Yosemite film is beautifully relevant
film review

By Pat Christian

     Provo Canyon resident Robert Redford has produced a magnificent documentary film about Yosemite National Park and where it may be headed.

     His Yosemite, the Fate of Heaven is unsullied docu-art warning us that Yosemite is no longer the pristine heavenly place it was when the Europeans entered in pursuit of Native Americans.  Instead it is increasingly being spoiled by the love too many visitors have for it.

     A Sundance Institute Film, it was previewed recently in San Francisco and again last week at the Mountain Summit Conference at Snowbird Ski Resort.

     Redford is executive producer and also its soft-spoken narrator.  Jon Else is director and its cinematographer.

     The film holds serenity and beauty for the eye and the ear and important questions for the mind. Its story begins in the 1850s with dialogue from the diary of a horse soldier from the Mariposa Battalion who entered The Yosemite Valley to capture Chief Tenaya.  There were reports that the chief and his band had raided settlers along the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevadas.

     The soldier’s diary entry describes his emotional first view of Yosemite: 

     “We traveled three days through heavy snow in our search for Indians when suddenly we came into view of the valley. The grandeur of the scene was softened by haze in the valley…and by big gray clouds on the high cliffs.  My astonishment was overpowering.  My eyes welled up with tears as I sensed my own inferiority.  Here before me was the power and glory of the supreme being.”

     Yosemite’s Native Americans are eventually removed from their pastoral paradise, and then quite drastically the film cuts to a cacophony of thousands of park visitors being moved though the bustling national park.  Tons of park garbage is shown being managed by man and his violent machines and park workers report how much garbage they handle everyday.  

     Yet park officials seem to want to still find ways to increase visitation even more.  There is even one suggestion to look at a cooperative marketing campaign with southern California theme parks like Disneyland in order increase visitation even more.

     The film reveals a park management side of Yosemite rivaling the complexity a small city or big industry that John Muir could have never envisioned nor accepted.  It lays open the ironic that threatens the park.  Everyone loves Yosemite—so much in fact, they are loving to death.  Thus the masses of visitors cause long waiting lines for campsites, traffic jams that steal away the serenity that greeted the first visitors who came on horseback.

     The earlier horse soldiers finally burned the Indian’s shelters and destroyed their winter food caches. Those first residents were banished from the pristine valley and a park industry was developed. 

     The philosophy of industrial tourism where more in better as far as visitors are concerned is challenged by the film that examines the conflicts between park preservation and usage that might be as complex as the chambered nautilus.

     No modern human who has visited Yosemite has seen it as Chief Tenaya or even the first horseback visitors saw it.  But the Sundance Institute film does offer us an illusion of how it was before.

     And old naturalist at Yosemite is a luminary voice throughout the film. It’s clear he loves the park the way Muir loved it, tenderly, understanding its vulnerabilities.  The old naturalist’s is a nourishing love markedly different than some other park employees who seem to think a successful year is a year with even more people and even more visitor dollars.

     They love it so they destroy it a bit,” Yosemite’s postmaster said.

     Yosemite trail worker Jim Snyder advised the film crew, “It’s not nice to mess with mother nature.”

     And the old naturalist asked, “can we bring back pristine conditions?”

<>     The well-spoken, well-imaged message of Redford’s new film seems to say, we should reverse the present trend and try.

<>(a version of this review appeared in The Daily Herald, Provo, Utah)


© 1999-2005 Pat Christian

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