Bearing Witness

This essay features numerous links to important illustrations and articles referenced – please click them.


Michael worships a Giant. Sequoiadendron giganteum, Sierra National Forest

For many years in the West we’ve been hearing and learning about drought-stressed trees (USDA Drought Monitor), bark beetles, and climate change. My anger is justified when the 2016 GOP Presidential nominee comes to California for money and support and declares that our drought is political, not real.

During my adult life, “permanent” snowfields in the High Sierra have disappeared; its glaciers are dying; and alpine ice climbs I once made can no longer be repeated (not until the next ice age, anyway). I’ve also experienced the disappearing glaciers of Glacier National Park (expected to be gone by 2030) and near and dear to me, Joshua Tree National Park could lose its namesake trees by the end of this century. Overt signs of climate change are available everywhere in the West – if one is paying attention and not politically motivated to deny them.


Giant Sequoia, Sequoia National Park

Following the opening reception of my latest exhibition in Sacramento, California, I decided to take the longer and slower route back to Southern California through the western side of the mighty Sierra Nevada mountain range. As a lifelong hiker, climber, and lover of the Sierra, I have always enjoyed its tremendous diversity. The east side of the range rises abruptly more than ten thousand vertical feet over the Owens Valley – from high desert to the alpine zone and the granitic massif of Mt. Whitney in just a few short horizontal miles. By comparison, the west side of the Sierra makes a long and gradual rise from the San Joaquin Valley towards its mighty crest – nearing sixty miles at its widest – containing chaparral and oak covered foothills, shadowed and fern-filled forests containing massive conifers (including the world-famous Giant Sequoia/Sequoiadendron giganteum), and life-giving rivers (the Kern, Kaweah, Kings, Merced, Owens, and many others) that make habitation and agriculture possible in otherwise arid California. While the East side is the dry side of the range, the west side is typically forested, wet, and green – lush and verdant by California standards (Pacific Northwesterners are laughing). My recent tour of the range, however, has forever altered my view. The Sierra Nevada will never again in my lifetime look the way I once knew it.


Transformation – Sierra National Forest

On August 11th – the day before I began my drive to Sacramento – I received from a friend a link to a disturbing article: “Forests of fatalities: after 70 million tree deaths, worst “still to come – which highlights tremendous tree mortality throughout the state. A Washington Post article of December 2015 similarly suggests “fairly consistent predictions of widespread loss of piñon pine and juniper in the southwest, sometime around 2050.”As I headed north on Interstate 5 through the San Joaquin Valley- the Valley that feeds much of America’s humans (not its livestock) – I was shocked to see so many dead crops, dying trees, and fallow fields. Some of these “Central Valley” communities have gone dry in recent years and have had to truck in water just for human consumption.

Outside of Yosemite Valley, my busy schedule over the last couple years had kept me away from most of the western Sierra. My return was met with much shock and sadness. The U.S. Forest Service has declared that Sierra tree mortality jumped eight-fold from 2014 to 2015 – from 3.3 million dead trees to 29 million dead trees. In 2014, I might have suggested that there were no dead trees in the Western Sierra. No matter where one looks now, a sea of dead trees encompasses the view.


Thousands of dead conifers through a haze of wildfire smoke. Chiquito Ridge, south of Yosemite National Park

As I made my way from Sonora to northern Yosemite National Park, I traversed some new ground and received yet another horrifying glimpse of Rim Fire aftermath. I was in Yosemite NP while the Rim Fire burned and distinctly recall near zero visibility at times. That fire had begun and consumed approximately 400 square miles of Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite NP just three years prior. The view from a prominent overlook revealed not a verdant green forest filled with undergrowth, deer, and birds; rather a brushy and barren landscape that will likely never return to its former verdant glory (not in our lives).


Can’t see the forest for the dead trees. 2015 Willow Fire aftermath – a long view to Mounts Ritter and Banner in the Eastern Sierra

Making my way further south only revealed more horror. For the first time I got a glimpse of the 2015 Rough Fire aftermath which ravaged Sierra and Sequoia National Forests and parts of Kings Canyon NP. A prominent overlook of Kings Canyon revealed a nearly desertified landscape, looking more akin to dry southern California ranges than the Sierra I once knew. I found myself becoming more depressed about the bleak devastation before me and believed that climbing a mountain might deliver good tidings – I headed further south to Mineral King Valley (Sequoia/Kings Canyon NP).


Beautiful Mineral King Valley filtered through the smoke of the Sequoia NF Cedar Fire (still active at time of this writing)


Sawtooth Peak (the prominent fin on right), Needham Mountain (behind), and Columbine Lake. Mt. Whitney is visible far to the east.

I aimed for Sawtooth Peak, six miles and 4500′ elevation gain from my camp in Mineral King Valley. I started walking early to beat the heat and meet my wild neighbors who keep different schedules. Along the way I met at close range numerous marmots, grouse, squirrels and velvet-antlered mule deer. Walking alone and quietly always brings rewards. As I neared Sawtooth Pass, I began to see smoke moving my way from the south.

Hiding out under the trees of the Sierra for several days prior, I was unaware that yet another fire had erupted while I journeyed south. Daily sky views to that point had never been promising. Always orange or gray – never blue – the central California sky had been altered for weeks by the Soberanes Fire on the coast (erupted on July 22, still active at time of this writing).


Mineral King Sierra with a plume from the Cedar Fire blowing up to the south

As I neared the summit I saw a huge plume to the south. My heart sunk; not another one!? At first I believed that it might be the Blue Cut Fire on the San Bernardino National Forest far to the south – it had only begun a few days prior. Little did I know that the Lake Isabella region was getting hit by yet another new and quickly-growing fire (which had suffered the devastating Erskine Fire only weeks prior).

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. John Muir


I look distressed. Self-portrait on the summit, with the rugged Kaweah Peaks behind me

Quiet walks in the wild and climbing mountains has always been my antidote. It uplifts, it nurtures, it restores, it heals. But good tidings diminish quickly when even the view from a summit leaves one with a feeling of anguish. I stayed as long as I could. The air was getting thicker with smoke, my breathing was altered (especially at more than 12,000 feet above sea level) – I decided to depart before the smoke or my disposition worsened.



My last look south from the summit

California’s natural landscape is very dynamic and has always been shaped by wildfire – this is not likely news to anyone. But it all changes when one factors unstoppable population growth, historic drought, community building in hazardous zones, and ultimately – repeated human-caused fires (not wild: power tools, downed power lines, bullets, sparks). We are helping to quickly transform and destroy the landscape we love.

Among the books in my collection is Charles Little’s The Dying of the Trees. Written in 1995, Little offers insights to dying forests around our globe. Much of it human caused, but not much mention of climate change. It was at that point beyond our knowledge and not part of our everyday lexicon. Only twenty-one years later, climate change has become very real very fast, and very threatening to our own ways of life. Every western U.S. state is suffering deeply from its effects; models predict it will only worsen.

The Sierra Nevada I once knew is no longer. Attributing blame is unimportant; acknowledging it and acting on it is paramount. Should any reader of this essay be among those who deny the overwhelming science and evidence of climate change , I invite you to California for a very personal and sobering tour.

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For information and photographs, please visit his official website. You can also find Michael on Facebook.


17 thoughts on “Bearing Witness

  1. We drove Ebbets Pass to Yosemite to Tioga recently, and we too were amazed by the tree die-off. And I’m coming to the hard realization that July through September are simply no longer good months like they used to be for outdoor recreation in the American West. Anywhere below 10,000 feet is hot, creeks and rivers are low, springs are dry, and the sky everywhere is full of smoke. There’s still fun and beauty to be had, of course, but I think in general I’m going to plan my activities for the other seasons (fortunately, I love the desert) and do my best to go dormant in the summer.

  2. I first realized that I would never see things that I had long taken for granted in the Sierra when the second fire burned up from Foresta a few years back. Bit by bit, the Yosemite Sierra has been eaten away by the wrong kinds of fires — not the “normal” fires that burn the undergrowth and then burn out, but the awful fires (pushed by drought, climate change, and too many years of no fires) that completely destroy forests from soil to treetops.

    Most of the old fires left some trees standing and a new, more open forest developed during a time span I could observe. No longer. Now the forests are gone in places like that slope above Foresta. I imagine that many more recent visitors think this is normal — that this was always a slope covered with low brush and presenting open views. But I remember it as forest.

    And now, in the mid-levels of the west slope uncounted numbers of trees have died. I think it was the summer before this one when we first saw this — a shocking transformation of trees from green to brown, often over a period of a few weeks. And it continued, to the point that there are now whole sections of the mid-elevation forest that are brown and dead.

    And the high country… I, too, recall snows lasting into August and September in areas that are now almost barren by the end of July. A couple years ago late in the season, I was stunned to see permanent snow fields lose their snow, exposing the old, blue ice beneath, and I shuddered to think of the permanent loss as this more ancient ice melted. The snow can be replaced by another winter, but that ice takes much, much longer.

    I don’t know what the answer is at this point. I do know that we are in for serious trouble, and I hope that we “get it” before it is too late for humanity. It is already too late for many trees and for the animal, especially at the highest elevations.

    • I don’t have an answer either, Dan. The geologic record clearly demonstrates cycles of warming and cooling. The Sierra was once covered by huge and deep glaciers, and Death Valley was once verdant, wet, and harbored many large mammals. It’s possible that this is the direction the planet was headed with or without us. We are more concerned about what climate change may bring to our built environments and food supply than the small losses of pika, birds, forests, and bighorn sheep. Unfortunately, not being able to expend critical care beyond ourselves is what is likely to do in our species. I only hope that whatever species we are replaced by offers kinder stewardship of this beautiful blue marble – our grave mistakes can and should be learned from.

  3. And it just occurred to me… painful as it may be, perhaps one thing we can do as photographers is document these things and spread the word widely, especially those of us who have been in these mountains long enough to see the change.

    • Exactly, Dan. Photograph has always been one of the most powerful advocates for conservation. No photographer should look the other way when they hold tools of potential change.

      THANKS for reading and your comments!

  4. In the four years we’ve lived in the foothill community of Nevada City, we’ve seen the change in our area’s “tall trees.” First it was an occasional brown tree, but now great patches of brown pines, cedars and Doug firs are visible in our neighborhood forests. Drought, combined with invasive bark beetles, are decimating the trees. Heartbreaking. Also … it’s scary, insofar as potential fire fuel is concerned. On the flip side of the coin, my sister living near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, lost nearly everything when their house flooded with two feet of water in that epic 500-year-flood two wks ago. Their place was not in a flood zone, but 31.39″ of rain in one monster 3-day storm changed everything for many people. That’s more rain than California can see in two years. Hard times, weather-wise. Hurts to see it.

    • Thanks for commenting, Nickie. Given our fire history over the last decade, when I see a sea of brown trees all I think about is FUELS and FIRESTORM. Fires bigger than we’ve ever seen will eventual hit and they’ll be devastating beyond our wildest imagination. We’ve had small previews of this just in the last couple of years.

  5. I’m getting nervous here in New England, too. For the pasr few years I’ve been wandering the shores of Quabbin Reservoir and the changes I’m seeing are quite staggering. Usually by this time of year the water level would drop enough to separate the woods from the shore and provide about 6-10′ of a very stony beach. This year in June there was more than 50′ of beach around most of the lake. Gypsy moths, or rather the caterpillar that become the moths, are devastating the deciduous forest on the southern end of the reservoir.

    These events are not unheard of in the region, but if what I see happening to places like the Sierra takes hold here, then we’ll be seeing continued struggle with our great northern forests.

  6. Many of us whose lives are shaped by the landscape can echo your sentiments, Michael. Change is to be expected, but the rates of change we’re seeing (and are yet to see) occur at a dizzying rate. Too many “here today (or last year)-gone tomorrow (or this year)” examples here on the Colorado Plateau, too. Sad as it is, we should also be grateful to live where and when we do. Future generations will not have what we had.

  7. Michael, this is a very personal and evocative (if depressing) account of what’s happening in California, and the rest of the West. It seems that my summer outings now go something like this: (1) obtain wilderness permits for places I *may* want to visit, then (2) decide where to go about 2 days before departure. This is–perhaps obviously–because I don’t know where fires will be burning when my vacation actually rolls around. You have to wonder if slurry bombers are to become the state bird of California…

    Yet, that said, dead trees aren’t *all* bad, as recent research suggests. Perhaps nature will find a way to persist after all, leaving us all behind as we destroy ourselves.

    I guess that’s not a very heartening thought. Then again, maybe it is.

    • Thanks for lending your thoughts, Greg. Indeed, SOME dead trees provide habitat. I don’t hold a doctorate but I have issues with Dr. Hanson’s article. His closing sentence: “So, when you see a forested slope with some pockets of dead trees, don’t lament it; rather, celebrate the sight as a positive sign for wildlife populations and the ecological resilience of the forest.”

      We’re not talking about “pockets” of dead trees in the western Sierra – it’s widespread mortality. This is not an anomalous and brief moment of drought where only a few trees and animals will suffer. It’s way bigger than that.

      This said, as dry as the Eastern Sierra currently looks, the trees still seem to be in good shape (higher elevations? Better adaptations to drought?). Lower elevation western Sierra forests thrive on moisture and rainfall/snow and they’ve had little of it over the last decade.

  8. Well-done, Michael. A very personal lament is probably the best way to present this information that few want to think about or digest. I have been compiling a list of all the changes I have noticed and it is getting quite long. Those who believe climate change is some kind of hoax must not be spending time in nature. The signs of change are everywhere if you just go outside and look. Those alive today perhaps ought to be most grateful, we also are the most responsible, and the generation who can still avert the worst consequences. It is too late to prevent change, but not too late to slow the rate of change. However, as I’m sure you and everyone who is paying attention knows, that window is also quickly closing.

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