Old Faithful: A hopeful look into the heart of Yellowstone 100 years from now. By Gregory Zeigler
Evening light on the Absaroka Range.
(Photos by Paul Sihler)
Day One, Monday Evening
Dear Mum and Da,
It’s your “little girl” checking in. You asked for it. Here goes. My first nightly yelk as promised. (Now, let’s see if I actually do it.) Thought I would start each yelk with a review of my day here in the world’s first national park, as well as my evolving plans, such as they are, for my First Year General Science “report” on this scholastic adventure. I may have mentioned it is due next week just a few days after we return to Columbia. I’m determined to NOT let it go until the last minute. Grrrrr. My topic will be how Yellowstone National Park and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem—that is a much larger contiguous wild area—have changed over the last 100 years. Let me begin by telling you how stunningly beautiful this wonderful place is in late spring. Like another world—deep blue skies, hushed green forests, rushing streams, bubbling and boiling hot pools, meandering rivers. And the animals are amazing! We started our morning with a classic “bacon” and pancake breakfast (Nice, for a change, to eat breakfast, not just drink it. Of course, the bacon was plant-based.) at our historic lodge on gorgeous Yellowstone Lake. The lodge is made of ancient logs from trees and sits right on the edge of Yellowstone Lake that seems to stretch all the way to the horizon. Then we jumped onto the hoverbusses to visit the site of a wolf kill. I sat beside a woman from Stanford University named Rachel. I think Rachel and I are going to be friends. When we arrived at the site, a forensic biologist, Dr. Jeanne May was examining the carcass. Sad. Like a large dead dog. Apparently, unlike the early 21s century, unnatural killing of these majestic apex predators (learned that term today—impressed?) are rare. Even more reason to determine if this was human caused. On the way to the Craig’s Pass area and the wolf, I noticed signs of the horrific climate change-driven forest burns from the middle of the last century, now growing back nicely, and vague impressions where the roads had been removed late in the last century. The few roads remaining throughout the park are maintained for human powered conveyances only. The last straw on vehicles happened when self-driven electric cars, supposedly the “green” solution, kept colliding with large mammals in the park. All cars had to go and fortunately they did. I noted both those things on my device as “changes” that will go into my report.
I’ve been thinking about the next 100 years in Yellowstone as well as the last 100. In my wildest and most radical dreams, I envision a future in which the volcanic instability in parts of Yellowstone radiate out for many miles in all directions and people decide it's just safer to abandon the area and leave it to the wildlife. However, I think it's more likely that Yellowstone will be preserved by making it off-limits for most people, and only lucky lottery winners will get to experience its incredible variety of landscapes and wildlife on any given day. Either way, Nature wins! But, of course, that is not my topic. My topic is Yellowstone in the last 100 years. Oh, speaking of the anniversary, can you please yelk me a couple of eK? There are some souvenirs mentioning this being Yellowstone’s 250th year I want to buy and, of course, I spent all my money already. Yellowstone— established in 1872—can you believe it? Also, I want to purchase some surprises for my loving Mum and Da. That’s all from Day One. More tomorrow. Love you. B
Day Two, Tuesday Evening (actually, Wednesday morning)
Hi M and D,
We had a long day yesterday and Rachel and I stayed up late last night talking by the digital fire in the lobby. Pretty amazing, they actually generate a comforting heat. How about installing one in our Brooklyn apartment now that we are sure it is not going to be underwater? Sorry. Bad climate change joke from another era. Anyhow, I must run and meet the group soon and will keep this yelk short. Oh, you won’t believe what we saw at dinner in the lodge last night! White people. My first ever! Some were pink from too much exposure to the sun. Compared to our brown tones they looked sort of sickly. I asked around and was told they are members of a religious sect that until recently has been living in isolation in southern Utah and Northern Arizona. It is rumored they have chosen inbreeding over the years to keep their bloodline “pure.” The members of the sect dressed in long cotton robes, men, and women. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to not look like anyone else—except for your extended family members. I mean skin color. Sad and strange. When R and I walked back to our rooms for the night, you wouldn’t believe the stars and the bright smiling sliver of a moon. Beautiful! Gotta go. Sorry, this has to be so short. Hugs and kisses.
Day Three, Wednesday Evening Mama grizzly and cub.
Got to thinking today how the last war ever fought was right around 100 years ago. When Russia tried to colonize Ukraine. So great that wars will soon be ancient history. Not sure how that works into my report but it’s pretty important in terms of the reversing of climate change (and basically saving Yellowstone) which, as you know, occurred after the Great Awakening in the middle of the last century. War ending (China turning its back on Russia), fossil fuels being eliminated, going to a plant-based diet and even the end of the electric era after the GA, all have influenced preserving the beauty and serenity of Yellowstone, which was established in 1872 (but I may have already mentioned that), “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Oh, and ending extraction of minerals and precious metals close to the park after mining undermined its plumbing and the geysers fizzled out is obviously important too. Energy companies used diagonal drilling to tap thermal or hydro-electric resources underneath the park and the geysers died! I’ve seen pictures of them. They were majestic spouts off superheated water shooting hundreds of feet into the air. I have been wondering how the Great Awakening ever came about. I’ve read that the country and the world were still really divided on the importance of climate justice even up to the end of the first quarter of the 21st century. Rachel told me there was even an American President around that time who denied climate change, calling it a hoax! Neither of us could remember his name. I’ll search for it later tonight. Many rural Americans were dug in on that and other similar issues and some even attacked the capital, which was in Washington, D.C. at that time. So how is it the GA happened in the middle of the century? I’ve read, and will include in my report, it was apparently the common experience of seeing huge forest burns, game animals suffering, fish die-offs, crops and livestock loss, lakes and rivers like the Colorado drying up, including the impact on heavily populated areas of toxic dust storms from the depleted salt lakes, air you could barely breath and extreme weather events. Hard to ignore that evidence. That is thought to be what finally convinced people to collaborate on a solution. And of course, national parks like Yellowstone on the brink of destruction. That was the canary in the coal mine to use an ancient expression. A bridge too far. The last wild areas like Yellowstone facing extinction contributed greatly to people finally taking action to reverse climate change. That appears more than anything to have brought people around the country and around the world together. Whew. My thoughts are all jumbled together, I’m going to have to organize them better for my report. We were studying the geology and biology of a fumarole today near Hayden Valley when I slipped away to pee behind a tree. Too much coffee, some things never change, right? My device suddenly warned me that a bear was within 100 yards. I switched to Bear Away and quickly finished up and tried to find it on the slopes above me. No luck. It was gone. At least my bear shield worked. Got an early day tomorrow studying hydrology in the park. Better get my REMs. More tomorrow night.
Harlequin Ducks at LeHardy Rapid on the Yellowstone River.
Day Four, Thursday Evening
M and D,
Some other changes to the park in the last 100 years for my report. No signs now, just point your device at QR codes from the hoverbus and you have the link to all the information you could ask for in your hand. No visitor passes required. Visitors’ devices send a signal to robotic rangers, etc. showing that the visitors have purchased passes. And tourists must be guided by professionals to prevent getting too close to wildlife, jeopardizing fragile soil around delicate features and wild souvenir gathering. Can you believe 100 years ago people were allowed to drive by themselves all over this park in polluting vehicles? And some got so close to bison they were killed! Others died in thermal features. That was the wild west, I guess. Nothing good about those old days!
I asked, Maddie, the robotic instructor said to be the staff historian, what caused the GA in a country that earlier in the century seemed to be on the brink of civil war with some parts of the country threatening secession. Let me check my notes from talking with her. Oh yeah, here we go. Had to find my pack. Maddie said that if you think in terms of issues that have been tackled successfully by the US literally in the time that Yellowstone has been a national park: slavery (abolished just before the park was established), two world wars, end of Jim Crow and school integration, space exploration, ending tobacco use, vaccinations for pandemics and the defeat of Russia in Ukraine without NATO ever firing a single shot. And the end of fossil fuel production and successful extraction of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. (She mentioned wealthy nations stopped producing oil and gas in 2034 and the poorer ones around 2050.) All that resulting in the Great Awakening and ultimate reversal of climate change doesn’t seem that farfetched. “Good triumphs over evil and light over darkness, etc.” Maddie said. She made a convincing case that ultimately human beings stumble onto the right thing. And she used as an example the recent post Great Awakening end of the electricity era (twenty-five years ago in 2097). Not bad for a machine.
Let’s see, what hasn’t changed? The beauty and solitude that this natural area offers the troubled mind. Today, after learning about the rivers of Yellowstone, I ended up sitting for two hours during our free time overlooking a beautiful valley containing the confluence of the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers forming the Madison River. I can’t imagine how heartbreaking it must have been before the GA to see these rivers mostly dried up. I watched a huge bull elk with massive antlers graze the grassy meadows by the Madison. Above the bull an osprey hung in the air wings a blur until diving down on an unsuspecting fish. Did you know that while flying their dinner in their talons back to the nest they align the fish parallel to their bodies because that is more aerodynamic? Down the valley I watched a bison herd grazing the streamside meadow. The babies look like little cinnamon bears as opposed to the massive shaggy chocolate brown adults. The serene beauty of the forest, meadow, and meandering flow of water was stunning, but still my heart was aching. I just couldn’t stop thinking about Rob. I know what you’re thinking, parents. No, I haven’t gotten over them as you told me you were certain this trip might help happen. We’ve been together since high school which feels like forever. I love them and miss them. But I want them to be happy. I have promised Rob to be their best friend while in the process of transitioning. I’m struggling to imagine them as Roberta. I don’t, don’t, don’t ever want this love to end. I’m just … not … certain I can be in a romantic relationship with a woman. But of course, I could change my mind. It wouldn’t be the first time, right? Just makes me weepy and I feel so very alone right now. Lucky I’m surrounded by such stunning beauty.
We met a ranger from the Native American run part of the park today. Forest explained how five tribes manage most of the lower half of Yellowstone National Park. He is Shoshone. We did a sweat lodge with him as our spirit quest guide. We were asked if we would like (assuming we were of age) to alter our consciousness in the sweat. I passed. As you know, just hate being out of control. I sort of regretted it after Rachel told me about her amazing vision. I’ve included it, as I remember it, in italics.
A Native American man from a reservation in the Midwest with the help of a medicine man comes to grips with his anger and resentment about his ancestors being forced off their land. He is told to travel to Yellowstone where the white man first showed respect for nature. There he not only finds harmony and peace but learns from a vision quest how to unlock the secrets of snow and water. His knowledge makes it possible to produce much more water from snow than the one-to-ten ratio (maximum) that is common. The enlightened man then joins forces with a wealthy white businessman who has also come to Yellowstone for spiritual renewal and the two men decide to work together. Thus, the powerful combination of the natural beauty and serenity of Yellowstone, forgiving, healing, and collaboration solves many of the climate change related water shortages in the West.
Wow! That girl has a lot going on upstairs! Forest told us about the monkeyflower discovered by Lewis and Clark (mimulus lewisii). Later we found some along the stream we cooled off in after the sweat. Lewis’s monkeyflower is pink (as you know, my favorite) and grows along steams among rocks. Yawning and stretching. Time to go. Sleep well.
Otter pups curl up for a nap on mama.
Five, Friday Evening
I wandered away from the group this morning (I know. I know.) to look at a beautiful cluster of columbine flowers in dappled sunshine slanting through tall conifers. I found myself totally absorbed in the one whitish-yellow multi-faceted flower head I held gently between my fingers when I heard a snuffling sound nearby. I looked up and saw something small, furry and brown moving through knee-high grass. I froze when I realized it was a bear cub and my device had not warned me. Panic! I heard a snort. Then, out of nowhere, in a blur, a mama grizzly bear charged me! I yelled and the mama stopped, gathered up her baby and headed off through the pines. Whoa. Scared the you-know-what out of me. The ranger explained, lucky for me, the mama bear had done a bluff charge. So beautiful and yet so terrifying! You will be sooooo mad at me when you hear why my device didn’t warn me. Dead battery. Forgot to leave it on the windowsill this morning. Just tossed it in my pack. Stupid!! Ten minutes in decent light is all it takes and yet, I forget. Fortunately, the ranger speaking to our group saw the griz and heard me yell and put his Bear Away on. Another reason she left so quickly. I’ll have nightmares about that for a while. Oh, the report on the wolf is in. Good news. Died of natural causes. Poison was the biggest concern.
Speaking of wolves, the group was hiking on a trail to the Upper Yellowstone Falls today when our devices started buzzing all at once alerting us to wolves in the area. Across the canyon several gray wolves (Canis lupus) appeared and frolicked for our benefit. William, the interpretive ranger for the day, took the opportunity to inform us that these beautiful animals were hunted near to extinction in the early 20th century and then reintroduced in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the late 20th century. Less than 100 years later. Before the wolves returned the park was suffering from overgrazing, after wolf populations became healthy again the benefits of them naturally culling elk herds “cascaded” (learned that term today) down to healthier streams and healthier mammals. The fish in those streams, and birds living by those streams also thrived. All thanks to the wolf doing what comes naturally. Even beaver and riparian (streamside) plants and trees returned stronger. Many ranchers hated wolves because they wrongly accused them of predation on food animals. (Bleck! Eat an animal? Can’t even imagine.) That lasted right up until the Great Awakening and the end of meat eating. Ranchers also wanted to shoot bison to prevent them passing disease to their precious cattle. That also ended with the end of meat production for food. The cows didn’t belong here in the first place. Tomorrow, we are going to do a quick tour of where the major park geysers once erupted before hoverbussing to Boseman and flying home. Da, your great grandparents lived in this area roughly 100 years ago, right? Have you ever heard how they felt about wolves being killed? They weren’t animal killers, were they? Please tell me they weren’t animal killers. But do you think they maybe ate animals that others killed? If so, Father it explains why your masculine side is almost as strong as your feminine side. You have barbarian in your blood. (-.
Love you both. Home soon. B
Author's note: Just as collaboration is the best hope for the future of the planet, this piece was creatively crowd-sourced. Several friends suggested hopeful elements for the future of Yellowstone—not all writers. I'm grateful. Any mistakes and oversights are mine. GZ
Wolf pair on a wintry day. Lamar Valley.
Black bear cubs playing hide and seek.
Inquisitive badger cubs in Lamar Valley.