Ribbon Fall Rainbow

I took my Wednesday Walk on Thursday, March 19, last week and hiked the trail up from the Wawona Tunnel up to Artist’s Point and then on along the ridge on the Pohono Trail visiting the original Old inspiration Point, as well as Stanford, Crocker, and Dewey Points. It was a breezy beautiful day and the Valley glowed in the cool spring sunshine.

Yosemite Valley

Yosemite Valley from Artist’s Point

I expected more birds, but perhaps they were staying in the sun, as the south ridge was still in cool, dark shadow. Reaching the area of Old Inspiration Point, though, I heard a Northern Pygmy-Owl calling from an old sugar pine near the trail. I stopped to listen and he kept calling, undeterred by my presence. I hear them around my house too, at a lower elevation, and have seen them several times. They seem very confident in their ability to remain unseen, as they let me approach within a few yards before they fly. I didn’t even try to see this one. I moved on along the trail, hearing his calls receding in the distance.

Northern Pygmy-Owl

Northern Pygmy-Owl

I had lunch at Crocker Point and then hiked on up to Dewey Point for views of the Clark Range and the High Sierra. Some snow remained on the higher peaks and snow still covered Horizon Ridge and Mount Hoffman, although I’ve heard the coverage is only 16% of normal.

The real treat of the hike came on the way back when I saw something I’ve never seen before. I stopped at Old Inspiration Point (the upper one, not the one designated by the trail sign) for a snack. It was about 3 pm and the sun slanted toward the horizon. Looking across at El Capitan I noticed a flickering of color in the chimney slot in which Ribbon Fall tumbles. Ribbon Fall is the longest single fall waterfall in North America–when there is water. I hadn’t seen it on my hike up the trail, so I assumed there wasn’t enough snow melt for Ribbon Creek to even be flowing. As I watched, though, I saw some white spray being blown by the wind up through the chimney and a rainbow appeared filling the slot. The sun must have been at just the right angle to illuminate the inside of the chimney and catch the spray. The rainbow display continued for about another ten minutes and then started to fade.

Ribbon Fall Rainbow

Ribbon Fall Rainbow

It was one time I wished I had a good camera with a telephoto lens, but I took several shots with my iPhone. Every time I hike, even an old familiar trail like that one, I see something new. I have a friend who doesn’t like to hike the same trails over and over, but I do. It’s like visiting with an old friend–there’s always something new hidden in the familiar.

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Starling Sounds of Spring

A walk up the ridge to the mailbox often brings unexpected surprises. Several European starling pairs have taken over the nesting spots in the hollow oak branches formerly used by the acorn woodpeckers. Their nesting is in full swing, accompanied by the amazing repertoire of sounds and calls they make, many imitating other birds.

The starlings first appeared on my ridge, south of Yosemite, about seven years ago, although they are not strangers to the area. Starlings first appeared in Yosemite Valley on April 27, 1966 (Gaines, Birds of Yosemite, 1992), almost eighty years after their introduction in New York in 1890. There are fewer oaks on our ridge now, due to new homes, the death of old oaks, and the cutting of young oaks. There are also fewer acorn woodpeckers and bluebirds–but more starlings.

The first week of April, I walked to the mail box, enjoying the clear blue skies and warm breeze. Scrub jays and spotted towhees flitted through the brush, finches called from the trees, bushtits chattered in the live oaks. As I approached the top of the ridge, I heard a starling sounding off with clicks and whistles and a variety of finch like sounds.

Suddenly I heard the distinct sound of geese flying overhead. I had seen and heard Canadian geese flying across the mountains to the east several times in March. In March I figured the geese were taking off from Bass Lake and working their way north to nesting places, but I was surprised to hear them now. I looked up over the mountain, but I didn’t see any geese. I looked all around and couldn’t see geese anywhere.

As I came to a house with a large oak in front, the call stopped and was replaced by a series of clicks and whistles: a starling perched on a bare limb was vocalizing. He paid no attention to me as I watched him and he changed his song several times. When I resumed my walk, I heard the geese calling again. This time I knew the source. I turned around to watch the starling make the geese call for a few more seconds, and then he switched back to other calls.

I suppose the starling had also listened to the geese flying overhead weeks earlier and learned their call. He did sound good. It was his best song that day. For me the sound of geese flying overhead evokes a definite emotion and the starling’s imitation gave me the same feeling. I have no idea why the starling was using the sound of geese in his repertoire that day. Maybe his mate appreciates it, too.

I know the starlings are often unwanted, and I regret their displacement of other birds, especially bluebirds, but I enjoyed this starling’s amazingly accurate rendition of a flock of geese winging their way north for the spring.

Starling singing

Starlings can imitate a number of other bird sounds.

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Yesterday, I noticed two gray squirrels foraging together under the live oak trees. We have one resident squirrel, but this is the only time of the year we have more than one around the house. In our area near Yosemite, the usually solitary gray squirrels meet up to mate from December through February. I looked back through my journal and saw that new gray squirrels visited us last January, too.

Haiku writers use seasonal words, kigo, to connect their poems to a particular season, without having to name the season. I’m not sure how I would work “gray squirrels mating” into a haiku, but if I could, the phrase would denote winter.
A Saijiki fro San Francisco
For centuries, Japanese haiku writers have used lists of standardized seasonal words, collected into books called kiyose, to write haiku. A kiyose with sample haiku using the seasonal words is known as a saijiki.

As I looked through my journal, I thought about creating a saijiki for my area: gathering words and phrases associated with the seasons in the Sierra Nevada, adding haiku using those words.

There are several kiyose and saijiki online. The World Kigo Database lists seasonal words from many regions, and you can help build it. The San Francisco Bay Area Nature Guide and Saijiki is available both online and in print or ebook format from Lulu.
Clark Strand in his excellent book on writing haiku, Seeds Birch Tree Coverfrom a Birch Tree, says that “haiku come of the place where objective description overlaps the heart.” That’s  true of all nature writing–the human heart and the description of nature combine to create a moment of awareness and understanding. As writers, Strand says “it is important for us to realize that this can only happen when we make space enough in the heart for nature to overlap it and space enough in nature for the play and exercise of the heart.”

I enjoy writing haiku and keeping a nature journal. I’m going to begin my own saijiki project this year as a way to make space for my heart and nature to play.

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The Junction

John Schreiber’s latest book, The Junction, is the kind of nature writing I find especially Book Cover of The Junctionmeaningful–essays by a person exploring and discovering connections with the natural history of the world close to home. His homeland is British Columbia, Canada, as he explains: “I have been exploring backcountry places in the southern half of the British Columbia Interior by auto, on foot and occasionally by horse, nearly all my adult life. I have particularly focused on a large, wild region west of the Fraser River and east of the Coast Mountain Range called The Chilcotin.” The Junction is his third book on the area.

I enjoyed the book on several levels and John was willing to share a bit more about it in the form of a “Questions for the Author” interview.

1. The title of the book was also the title of a chapter of about a specific place in British Columbia, Canada, where two rivers come together, but I sense the phrase “the junction” has a deeper meaning for you. Why did you choose it as the title of your book?

John: “Junction” refers also to connections, ecological, cultural, and spiritual: a] between the myriad, diverse elements of nature, most of which are wild, i.e. beyond our long-range capacity to control; b] between we humans and the land and places where we live; and c] between our sub-cultures–most especially aboriginal and settler, rural and urban, and working and middle classes.

2. The book is composed of separate essays about an area of interior British Columbia. Each one has a different perspective. Is the order of the essays in the book important, or can a reader skip around?

John: Each of the ten stories in The Junction is meant to stand alone. However, I have aimed at presenting an unfolding of underlying issues and awareness beginning with references in “Two Cabin Lake” and proceeding through “Junction” to the last two pieces: “Asking Rock” and “Lone Creek,” which I consider to be quietly climactic.

3. You use the word “practice” several times in key passages in the book. What does the word “practice” mean to you?

John: Most skills we learn (for example: cooking, woodcutting, going for a long walk, being mannerly, sports) need to be done repeatedly in order to achieve and maintain a degree of proficiency. This is particularly true of the fine underlying art of paying attention, of being mindful of all that we do, as much as we are able. “Doing practice” implies that we practice paying attention to the process of awareness itself. Practice is about finding balance; finding balance is, in part, about listening to yourself, not the mental chatter so much, but your own inner knowing deep down within. Slow down and hear.

4. One of your themes is that humans are part of the ecological equation and that we can’t live without changing the natural world in some way, and often in a harmful way. You encourage an ethic of Ahimsa, or living by trying to do the least harm. What led you to adopt that position? How does that perspective influence your everyday life?

John: For the first half of my childhood, my parents were financially poor. As with most poor, we worked hard at avoiding waste, a practice requiring some ongoing attention. Particularly, we considered that throwing away usable goods–including especially hunted meat, angled fish and dug and picked shellfish–was careless and disrespectful to the living critters killed. Attempting to do “least harm” and the avoidance of waste are parallel practices in a generally wasteful and thoughtless (North American) culture. My brothers and I are informed also by the example of Patrick, our Dad, who, at a certain point in his life, said, “We make a good living now. We don’t need the (deer) meat; I’d just as soon watch them walk around.” Whereupon he hung up his hunting rifle.

5. In some chapters, you seem like a detective, imaginatively reconstructing the human lives that once interconnected with the wild places you visit. You write about the personal lives of people mostly ignored by the big political histories. Why are those people important to you?

John: I write about them because often their stories are interesting, and because most rural folks I know or have met, are relatively aware of WHERE they live. Their livelihoods are often directly connected to the facts of their local landscape. Some older, rural individuals  are acutely aware, detail by detail, of where they live. When you have traveled mainly on foot, horseback, by wagon, or even by slow pickup, you learned to notice what you were passing.

6. One of the things I enjoy about your writing is your honest, humble voice. You don’t come across, as some nature writers do, as an expert whose experiences are so exotic and unique that readers can only marvel at them. Instead, you draw the reader into your explorations with warmth and  personal openness. I get the thought as I read, “Hey, I can explore my world like that, too.”  What advice would you give to writers who are trying to find their voice?

John: First, practice story telling and listening. I grew up in a pre-TV world of story telling. I learned what a good story sounds like, what the experience is; most of us are capable of that if we stop to listen. Take your time. There are stories going on all around us. Second, write about what you know. This may be another way of saying “Tell the truth,” your best basic truth; stick to the facts and try to include detail. It’s the details that make a story rich, but don’t get lost in them. Honest truth liberates; to respect the truth of things and events helps to give us our authority as would-be story tellers. Write about what you love. Follow your curiosity. Sleep on it; let your unconscious do its job. Every day is a different day and a different way to see. I listen hard to where I am, where I have been. Sometimes, it seems as if the story and/or the places are telling me. I find myself on the receiving end of another way of being.  Stories like to be told. Myth stories are alive and well, whether or not we know they are there.

7. The Junction combines your own experiences with research and readings. Do you keep a journal of your experiences, thoughts, and dreams? Do you have a system for keeping track of all your ideas?

John: I do keep notes in a notebook, esp. when I’m traveling, or later, having walked a trail or driven a route. At home, I note key thoughts, ideas and phrases, and a very occasional dream, the ones that seem unusually strong or significant. As well, I have a large personal library, mainly non-fiction and land-based, and organized by broad topic. I have a good spatial memory (as opposed to my abstract memory) and can usually find pertinent books. I write, frequently, with a pile of relevant books beside me, so I can quickly check out facts and references.

8. In The Junction, the concept of reciprocity in life seems important to you. Could writing be a way of reciprocity?

John: Life in an ecological world is a series of give and takes, ie. balances. If we listen and pay attention, as much as we are able, at least some of the time, and if we stay open to possibilities, we may come to see that our connection with the animate and inanimate worlds around us is subtly two-way. We share a complex set of relationships, a few of which we are conscious of. And yes, our thoughts, observations and feelings come back to us via the process of writing. We develop a working relationship with them as we externalize and commit them to print. Our words, thoughts etc., not to mention all the elements of nature, are not without liveliness.

The Junction by John Schreiber can be purchased from Caitlin Press or Amazon or local independent booksellers.

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Chipmunk Games

Chipmunks are active and busy this time of year. Fall brings out the new brood of young, born in summer and now adult size, scampering about in search of seeds and berries to store for winter. At one campsite on my last backpack in Yosemite National Park, I saw two chipmunks taking time out for an interesting game of tag. Chipmunk on granite rock.

At least it looked like a playful game to me. Some biologists insist that animals don’t really play, that what looks like fun and games to us is really practice for adult behavior. I suppose they might say the same thing for human play. Whatever the scientists call it, it sure looked like the chipmunks were having what I would call fun.

The two chipmunks chased each other over the rocks and fallen logs under scraggly Jeffrey and lodgepole pines. Back and forth, over and under they went, squeaking at each other, alternating roles of chaser and pursuer. Every few seconds they would stop and rub noses, holding their tails aloft and wagging them from side to side, squeaking rapidly to each other. Then they continued the chase, sometimes changing directions and roles and sometimes not. One time the chaser stopped chasing, distracted by some scent or sight on the ground, and the pursued stopped to wait for it, squeaking encouragement until the chase resumed.

They obviously weren’t fighting, so I wondered if the behavior could be courtship. Chipmunks do quite a bit of chasing around in early spring, the males chasing each other away and following the female until she consents to mate. Perhaps these two were engaging in a game similar to what they would enact in ernest next spring.

If they make it. In addition to making sure they have enough food stored in their secret caches, they have to watch out for predators like coyotes, foxes, and bobcats. Their only defenses are their speed and ability to hide. Several kinds of chipmunks climb trees to escape predators, but the ones I watched didn’t climb. That fact and their coloration made me wonder if they were yellow-pine chipmunks (Tamias amoenus) rather than the lodgepole chipmunk (Tamias speciosus). In my backpack area, the ranges of the two overlap, but my camping spot was in a drier, more open section with lots of scrub and sagebrush typical of the yellow-pine chipmunk’s habitat.

Whatever their species and whatever their motivation, I enjoyed watching them that fall day. There was no winner or loser, just a lot of running and squeaking and tail wagging on a bright crisp day. They made me want to get up and play.

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A Stellar Warning System

I began hiking down the Mono Meadow trail for my traditional fall equinox backpack. A cool breeze sang through the tops of the firs and pines. It’s an easy start for a backpack because the trail drops steeply downhill to a meadow. Coming out of the shadows, a coyote glanced over its shoulder and trotted down the trail ahead of me. After a dozen yards, it cut off the trail into the forest, and that’s when the noise began. A group of Stellar Jays spotted the coyote and raised their alarm cries. They followed it, heckling and harassing it as it worked its way along the side of the meadow.

Stellar Jay sits on a pine branch

Stellar Jay

The Stellar Jay warning system was a theme of my backpack this year, alerting me to wildlife every day of the trip. At my campsite, I heard the jays across a ravine from me making a fuss with similar vocalizations to the ones they had used with the coyote. Sure enough, after a few minutes, I heard a young coyote yipping from the same area.

The next morning the jays squawked again and a big adult coyote, probably a female (because they’re bigger than the males) came up out of the ravine. Although she didn’t see me at first, she soon sensed me and made eye contact, curious and confident. She turned to leave, but paused and looked back over her shoulder at me.

On the hike out, I heard jays making a similar racket, and I wondered if they were fussing at another coyote. I stopped and checked out the scrub. No coyote. This time the nuthatches had joined in the fracas, so I thought an owl might be the villain. I checked the trees, and high in a fir a big rust-colored hawk sat hunched next to the trunk. When I approached it flew off and so did the jays and nuthatches.

I hiked a little farther and the jays once again were crying out in warning. The hawk had relocated and it flew far away over the canyon when I approached.

Stellar jays are beautiful birds, but they are so common in this area that human residents tend to ignore them. The jays frequent campgrounds and picnic areas in Yosemite hoping for leftovers and handouts. Away from human congestion, though, they take on a wilder demeanor. They ignored and avoided me, neither fussing at my presence nor approaching in search of food, but my observations of them enabled me to experience wildlife, I might not have seen otherwise and to glimpse a little deeper into their world.

I was reminded of a passage I underlined in Thomas Fleischner’s book, Singing Stone: Understanding plant and animal lives requires focus on the smallest details and the largest landscape patterns–on both individuals and their interactions” (70).

I was glad I had the opportunity to see that first interaction between the jays and the coyote because it opened my eyes to the larger pattern for the rest of the trip. If I had dismissed the incident as just those noisy jays again and walked on by, my journey would to have been as meaningful.

Cover of Singing Stone

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Is Nature Writing Dead?

Recently several articles in the entertainment media have discussed the evolution of nature writing into a literature of memoirs about people discovering themselves in the wilderness. The articles say the focus of these books is not nature, but people and their problems. Works such as Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Into the Wild and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild were mentioned as examples.  One article said the real genre of nature writing is dead–displaced by these personal memoirs.

The authors of those articles are correct that sensational personal memoirs sell far more copies than nature writing books. From a marketing perspective, books focused on experiencing moments of interconnectedness with nature don’t compare to books about disasters and overcoming personal issues.

But perhaps that is a false comparison. To say that the genre of nature writing is dead because of the popularity of sensational personal memoirs is like saying that slow dancing with someone you love is dead because of the popularity of twerking.

True nature writing is about a person entering into what he or she usually sees as life that is separate and apart from the human experience and realizing the interconnectedness–the interbeing–of all life. The mindfulness experience that is at the core of nature writing can happen anywhere, at any time. You don’t have to journey to an exotic wilderness location or be under life-threatening stress. If you are open to it, a moment of awareness of your interconnectedness with nature can happen as you go about your daily routine in your own hometown.

People like to share those moments of awareness with others in the form of journals, essays, poems–even stories and novels. That is true nature writing. I don’t imagine that those works will make the world’s best-seller lists. But that is not the goal of most nature writers. Nature writing centers on moments of mindfulness and seeks to share those moments and to encourage others to experience an awareness of interbeing with what we call nature.

Nature writing is not dead. Nature writing is a slow dance with love.

“They are all about us–these other worlds–the world of the fox, the squirrel, the beetle, the fish, the bird. We need only the keys of curiosity and imagination to reach their infinite variety. Adventures in viewpoint are within the grasp of all.” –Edwin Way Teale in Near Horizons.

Couple walking hand in hand


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Preying on the Roof

I have been painting my RV/boat storage shed. Having neither recreational vehicle nor boat, I use the shed as a shady place to work on projects and to park my pickup. The roof is corrugated metal and high–about twenty feet off the ground. As I was painting the last fascia board from the extension ladder, I looked up to find I was being watched from the roof by a tan praying mantis, about three inches long. It seemed to be curious about what I was doing in its territory. It turned its head toward me and peered at me closely as if it couldn’t believe what it was seeing. Fearing it would immerse itself in the wet paint, I banged the paintbrush on the metal roof to frighten it away. It flattened its body, bending its abdomen over its back like a scorpion and raised its front legs as if to box me–definitely not frightened.

I finished painting that section and climbed down to move the ladder. When I climbed back up, the mantis had walked several inches away, but when it saw me, it rushed toward me in its attack mode. This kind of behavior is not unusual in praying mantes, but this one seemed particularly feisty and territorial. The corrugated roof didn’t seem like a good place to hunt, but maybe that’s part its strategy–surprise. No insect would expect to find a praying mantis there. Once it grabbed an insect in those front legs, there would be no escape.

As I continued painting, the mantis ambled away from me, its body pulsing with a regular rhythm, its front legs outstretched. It kept me in view, turning its head nearly 180 degrees backward. I think it was a Stagmomantis californica. It wasn’t one of the large Chinese mantes found in moist gardens. The S. californica is common in the dry areas of the western United States, like my place on a low ridge in the Sierra Nevada of California.

This is the time of year that I start seeing adult mantes. One early October, I was reading in the kitchen with the light on. Praying mantes began gathering on the screen. I stopped counting when fifty adults hung there looking in at me. And I suppose at each other, too, since they might have been interested in mating before the cold weather–or in a last meal–or both. Mantes commonly prey on each other and females often eat the males during or after mating.

I moved the ladder again and when I climbed back up, my friend had walked back to investigate. I decided to take its photo, so I went inside to get the camera. It was still there when I returned, but way at the end of the roof. I zoomed in and snapped a photo, finished my painting and climbed down. As I was putting away the ladder, I saw a tiny head peering at me over the edge of the roof. I suppose the mantis determined I was far enough away and it dropped twenty feet to the leaves below.

Preying mantis on metal roof

S. californica high on the bare roof

I have seen mantes fly, yet this one didn’t. It may have spread its wings to break its fall. I couldn’t see it well enough at that distance. I heard it plop into the leaves and rushed to see, but it had already disappeared–hit the ground running, probably–maybe headed for a nearby woodpile.

In this morning’s encounter, I was given a glimpse into another creature’s world. In those moments, I felt connected with its world, sensing the essence of life that we both share, yet experience in vastly different ways. That interbeing moment is gone. It won’t happen again. It wasn’t an experiment that could be repeated. I didn’t make a scientific discovery. I didn’t travel to an exotic location. Yet I had a shared experience with another small creature that has made my life larger and richer.

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Looking for 527

“For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.” Henry Beston, 1928, in The Outermost House.

Much of the talk about the wolves in and around Yellowstone National Park is carried on by people who believe they have the measure of the animal pretty well sewn up. Confident in their finished and complete positions, they draw up management plans or implement hunts to control the wolves.

Writer Christine Baleshta and Artist Susanne Belcher create a unique response to the world of the wolf in their book Looking for 527. Yellowstone Wolf  527 was killed by a hunter in October 2009. Christine, the sponsor of the wolf’s radio collar, observed her for several years, following the rhythms of her life in the wild. Susanne has followed the lives of the wolves in Yellowstone since 1996.

Together they use images and words to produce a tribute to Wolf 527 that recognizes her “older and more complete” world and responds to it with humble respect, awe and appreciation.

One of the purposes of art is to create a more complete human experience: re-integrating mind and heart–extending our senses–helping us to hear voices we ordinarily do not hear.
That’s what Looking for 527 does.
(All proceeds from the book go to the Yellowstone Park Foundation, www.ypf.org)

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A World Apart

Over Memorial Day Weekend, I did a four-day backpack around the upper Illilouette basin in Yosemite National Park. In addition to the usual grand scenic beauty, I happened on an interesting microclimate. On the east side of the Illilouette Creek, where the north-south canyon begins to narrow and climb toward Merced Pass, there is a pocket that does not fit in with the surrounding pine and fir forest.

I came upon it suddenly, as the trail climbed up to a bench at about 7500 feet (2,286 meters). I told Cindy, my hiking partner, “There’s the first juniper.” In fact, it was a hundred-yard section of junipers in a desert-like microclimate area. The Sierra Juniper (Juniperus occidentalis subsp. australis) is a common tree in the Sierra Nevada, especially in the high country on the east side. And this small section along the trail looked exactly like an eastern Sierra Nevada high canyon–complete with sage and sand and desert paintbrush.

Sierra Juniper

Sierra Juniper above Tenaya Lake in Yosemite

The Sierra Juniper causes an instant emotional reaction for me. Just seeing one transports me to a rugged mindscape–the desert place within me on the frontier of my soul. Just to see one makes me start to contemplate and meditate. I think the tree affects others that way as well. The Sierra Juniper brings out the poetic spirit of Donald Culross Peattie as he writes in A Natural History of Western Trees, “It is a tree that seems positively to rejoice in the most inhospitable situations and, with a flair for the dramatic, to fix itself upon isolated pinnacles of rock, or overhanging giddy chasms, there to outlive the generations of men.”

The juniper pocket we found was so inviting that we had to stop and camp next to a couple of old twisted individuals. Nearby, Illilouette Creek cascaded over rock ledges. We sat and watched the last rays of sun turn the sand and sage to gold. I breathed in the timeless feeling of being one with a world apart–not just a world apart, but a world within a world apart.

The next morning when we packed up to continue our backpack, I checked around our campsite to make sure we weren’t leaving anything. Behind one of the junipers, something not natural caught my eye. I bent over to check it out and saw a rounded metal shape just protruding from the layer sand and twigs. Digging it out, I found it was a very heavy part of a very old coffee grinder, probably from the late 1800’s.  I guess I wasn’t the only one who was drawn to this small pocket of Sierra Junipers.

Illilouette Overlook

Looking back on the Illilouette Basin

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