What the Mountains Taught Me Part 1: Smoke

Picture of Yosemite Valley, full of wildfire smoke

In under a week I’ll come to the end of what I expect to be my last summer of working as a ranger naturalist in Yosemite.

I’m wandering the Incomparable Valley, and I’m reflecting on what I’ve learned in my time here. Because Yosemite is more than just another pretty place. The awesome beauty and humbling scale of the Valley, the diversity and irreplaceability of the patch of wilderness that’s being preserved in the Sierra, and the sheer uniqueness of it all turns it into a classroom where we can learn from nature and also learn about humanity by observing all the ways that people react to something so monumental and priceless. These mountains have taught me lessons that apply far beyond their foothills.

Today, the mountains I love are full of smoke. I’m standing along one wall of the Valley and I can barely see the other. The smoke is coming from Sequoia National Park, south of here, where towering flames are rushing hungrily toward the largest single-stemmed tree on Earth⁠—a creature thousands of years old and still with hundreds of years left in its lifespan; a genuine wonder of the world that all the technology and all the money in the world would be helpless to replace.

Right now humans are scurrying around the giant’s base. They’ve wrapped it in foil and they’re frantically spraying fire retardant and removing fuel to hold back the wall of flame. But, in the bigger picture, it’s humans who brought such monstrously powerful fires to threaten the tree in the first place.

Another grove of Giant Sequoias, here in Yosemite, was (along with Yosemite Valley itself) the first piece of wilderness ever set aside for protection by the nation of the United States of America. The young United States was very keen on Progress and Development and Industry. Trees were for sawing into lumber. Mountains were for mining. Wilderness was thought of as valuable only for what it could be processed into.

Until they saw the Giant Sequoia and it stopped them in their tracks.

These trees gifted our culture with an idea⁠—the seed of all our subsequent (halting, messy) efforts at preservation⁠—that there are things that are more valuable as they are than any use we could make of them. Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant, setting aside the Mariposa Big Tree Grove and Yosemite Valley “for public use, resort, and recreation; […] inalienable for all time.”

But they were new to preserving things, and they were naive. They thought they could draw a tight line around just the best and most precious things, and keep them like baubles on a shelf.

Agribusiness drove sheep into the mountains above Yosemite Valley for free summer grazing⁠—more and bigger flocks every year⁠—denuding the land of vegetation, destabilizing the soil. The timber industry hacked the trees away. The Valley’s famed waterfalls started drying up earlier in the year as snowmelt ran quickly over devastated earth. The mountains taught us another lesson, and John Muir wrote it down.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

(As a side note, Muir would have learned it a lot quicker if he’d been listening to the native people, but that’s a different story.)

You can’t protect a waterfall without protecting the stream that feeds it. So a National Park was created encompassing the watersheds of the Tuolumne and Merced rivers that fed the falls of the two great glacial valleys of the Sierra: Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy.

But then Congress passed the Raker Act and, despite being very clearly inside a National Park and supposedly protected for all time, Hetch Hetchy was damned to make a reservoir for San Francisco, Progress, Development and Industry. So we learned that words on paper are worthless without active, organized and empowered defenders; and we learned that our treasures require political as well as physical protection. A National Park Service was established, with offices in Washington, to coordinate protection of all the Parks with a unified voice, and no dam has been built in a Park since. Though the bastards keep trying.

But now the fires have come. Bigger, more intense infernos than even our marvelously fire-adapted forests can withstand.

The flames are stoked half by a century of fire suppression throughout the entire American West, and half by the global tragedy of climate change. These are threats that we cannot grapple with from within the boundaries of a Park. The fires are teaching us that if you want to preserve the biggest tree in the world, you have to preserve the whole world. Anything less is only stalling.

Everything is hitched to everything else. In the big picture, all boundaries break down. You cannot put a fence around what you want to protect and ignore what happens outside that fence.

But what does that have to do with you, here to read about power exchange? I told you that the things the mountains taught me apply far from this Valley.

I think of this lesson whenever I see a kink club that’s full of talk about how they don’t tolerate predators at their events, but who treat anything that happens outside of their events as “drama” that they don’t have to listen to. I see it in all the men who complain bitterly about how OnlyFans is ruining their precious Fetlife, but refuse to look at how a culture of commodifying women leads to a price being put on that commodity. People who believe that having a racial fetish doesn’t mean they ought to educate themselves about racism. Folks who howl that no one ought to talk about politics on a kink site. Oldsters who want to preserve their cherished traditions and won’t admit any outside ideas or change with the times. Take it from a ranger: you can let a little bit burn every year, or it’ll all burn later. There is no third option.

Kink’s intimate, exotic and taboo nature makes it especially tempting to think of it as existing in a bubble, separate from “the vanilla world.” Don’t fall for it. Everything is connected. You’ll be able to have hotter kink, more consistently, with less shame, less negative fallout, and more integrity and fulfilment if you engage with the ways that your kink fits into the rest of your life, your relationships, society and the world.