YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Late August

February 23, 1986

The following essay by William L. Neely, a ranger and naturalist, was first published in "Yosemite Nature Notes" in January, 1953. At a recent Yosemite Assn. meeting, it was read as a tribute to Neely, who died Aug. 7, 1985.

At Tuolumne Meadows I sit on my doorstep smoking a pipe and notice that the wind has changed. The Mono wind is blowing, quietly now since it is still August, but enough to give a taste of autumn, a dry wind from the desert that is a sign that summer is nearly over. Tuolumne's 80 days of growth and exuberant living have ended. Already the meadows are browning, the grasses in flower. The heads of the shorthair reedgrass (Calamagrostis breweri) hang as red mist above the meadows, and in the boggy hollows the frost has turned the swamp onion leaves to gold.

Tuolumne burns its candles at both ends. In the short space of summer between the melting of spring snows in June and the frosting of September nights, Nature makes the most of warm days and reeks with fertility. In time there are fawns in the meadows and nests in the trees and a thousand voices from the forest. Mosquitoes thrive in a frenzy for blood like pagan Aztec priests with their sacrifices. Mount Dana's slopes break out into flower. Among the somber frost-split rocks little pincushion plants with deep taproots send out their perennial blooms as they have done for decades, Draba and Phlox and on top the sky pilot, all thriving in fierce winds and intense sunlight. Even the old marmot, who sleeps nine months of the year and is drowsy the other three, comes out to sun on the rocks, his fat flesh rolling as he moves. The cony cures his hay, working feverishly between flights of the hawk to gather those succulent leaves up on the cliff, as though those around him were not good enough, but he must have some exotic food to spice up the long winter beneath the snow.

Now in late August comes the Mono wind, a gentle voice that says to make haste, winter is coming. With it come the gentians in the meadows, having harvested all of summer's blue sky and distilled it into the petals. Nature brings out gentians when you think everything is finished, as though to lead you to expect more. Gentians are the bouquets presented for a good performance at the curtain call when the play is over.

Lower elevations, where summer eases along in an unhurried Mexican manner, have no comparison to the wildness and intensity of the drama at high altitudes--a wildness that can only be sensed, for there is no loudness; the mechanics of the sod and the grass function quietly, the needles of the lodgepole pine shimmer in the sunlight, and the marmot sprawls on, blinking on his flat rock, getting fat with apparently no effort.

On summer days the meadows are often filled with serenity, as though such weather were an eternity. One feels in an Omar Khayyam-ic mood and sits beneath the bough, half awake, half in a mythological world where other measurements of time exist. One sees the fish swim in the pool and casts no line. One sees mountains above and, instead of climbing their summits, looks at their reflected tops within reach of the hand in the water below.

But at times the Nordic gods rule: the mountains are blasted with thunder and lightning; crash after crash and flame after flame against a black sky. If we are not made of sugar and afraid of dissolving, we run out into the storm to see it firsthand, to climb one of the domes and watch the fury of the scene. Thor is supreme; he rends a tree at a blow, strips it to kindling and sets it afire. On top of some of the high peaks we find evidence of lightning strikes among the rocks where the quartz has been fused into glass by white heat. Then at last comes the rain, the granite slopes and hollows run with scuppers full, the river swells, the dust dissolves, and the lake surfaces become gray with the beating rain. The forest drinks, thankfully.

But this has been going on for thousands of years. Tuolumne's news seldom makes the morning papers. Yet, as endlessly, man shall ever comment on the weather and the seasons. What naturalist has not at one time or another written of mountain weather? There is actually no such thing as bad weather in the mountains--bad for us perhaps, but Nature has become immune, weatherproofed and weather-cured by surrendering entirely to the elements, and only man is miserable. It is said that Lao-Tse frightened his disciples by plunging into a wild cascade, only to emerge further on and come out, singing, on the opposite bank and go his way. He said, "In not trying to resist the water, I became as water, in harmony with it and unharmed by it."

The Mono wind blows away all of the World News that has reached here--that is to say, all of man's news--and broadcasts its own headlines, frost warnings, and battlefront reports: Lyell Glacier Advances an Inch, Gentians Conquer Meadows, Ground Squirrel Family Annihilated by Badger, Junco Nest Drowned in Deluge, Sierra Nevada Still Rising, Glacial Age Due in Twenty Thousand Years . . . and I smoke my pipe and look at the granite peaks and wonder whether I am on Pacific Standard or Mountain Eternal Time.

Los Angeles Times Articles