte's copies of the Sierra Club

Bulletins, and I copied down the names of the people who were the
officers and directors in the late twenties, which would be I
suppose the first group that you encountered.

Adams: Well, my first trip was '23, if I remember. I went on the trip for
a few days. Many of the directors participated in the outings.

Teiser: When did you actually join the Sierra Club?

Adams: Oh, I would imagine it would have been 1918 or '19.

Teiser: Just before you

Adams: Took charge of the LeConte Memorial, yes.

Teiser: I came across something that Marion Randall Parsons wrote in 1919,
which was the year you were first at that lodge. Maybe it says
something about the temper of the club at that time.

She wrote: "Our members should consider themselves guardians
of the scenery of the West, an intelligent mass of a public opinion
ready to voice its protest when the well-being of the parks, or of
areas that ought to be parks, is in question."

Adams: Yes, that's a great statement I She was a very gifted woman and a
very good writer. I think that that's one of the best early
statements of club policy. Actually, when the Sierra Club started
(prompted by Muir, and Colby, more or less his right-hand man) the


Adams: word "club" meant just that. It was a group of people who enjoyed

the hikes in the mountains. It was a "closed" club; you had to have
two sponsors and all kinds of credentials to get in.

Teiser: Someone said that even in the twenties it took months and months to
be admitted.

Adams: Yes. The membership committee had to see the [sponsoring] people
and talk to them.

Teiser: Was anyone ever not admitted?

Adams: Oh yes.

Teiser: On what grounds?

Adams: Well, perhaps somebody didn't like them! There has to be unanimous
approval of the board. Some very nice people were turned down.
And then there was some racial trouble. Oh, they were very anti-
Jewish for a while, at the start.

Then in the thirties we had a very clear policy of no racial
restrictions whatsoever. But the Los Angeles chapter tried to
prevent a black lady from joining. We threatened to cancel the
charter of the chapter if they didn't accept her. There was no
valid reason for refusal other than that she was black.

Teiser: Are there Jewish members now?

Adams: Oh yes. And black members. We never have enough of them, but we
find that relatively few black people are interested in wilderness.
Jewish people are very much interested. In the twenties a good
percentage was Jewish. But in the beginning it was pretty WASP.

Teiser: It was heavily university too, wasn't it?

Adams: Pretty much so. Universities, legal profession, and doctors. But
that peculiar uppercrust of the WASP domain is very hard to define.
They're wonderful people, and they're the soul of integrity, but
they just had a class consciousness. As a social club, that might
be understandable, but then of course, when it got into the larger
domains, it wasn't.

Teiser: I see that Marion Randall Parsons wrote frequently in the twenties
for the Bulletin. Who was she?

Adams: Well, her name was Marion Randall originally, and she married
Edward T. Parsons, who was, I think, a big lawyer a good but
rather crusty man. Some people said he was very difficult, but he
did a great deal for the club. He put up the money for a memorial


Adams: of some kind; thought there might be a nice place in Tuolumne

Meadows for what you called then a "lodge." The club had bought
the McCauley property, and I think Parsons was very instrumental
in acquiring that. Now, these are historic facts that I can't
be sure of, but I know he was quite important. The Parsons Memorial
Lodge was constructed in his memory.

Teiser: I'm surprised how many women were active in the club.

Adams: Oh, many! We had Aurelia Harwood as director and then president.
She was a wonderful woman.

Teiser: She was from Southern California?

Adams : Yes .

Teiser: What did she do when she wasn't'

Adams: Oh, I guess cut coupons. I think she was a New England lady. And
there's the Sierra Club Harwood Lodge down south, in her memory.

Teiser: Then you had Aurelia Henry Reinhardt as a director.

Adams: Oh yes, she was a very important person. Then Marge [Marjory B.]
Farquhar, who's still living, of course. She remains very
prominent. Now, we have two women on the board, I think, both very
aggressive. Virginia was on the board for two sessions. I deposed
her [in 1934]. She had enough to do with the kids'.

Teiser: It looks a little as if the people on the board and the officers
played musical chairs for many years.

Adams: They did. It was really a closed corporation, in a sense. Mr.
Colby really ran it for many, many years. Of course, he was a
person of absolute highest integrity, so it was a good thing.

Teiser: Were there any quarrels with him? Did people counter him?

Adams: I think there was some opposition, but of a very minor nature. You
know, people of a superior ability, they are resented per se. If
you find anything to gripe about, you gripe. I think the worst
thing that happened to him was when he was chairman of the state
parks, and one man went around making the most libelous remarks
said that Colby received a commission on all appropriations or
gifts they were terrible false statements. And I said to Bill,
"You have good reason for a suit." And he said what is that
remark about a skunk? that if you're having trouble with a skunk,
Just get out of the way. [Laughter] Because everybody knew this
was so improbable as if to say I was stealing cars or something.


Adams: He was really the father of the state parks, which is an extremely
important fact of history. He dedicated an awful lot of his time
and energy to that. He had unlimited energy. He was a total
constructive extrovert.

Teiser: He was interviewed by the Oral History Office,* but only a small
part of the interview is on the Sierra Club.

Adams: It was an important part of his life tremendous.

Teiser: He was an attorney, wasn't he?

Adams: He was a top mining lawyer.

Teiser: What was he like? Was he an outgoing ?

Adams: Oh, marvelous person. Very big, very tall, sort of massive an
extremely generous, direct person.

Teiser: He headed the outing committee?

Adams: Yes, he ran the outings; that was his main fun. He was the

secretary of the club, then became president. Then he settled
down and became secretary for many, many years. They just
automatically reelected Bill Colby secretary. He had everything
at the tip of his fingers, and when the club was small, he had his
law office upstairs in the Mills Building, eleventh floor, I think,
and the Sierra Club office was just one office about as big as our
gallery a standard one-room office on the floor below. Nell
Taggart was the assistant secretary, and she ran the whole clerical
business letters, the membership, etc. Of course, they had lots
of volunteers. The club always has; couldn't have existed without
that any more than our Friends of Photography can.

An organization of that type really depends on volunteers.
Like our hospital here. If it wasn't for the "pink ladies," they'd
have a difficult time. They not only help with the records and
admissions, they help the patients, they clean, they work at the
coffee shop. So any organization like the club has always been
full of volunteers.

Teiser: It's had an increasingly larger paid staff, though.

*See interview with William E. Colby, Reminiscences, Regional Oral
History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California,
Berkeley, 1954.


Adams: Oh yes. Now it's gotten to the point where the volunteers are
primarily in the chapters. The club's too big for volunteers.
Well, we have people to do some things, but now it's so big, they
could hash things up easily if they weren't extremely careful,
because there's so much to know.

It's been losing membership lately, though. We don't know
why. Take such issues as Vietnam and population control, and some
people resent that; they think that other organizations are better
fitted to solve those problems. And I'm inclined to agree. I don't
believe in an "across the board" program. I have my privilege of
believing and doing what I want and joining what organizations I
want, but I really feel the Sierra Club's got an environmental
mandate that includes pollution and would include many things we
never thought about in the earlier days.

But I still think they get far afield when they get into
difficult political situations abortion and overpopulation, all
that. It's just like the nuclear power plant business. The board
is divided on this issue, as are the scientists.

I must say a lot of people have very strong opinions now;
a sort of latent hostility. They take it out in espousing activist
causes without really knowing what they're doing. That fundamentally
bothers me.

We've always had a bunch of nuts in the club, anyway. Always
a certain fringe, a really small percentage, but enough to cause
trouble. That exists in any organization.

Teiser: I just took down the 1928 officers. It's as good a list as any of
the people active through the twenties. Duncan McDuffie was

Adams: Well, he was an extremely great gentleman, a very fine man, very
intelligent. He was president, director for many years, but one
year he wasn't elected! You see, that's before we had a limitation
on the term. That's why people like Leonard and Colby and Walter
Huber and Joe LeConte and Clair Tappaan and [Robert M. ] Price and
all those people Lewis Clark kept going and going and going, year
after year after year. They were all wonderful and all helped, so
that it was good, but it finally came to the point that it wasn't
a democratic way of doing things, that other people had some rights
to run the club. So we established the two-year term. And since
then you have to be off the board a year before you can be reelected.

Of course, if that had happened during the Colby days, it
would have been very bad for the club, because there wasn't anybody
who could take his place his great ability to work with all kinds
of people and groups. It was really pretty impressive.


Teiser: Phil S. Bernays.

Adams: Yes, he's a great old man. He's still living [he died in 1976].

He's of the old school. I don't know just how really effective he
was, except that he was a very charming man and always espoused
the helpful causes. He was a great conciliator. He very deeply
resented Brewer's shin-kicking, as we call it. And, looking back,
we accomplished a great deal by what is called gentlemanly
persuasion sitting down and talking together. It worked most of
the time. Sometimes it didn't, but there wasn't an acrimonious

Hetch Hetchy

Adams: We lost the Hetch Hetchy. And one of the great disappointments
there was Gifford Pinchot's support of it. He really turned the
trick with the secretary of the interior, although he was in a
different department. People forget the Forest Service is
primarily a commercially-oriented, really a controlling administra
tion, that apportions the timber, and keeps it going as a natural
resource, but is primarily interested in harvesting and cutting.
It's just recently that they've been stressing "multiple use"
for political reasons. The multiple-use principle sounds very
fine, and in many ways is all right. But when you get into very
beautiful areas that should have park or wilderness status, it
doesn't work. You can't have lumbering and timbering and mining
and grazing and recreation all together. I mean, it sounds good,
but it usually doesn't work. We'll come around to that, I guess,
in greater detail later.

Teiser: You mentioned Hetch Hetchy.

Adams: That was about 1912.

Teiser: By the time you came into the club it was all settled

Adams: Finished. Completed.

Teiser: Was there continued resentment about it?

Adams: Oh yes; there were many things that happened. You see, the

resentment was very well founded. The Raker Act specified that the
city [San Francisco] would generate and distribute its own power but
could not sell it. Well, of course, that's been violated from the
very beginning the PG&E buys all the power and distributes it. It
was absolutely ridiculous to think of a city putting up parallel


Adams: power lines. People are still thinking of that, you know, because
they've just got it in for the PG&E. I personally think that the
PG&E has done a wonderful job. They're so restricted and controlled
as it is that they're not really a private organization. They're
really a public utility with thousands of stockholders, and they've
kept pretty much to the grindstone. And according to law and
agreement, they have to look ahead and like the Highway Department
they have to study future traffic, use, development. And they have
to say, "Well, there are going to be one hundred thousand more
people in this area. Now, we have to prepare for the required
power. We can't wait until the one hundred thousand people come."
So that*s why these new plants are planned and built. They look at
their charts and their census, and they discuss it with the state or
the federal government. They find that there's to be need for more
power in a certain number of years; this curve is rising, and they
have to start building. Every plant they've put up has nothing but
opposition. The Point Arena plant is now having trouble, and it
doesn't make any sense, because it's not in an attractive place.
It's a perfectly logical place for a power plant. And it's an
absolutely nonpolluting kind of power.

But the "no" people are right there! Of course, they're
afraid of atomic energy, which I think is I really think it's
ridiculous, I think it's the only sure power source. As a good
scientific friend says, "What else is there?" Until we get
adequate solar power or fusion. Now, if the government will fund
a multibillion-dollar crash program to develop fusion power, we
might be all right. We wouldn't have any trouble with fusion
because that's clean. But that's a technical breakthrough that is
yet to come although they've made very big strides lately.

Teiser: Mr. Richard Leonard told me he was in favor of taking Hetch Hetchy
dam down.

Adams: Yes. That's one of the craziest things I've ever heard. Where we
going to get our water? That's San Francisco water. I can't
understand Dick on that. I mean, he brought that up at a meeting,
and I said, "Well, where are you going to get your water? In San
Francisco that's our water supply." And there isn't any other
source; there's nothing in the coast range that can provide it.

"Oh," one of the people said, "we can put a desalting plant
down the coast." And I asked what kind. "Atomic." And I said,
"But just this morning, we passed a resolution against an atomic
plant of any kind on any shore, river, lake, ocean, or pond in the
hemisphere. Now, four hours later, you say we'll put a nuclear
desalting plant in!"


Adams: I think taking the Hetch Hetchy down is I cannot understand it.

It's crazy! They'd have to put in another dam to store the water.
But where? San Francisco is a big community. The Russian River was
once considered. You see, what happened at Hetch Hetchy was that
there was another site further down the river that would be much
bigger in expanse but not so deep. And we worked for that very
hard, but that could not provide enough power. There wouldn't be
enough "fall." And the other thing was, it would be of such great
area that the evaporation would be a very serious problem. You see,
it would have to be lower than the floor of Hetch Hetchy, which is
about thirty-six hundred feet. It was claimed that they could pay
for the operation of the Hetch Hetchy by the power it would produce.
And you know if you've been over the Pacheco Pass and seen the San
Luis Reservoir, that the water's pumped into the dam. There isn't
enough local water there to fill a bathtub. I mean, it's a very
dry, arid country except for an occasional heavy runoff from storms.

They have a power plant there, and the water flowing out of
the dam to the forebay creates power, which provides about 50 percent
of the cost of pumping it in. That's a perfectly logical plan.

But the whole Hetch Hetchy was put where it is, in the Hetch
Hetchy Valley, because of the favorable power situation. It's a
long and sad story.

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 61 of 76)