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After the fall

A short story by Greg Sarris

April 05, 2005|Greg Sarris

'Dam Hetch Hetchy? As well dam ... the people's cathedrals and churches,

for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man!'

-- John Muir


On DEC. 19, 1913, THE HETCH HETCHY VALLEY disappeared. With the stroke of a pen, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Congressional bill that authorized the construction of the O'Shaughnessy Dam. Ten years later, the Hetch Hetchy -- 7 miles long and up to 1 mile wide, Yosemite's northern twin -- started to flood.

More than 90 years later, the decision still haunts. In 1987, Secretary of the Interior Donald Hodel proposed tearing the dam down, and similar rhetoric could be heard just last fall. Now the Schwarzenegger administration is studying the costs and benefits of restoring the valley. If studies prove correct, tearing down the dam is not complicated, but imagining the outcome is.

Novelist Greg Sarris has studied the environmental reports and historical documents, looked at the computer-generated designs and read the journals of one of the valley's earliest chroniclers, John Muir. The result is a short story that takes us to an imagined future, Muir's cathedral, where the law of unintended consequences is slowly unfolding.


August 2013



THE MASSIVE LAKE SHRINKS; 360,000 ACRE FEET of impounded water begins to disappear.

Stumps from giant oaks felled nearly a hundred years ago appear beneath the surface like shadows. What spirits rise?

Big news: After years of maneuvering, Congress authorizes the restoration of the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Pomp and circumstance, a formal ceremony will take place in four months on Dec. 19, the 100th anniversary of the Raker Act, which allowed San Francisco to build the O'Shaughnessy Dam and flood the valley. But already restoration has begun; the water is receding. The granite cliffs grow taller.

I am perched on a large boulder below Wapama Falls -- a mere mossy dribble on this August day -- and in the shade of a madrone. Noontime. My company: a scraggly pine on the cliff above, a stoic observer; and, flitting branch to branch in a nearby oak, a blue-tailed scrub jay breaking the warm stillness with a periodic squawk.

Little in the landscape indicates change thus far; nothing portends the future. The water level has dropped 10 feet, only slightly widening the watermark -- that swath of bleached granite -- surrounding the lake. Still, birds sing, trees and rocks absorb the sun. Across the lake's glass, a motionless surface, the immense rock Kolana, 2,000 feet higher than the valley's floor, stands like a sentinel clocking summer's slow progress to autumn.

And the place -- the granite walls, the flooded valley -- begins to speak with a multitude of voices, a complex history -- peoples, plants, animals, even water -- rising, and the past is all I have. My Miwok ancestors said not to mention the dead. If spirits attempt to speak, they said, run. But the world is upside down. Spirits in this emptying place are all I have. What else can I do but consider them?

John Muir speaks to me. He saw what no one living has seen -- the valley before it was drowned: "The pines sway dreamily, and you are shoulder deep in grass and flowers ... the sublime rocks of its walls seem to glow with life ... while birds, bees, and butterflies help the river and waterfalls to stir all the air into music ...." He called it "a grand landscape garden."

He first visited Hetch Hetchy in 1871. But he wasn't the first nonnative visitor; nor was the garden exactly as the natives had known it. For at least 20 years cattle and horses from the westerly foothills had roamed into the valley, grazing and dropping dung loaded with nonnative seed stock. The shoulder-deep grass Muir speaks of was no doubt wild oat, a species that supplanted native grasses everywhere in California. Birds likewise aided the spread of foreign grass and plant species.

Before Muir: Joseph Screech, the first European known to have seen the valley, a mere passing hunter in 1850. "Mere," for Hetch Hetchy, like its southern twin Yosemite, was "discovered" in 1851 by James Savage who led the Mariposa Battalion on a mission to capture the Ahwahneechee, a tribe of resistant Sierra Miwok, who had raided his trading post on the Fresno River before fleeing into the hills.

The discovery, thus, was an accident of war. As it was nearly 50 years earlier when an expedition of Spanish soldiers, sent from Mission San Juan Bautista to explore the territory as a possible locale for a new mission, was overwhelmed near this spot by a siege of monarch butterflies. Father Pedro Munoz, who accompanied the soldiers and kept a journal, wrote that the creatures became "extremely troublesome," aggressive, so thick in numbers that "they obscure[d] the light of the sun." Today the county is named Mariposa.

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