Disturbing Yosemite

A century ago, biologist Joseph Grinnell began tracking the animals of Yosemite. Using his work and new surveys, his successors have uncovered massive and permanent changes in the park.
By Kenneth Brower

The regiments of small mammals at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology roll out smoothly, on long wooden trays, from the steel cabinets of their museum cases. Deer mice, jumping mice, trade rats, pocket gophers, moles, voles. They march rank on rank, shoulder to shoulder, all in the same direction, their tails wired stiff and straight behind them. In the library hush and faint echo of the museum, above the range of human hearing, a visitor can almost detect it, some Pied Piper playing his tune. The rodent armies stride in lock-step and brainlessly, the extracted skull of each soldier trailing behind, preserved along with the jawbone in a corked glass vial at the tip of the tail.

In the labyrinth of museum cases, I found the row marked “Soricidae,” the family of the shrews. One cabinet listed Sorex monticolus obscurus, the montane shrew. I rolled out that tray. The shrews are the smallest of mammals, so there was room in this drawer for a lot of them. The tray seemed to swarm. All the hosts of small mammals in the museum’s collection seem hasty, marching along in a kind of arrested quick-time, but these shrews were a half step quicker than the rest. This was a hallucination, of course. The specimens were all perfectly motionless. The hallucination arose, no doubt, from my previous knowledge of the raging metabolism of shrews.

Among the creatures of the Sierra Nevada, a great migration is under way, all in one direction, except for the montane shrew. Sorex monticolus obscurus is no longer confined to the high altitudes where it lived a century ago. The Pied Piper of montane shrews, for motives unknown, is leading them downward, counter to the diaspora of the others. I was curious about this species as an odd little footnote to what is shaping up as the greatest unnatural disaster ever to face us.

In a forward rank on the tray, one montane shrew, a specimen from Kings Canyon, was an albino, and another in the middle of the formation was pale beige. These were the Hawkeye and Trapper John of this battalion—the aberrations—and all the rest were in neat ranks of uniform dark brown. I picked my way down the dark-brown rows, like a general reviewing troops, until I came to MVZ No. 22021. This was the shrew I was after. In black ink on its tag, I recognized the Victorian handwriting of the collector, Joseph Grinnell, the first director of the museum. Grinnell had trapped this shrew, a male, near Mono Meadow, in Yosemite National Park, at an elevation of between 7,300 and 7,400 feet, on June 17, 1915.

In Grinnell’s day, the montane shrew was called the dusky shrew, and its scientific name was Sorex obscurus obscurus. In his field notebook, Grinnell had entered the measurements and other particulars of this specimen: “Sorex obscurus. (Testes large) 112 x 44 x 13.5 x 4. In oat-baited mouse trap under rotten log 5 feet from running water.”

Grinnell was a man preternaturally attentive to the natural world and almost frighteningly disciplined in recording its details. Small field notebooks were standard issue at the museum he founded, and he insisted that all his apostles carry them. Thanks to Grinnell’s field notes, we have not just the context of that rotten streamside log where the shrew met his Maker, but also a clear, concise, almost novelistic account of what the shrew’s last evening was like:

In the night heard a Horned Owl repeatedly—deep-toned, “Who, who-who, who.” At faintest dawn heard the full call of Olive-sided Flycatcher. This was the earliest bird to sing. A little later Wood Pewees began…Hylas were very entertaining last night around the little spring near which we made our bed.

Hyla regilla, the Pacific tree frog, is a miniature, cold-blooded, furless creature, yet it ranges all the way from the plains of the San Joaquin Valley to the highest passes of the Sierra Nevada. Grinnell admired it for its ubiquity. The tree frog is small, but its voice is huge.

There seemed to be 3 or 4. Sometimes they would abruptly cease their chorus, remain silent for a minute or more until the listener had forgotten all about them, and then break in suddenly with startling effect from their raucous cries. These were of two sorts, the ordinary rapid “K-r-r-ë-k—Ka,” and then a long drawn out rasping “K-r-r-r-e-e-k,” all one syllable. The performers evidently imitate one another, for in chorus, the cries are always normally of the same sort.

I picked up the shrew. He was weightless in my hand. Sorex is the genus of the long-tailed shrews, and the tail of this one, indeed, was long. Shrews are nocturnal hunters with poor vision, and the eyes of No. 22021 were so insignificant that in his stuffed pelt I could detect no eyes at all. The pointy, insectivorous snout bristled with vibrissae, however. These long, whiskery sensors had guided the shrew as he raced ravenously through the night.

I stroked the shrew twice with my thumb. The square inch of pelt was a minimal tactile experience. It did nothing to explain the contrarian impulse in montane shrews. I was still completely in the dark as to why this species, of all the fauna of the Sierra, was going against the grain of the general migration upward. I returned No. 22021 to the ranks. Uncorking the vial behind him, I upended it gently and let his skull slide into my palm. Alas, poor Sorex. Near the orbits, the Lilliputian skull was paper thin and translucent. Grinnell had written “22021” in elfin numbers across the top of the cranium. To witness the nanocalligraphy of Grinnell and his colleagues, inscribed on museum labels and on crania, is to revise upward one’s estimate of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Joseph Grinnell wrote essays on natural history, he wrote tall stacks of field notebooks, he wrote monographs, he wrote great tomes cataloguing the creatures recorded on his surveys, yet here, displayed on the pate of the shrew, was his essential oeuvre, a vast literature writ tiny on small skulls.

“In vertebrate biology, he is probably the most important person from an academic institution in the early 20th century,” Jim Patton told me. “There is hardly a mammalogist or ornithologist in this country that doesn’t trace his academic lineage to Grinnell.”

Patton certainly traces his own lineage back to that fountainhead. James L. Patton spent 32 years as curator of mammals at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, the house that Grinnell built. He is emeritus now, at 64, but he maintains a toehold at a desk in the museum offices. It was there that we spoke. Patton is a wiry welterweight—weathered by a career of collecting in the tropics—balding, with a close-cropped gray beard. He was born, like many of our best earth scientists, in the Midwest. There is a trace of Missouri still in his accent.

“Grinnell shaped how we practice our discipline, but he also had a profound conceptual influence. Some of the keystone concepts in ecology, for example, are traced to him. The concept of the ecological niche. The concept of competitive exclusion—that no two species can occupy the same niche for a period of time without one excluding the other.

“In many quarters back then, a kind of a typological view of nature prevailed. A species was thought to be a kind of an archetype, and any divergences were just variants around that archetype. Other museums of the time were interested in ‘postage-stamp’ collecting—the collection of one individual of every species, with the idea that one individual can represent that species. And Grinnell said ‘no!’ One individual can’t represent the species. You have to have a pool of individuals from multiple localities.”

In 1911, three years after the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology was founded, Grinnell began his first epic survey, an eight-year study of the multiple localities of the “The Yosemite Transect,” a cross section of the Sierra Nevada through Yosemite National Park. On this training ground, Grinnell’s workers—Tracy Storer, Joseph Dixon, Charles Camp, and Walter Taylor among them—grew into eminent field naturalists in their own right. Grinnell and Storer collated the team’s findings into Animal Life in the Yosemite, a 741-page inventory of the creatures they had found.

“Totally unusual,” Jim Patton said of the Yosemite study. “Absolutely unique. This was the first decade of the 1900s! Mendelian genetics had only been rediscovered in 1904. There were no principles of ecology. There were no principles of systematic or evolutionary biology to speak of. So here comes Grinnell with mathematical perspectives on change in characteristics through time in populations across geography. I mean, nobody was thinking in those terms. Grinnell was already seeing changes in California’s fauna a hundred years ago, and he set out to document what the record was in his day.”

A remarkable aspect of the Yosemite work was its selflessness. Grinnell lacked ego—or, rather, he was willing to accept a delayed and posthumous gratification of ego. He recognized that the real significance of his work would not be realized until generations after his death.

The Greatest Purpose of our Museum

The idea for a resurvey of Grinnell’s pioneering work was both a millennial and centennial notion. It came to Craig Moritz, the current director of the museum, in 2001, in his eighth month on the job, as the museum entered its 93rd year and its 100th anniversary loomed on the horizon. Moritz was 41. He had a thick mane of graying hair and an owlish way of peering at you over the tops of his glasses. Fresh from the University of Queensland, he had just begun the work of shortening his broad Australian vowels and struggling with the identification of California birds. He had left behind the steamy landscapes of his former fieldwork, the rainforests of northeastern Australia, with their strangler figs, tree ferns, cockatoos, cassowaries, and tree kangaroos. He was busy now learning the digger pines, sugar pines, red-tailed hawks, kangaroo rats, and mule deer of the California outback. “I had come here on sabbatical in the early 1990s,” he said. “I fell in love with the area and with the museum. There are not many academic institutions that you walk into and it has a soul.”

“When Craig arrived, we gave him a copy of Grinnell’s Philosophy of Nature” Jim Patton recalled. “This was a book published by UC Press, a collection of Grinnell’s papers. In one of them, written in 1910, just two years after he founded the museum, he states that the value of the collection that we are building now really won’t be understood for a long time to come.” Grinnell wrote: “I wish to emphasize what I believe will ultimately prove to be the greatest purpose of our museum. This value will not, however, be realized until the lapse of many years, possibly a century, assuming that our material is safely preserved. And this is that the student of the future will have access to the original record of faunal conditions in California and the West, wherever we now work.”

“Craig read this paper, and he picked up on this quote,” said Patton. “He came running in and said, ‘Hey, have you guys seen this?’ We grabbed him by the shirt collar and took him to a portrait of Grinnell outside the library, which has that quote framed. We said, ‘Yeah, we’ve seen this.’”

The Grinnell resurvey was one of those ideas whose time has come. Planted by Grinnell himself in the quotation emblazoned on the library wall, the seed of the notion, after a gestation of 90 years, began germinating in several minds simultaneously.

“I had been thinking of Grinnell for a number of years,” Les Chow told me. “I had actually planned in the next year or two to submit a grant request to the Yosemite Fund to try to redo Grinnell’s survey.”

Chow, the research wildlife biologist in Yosemite for the U.S. Geological Survey, is a Berkeley graduate, Class of ’84. He lingered at the university to get an M.S. in wildland resource science, and in the course of his stay he became a Grinnellian himself. “When you go to Berkeley and take natural history of vertebrates or mammalogy, you are taught the Grinnell system. It’s fairly rigid, but it has served us pretty well. You can tell Berkeley products, because we all are trained that way. We go on to university to teach, and we pass on this method, and it becomes sort of a long legacy. Grinnell was a hard-ass. He expected you to work hard. My impression is they might be less strict about it now, but back then Grinnell guided everything, even the way you punctuate. You don’t waste ink by putting in periods unnecessarily.”

In Animal Life in the Yosemite and in later prose generated by the museum, I had noticed myself that the punctuation was sparse. It was remarkable: If Les Chow was right, then Grinnell, 70 years after his death, is still detectable in the breathless pace and run-on rhythms of museum sentences. Moritz, upon arriving from Australia, had sensed that this museum had a soul. That soul belonged, evidently, to Joe Grinnell. If any spirit walked the aisles between the ranks of gray-steel museum cases, then surely it was his. He was that Pied Piper who had set the museum’s mice and shrews and voles to marching in their rows.

Congress, Chow said, had allocated funds to the National Park Service for an inventorying and monitoring program, with the goal of identifying at least 90 percent of the vascular plants and vertebrate animals within the parks. No survey of such scope and depth had been attempted in the Sierra Nevada since Grinnell. About $30,000 had been earmarked for the vertebrate surveys in the Sierra. “That’s not nearly enough,” said Chow. “Steve Thompson and I—he’s the wildlife biologist for the Park Service in Yosemite—were scratching our heads over the problem.

“I had gone to Berkeley. I had taken mammalogy with Jim Patton, and I knew that he had recently retired. I decided to give the museum a call to see if they had any interest in coming to the park to do some collecting. It just so happened that they had been talking at the museum about doing a Grinnell survey again. They jumped at the chance.”

Chow added that the museum had donated most of the curators’ time and used the available money to pay the students’ salaries. “We got four curators and three student assistants, spending two months in the field,” Chow said. He laughed merrily, like Monroe the day he beat Napolean, closing the Louisiana Purchase at three cents an acre.

Patton took the lead in the resurvey fieldwork. Having retired in 2001, he was not tied up with classes or graduate students, so he volunteered. Second in command in the field was Christopher Conroy, a curator of mammalogy at the museum and an expert on voles.

“In the summertimes, I’ve been logging 30 or 40 days in the field,” Conroy said. “Whereas Jim Patton is logging 50 to 60 days in the field. Jim is incredibly hardworking. Gregarious. He’s really good at teaching the younger people how to put up skins and to have an appreciation for what we’re doing.”

Where Grinnell and his curators wore wool and old, tweed jackets against the Sierra cold, his successors in the resurvey wore Gore-Tex and synthetic fleece. Where Grinnell’s troops lunched on hardtack, Patton’s ate gorp and Power Bars. Where Grinnell’s people collected with leghold traps and shotguns, his successors were forbidden those tools and used live traps instead.

To catch shrews, Grinnell and his researchers used snap traps. These worked well, except for the vulnerability of the trapped specimen to the depredations of subsequent shrews.

“Shrews kept in captivity have been known to eat more than their own weight of flesh in twenty-four hours,” Grinnell wrote. “If the shrews find the victim, they are apt to make short work of it, and without disturbing the trap in any way… Where only the beginning on the feast has been made, it is usually the brain of the trapped animal that is eaten. But not infrequently the work is done so completely that only a few fragments remain—scarcely enough to identify the victim.”

To catch shrews, Patton and his team, 90 years later, relied on 32-ounce plastic cups, sinking between 25 and 50 of the cups in each meadow system, usually along the runways of voles. Upon falling into one of these improvised, cut-rate live traps, the shrew was unable to scramble up the slick sides. The cups did not runneth over. Even if four or five shrews fell into a given cup, only one was there to greet the scientists the next morning. The surviving shrew in the cup, the theory went, had been the first to fall in. Subsequent shrews, momentarily stunned by their fall, were pounced upon and eaten by their predecessor. They were countable only by inedible parts the original cannibal left behind.

The differing methodologies—snap trap versus cup—might have seemed a problem when it came to comparison of data from the two eras. In fact, numerous studies have demonstrated little difference between snap traps and live traps in capturing the species diversity of an area. On bird-count transects, too, the resurvey employed a method different from Grinnell’s, but Andrew Rush, who coordinated the new bird work, field-tested his new standard against the old, and found only the slightest of disparities in results.

It was also important, for comparison, that the resurveyors locate the exact sites where Grinnell worked. To this end, they brought along copies of the field notes of Grinnell and his original workers. From the handwritten observations of the original team, scrutinized in the very landscapes where those notes were set down, the new people were able to locate the Grinnell sites precisely, and they got a fix, too, on the personalities of their predecessors.

“They don’t talk about each other much in the notes,” said Chris Conroy. “But you do develop some sense of these guys. They seem to be very broadly trained. They tended to try to record everything. I’m a horrible birder—I don’t know my birds at all—but those guys knew their birds. It’s a struggle for me to try to record the vegetation. Coming up when I did in academia, I never learned the Latin names of shrubs, but this was apparently something they all learned very early on. They just rattle off all the names of the plants and shrubs and trees. They rarely register indecision about any of those things. Now and then you’ll see a species name with a line through it—it’s been corrected—but very seldom.”

In my own perusal of the field notes, I, too, had noticed this fluid and confident exposition. The journals were largely free of erasure and amendation. The effect seemed most pronounced in Grinnell himself. His pages read smoothly, like the final draft of one of those novels his contemporaries were writing in pencil in Parisian cafés.

“One thing that surprises us, when we read the notes, is how far they seemed to walk in a day,” added Conroy. “It seems like they were walking—without any note of complaint—maybe 20 miles or more in a day. They just are active all day long, stopping and writing notes constantly.”

“Grinnell did this death march—I couldn’t believe it,” said Adam Leache, who handled the reptile and amphibian work on the resurvey. “He woke up in the Yosemite Valley, as I remember, and decided to walk over the crest to Mono Lake. More than 40 miles. He just took off, carrying his shotgun, taking notes along the way on the vegetation, on what he saw, on what he caught.”

“Incredible stamina,” said wildlife biologist Chow. “There were a number of days where Grinnell, after checking traps in the morning, went up the old Hutchings Trail through Indian Canyon, across and down Yosemite Falls Trail in one day. Twenty miles was a stroll for him.”

Chow was able to leave his desk and join the team for several weeks of fieldwork in the summers of 2003 and 2005. “I had a great time,” he said. “I was out there doing traplines with everybody. It’s just fun being in the field with somebody as knowledgeable and enthusiastic as Jim Patton. He’s charismatic. He’s the reason I became a mammalogist.”

Chow, who is 53, was moved at seeing a new generation of naturalists coming up under the tutelage of Patton.

“The camaraderie,” Chow said. “The spending time in the field. The encounters with bears. Some of the students on these trips grew up in Los Angeles. Like Hanna Shohfi. We were up at Mount Lyell, and the sky cleared, and for the first time, I pointed out the Milky Way to Hanna. She had never seen the Milky Way. And there was another student, a guy. You know how beautiful it can be from Donahue Pass? This student, he’s what, 21, a recent graduate. It brought tears to his eyes. How beautiful it was. For these kids, it was a life-changing event.”

On the slopes of Mount Lyell, far from the smog of her native megalopolis, remote from the light pollution of the nearest town, at an elevation she had earned the old-fashioned way, by foot, Hanna Shohfi gazed up through the thin, dry air and contemplated the unfiltered glitter of a hundred billion stars. Chow was startled as she swore a sudden, fierce oath.

“I’m never going car-camping again!” Hanna cried.

Makhpiya-Luta

The Joseph Grinnell of his portraits is an enigma: There is a curious blandness and opacity to him. In his stature and his features, he is unprepossessing—not the sort of presence you would pick out of a crowd or mark for success. By the time he is 24 in the pictures, his hair is receding sharply. His facial hair comes and goes, moving around experimentally: clean shave, mustache, clean shave again, full beard, mustache, and finally the austere goatee he seems to have settled on in middle age.

In only two portraits can I find the slightest trace of a smile. In the first, taken during the Alaskan gold rush of 1898, Grinnell, 22 and clean-shaven, is holding a frying pan on the deck of the schooner Penelope in the Bering Sea. This voyage, the first big expedition of his career, was a profitable one for the naturalist. His prospecting for specimens was interrupted only occasionally by the obligation to hunt for gold.

In the second photograph, Grinnell has reached the goatee stage. He sits at a camp table in the field, preparing specimens. He wears a hat, wire-rimmed spectacles, and an apron as protection against blood and entrails. His shirt is buttoned all the way up to the collar. His shoulders are narrow, but his hands, which hold a scalpel, look disproportionately large and muscular—the fingers pumped up, no doubt, by all the scalpel work of thousands of little field autopsies like this one. Mild amusement or satisfaction seems to be playing at the corners of his mouth.

“Methodical,” says Patton. “He wasn’t affable. He was just a very focused, directed person. He didn’t have much time for any trivialities in life.”

“In the busy life of Joseph Grinnell, time for deliberative thought often appeared to be at a premium,” wrote Alden Miller, one of Grinnell’s successors as director of the museum. “But there was nothing drab or routine about Grinnell’s thoughts; they were of unlimited horizon. His escape from the danger of becoming a scientific and administrative automaton resulted partly from an innate effervescence of ideas together with a sense of obligation to record them.”

From where did it come, this effervescence of ideas, this sense of obligation to record them? Where did Grinnell gain his long view of the role of his museum, his affinity for open spaces, his acute sense of variability within species?

It began, his wife Hilda believed, on the Great Plains.

Grinnell was born February 27, 1877, in Indian Territory, on the Kiowa, Comanche, and Wichita Indian Agency in Oklahoma. His father, Fordyce Grinnell, was the agency physician. By 1880, Fordyce Grinnell was in the Dakotas tending the health of the Oglala Sioux of Chief Red Cloud, and little Joe Grinnell was growing up among Sioux playmates. “Undoubtedly his senses were quickened by association with these alert comrades,” Hilda Grinnell wrote of her husband. “The well-trained ear and quick eye which in later years made the fine field naturalist received in the Dakotas their first conscious training.”

Patton believes that this early Sioux period did not just hone Grinnell’s senses; it shaped him conceptually as well. “He spent his boyhood out with Indian boys, learning about nature through their eyes,” Patton says. “The Indians had, of course, a totally different view of the world, a different framework than a typical Western man.”

Little Joe Grinnell, at five years old, was a favorite of Red Cloud himself.

Red Cloud, Makhpiya-Luta, the son of a Brulé father and an Oglala mother, was the greatest of Sioux chiefs. He had spent much of his young manhood at war with the Pawnees, Crows, Utes, Shoshones, and with other Oglalas. When still very young, he became the preeminent warrior of the Bad Faces Clan, with a reputation for ruthlessness. In the mid-1860s, 15 years before he met young Joe Grinnell, Red Cloud orchestrated the most successful war against white men ever conducted by an aboriginal American. In one battle, during his siege of Fort Phil Kearny, Red Cloud wiped out the entire command of a precursor to Custer, the hotheaded Captain William Fetterman. A relief detachment from Fort Phil Kearney found Fetterman and 49 of his soldiers dead and 32 others missing. When news of the slaughter reached the fort, the commander, Colonel Carrington, ordered all the women and children into the powder magazine, posted an officer there with instructions to blow the place up should the Indians breach the defenses, then set out to find the missing 32. He succeeded, unhappily, discovering them all dead, scalped, and stripped naked.

“How is my little friend Joe?” Red Cloud dictated, 20 years later, in his letters to the Grinnells, who by the early 1880s had left the Dakotas for Pasadena, California.

Given the chief’s fondness for this one small white boy, it seems a bit alarmist, in retrospect, that Colonel Carrington should have ordered all the women and children into the powder magazine.

But then again, perhaps not.

“My sun is set. My day is done. Darkness is stealing over me,” Red Cloud announced in 1903, in a farewell address to the Lakota people. “Before I lie down to rise no more, I will speak to my people. Hear me, my friends, for it is not the time for me to tell you a lie. The Great Spirit made us, the Indians, and gave us this land we live in. He gave us the buffalo, the antelope, and the deer for food and clothing. We moved our hunting grounds from the Minnesota to the Platte and from the Mississippi to the great mountains. No one put bounds on us. We were free as the winds.”

In 1822, when Red Cloud was born, those hunting grounds he describes—the high plains between the Mississippi and the great mountains—teemed with buffalo, and antelope roamed, and white men had yet to appear. By middle age, the chief had seen the buffalo vanish completely, the antelope sharply reduced, and his own people confined. If we are to search for the source of Joseph Grinnell’s sense of faunal change, his apprehensions about extinction, his notion that the import of his collections would not be realized for a century, we may need go no farther, perhaps, than that eloquent old graduate of the Bad Faces Clan.

“They were used to being outdoors,” Patton said of Grinnell and his generation of naturalists. “They had to walk everyplace they went. And there was much more outdoors, then, for them to be out in. They were also used to being observers. They’d walk, say, from a home up on Dwight Way down to campus, and there was lots of natural history for them to observe. Another thing they did—and this was part of Grinnell’s legacy—they recorded what they observed. They recorded it in a standardized journal format. When you do that, it causes you to start to muse about what it is you’re seeing. It requires you to go to the next step—other than just saying, ‘Oh yeah, there’s a fox squirrel over there.’”

We spoke of the old-time naturalists. Darwin. Wallace. Steller. Von Humboldt. Patton’s hero is Alfred Russel Wallace, the father of zoogeography, who happens to be a hero of mine too. They were giants in those days, Patton and I agreed. They were great generalists. They were curious about everything and they felt qualified to investigate it—whether it was zoology or botany or geology. They wrote well. They all could draw. They sometimes spent years in the field between visits home. And then the next generation, among them Grinnell and his disciples Storer, Dixon, Taylor, and Camp.

“They made them differently in those days,” I suggested to Patton. “A different kind of man.”

“No question about it,” Patton agreed. “And it makes me nervous. I’m a good naturalist. I’ve spent a lot of time in the field, but I couldn’t hold a candle to any of those people. Couldn’t hold a candle. My mind is too filled up with other kinds of crap. It doesn’t have the freedom. Today we’re scatterbrained. We’re trying to multitask 15 different things, even when we’re out in the field with nothing else to do but run a trapline.”

I had heard a good deal of this from Patton. His disclaimers fit in so neatly with my own pet theories about a golden age of field naturalists, now vanished, that I accepted his view. It took Adam Leache, the resurvey’s herpetologist, to bring me to my senses.

“No matter what, Jim’s the first one up working, and the last one down,” Leache told me, describing Patton at work in the Sierra. “Active all day. When we go on a hike, it seems he’s the first one to make it there. He looks old, but he’s still there. He’s the Grinnell of today.”

It was true, I realized instantly. Indeed, it could not have been much more obvious. The old-time naturalists were a different species, maybe, but the genus was the same.

In 1984, in southern Peru, the effete Jim Patton, exemplar of the timid, cloistered field biologist of today, was removing a bat from a mist net when his headlamp picked up eyeshine in the darkness beyond. Ten feet away, watching curiously as he extricated the bat, was a jaguar. Patton continued collecting his specimen, protected himself from collection by the jaguar only by the mistiness of the net between them. Patton, in the course of his career, has left few corners of Peru uninvestigated. As a graduate student, he worked in the eastern Peruvian Amazon, along the Brazilian border, with a tribe called the Cashinahua, who had made first contact with white people only 10 years before. Then, after his move to Berkeley, he teamed up with ethnobotanist Brent Berlin, of the Department of Anthropology, and worked for five years in the northern Peruvian Amazon with the Aguaruna Jivaro, a tribe of headhunters.

Patton then began an Andean period, zoologizing those white cordilleras from 18,000 feet down through middle slopes and finally almost to sea level. He was happy in the Andes until the mad guerrillas of Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, made the work too dangerous. Tired of being shot at by the Shining Path and rousted from bed at the point of a machine gun, he turned his attention to the Amazonian lowlands. He spent a year surveying the Juruá, one of the major whitewater rivers of western Brazil. The Juruá fieldwork proved the toughest of Patton’s career. He and his team worked 18-hour days, seven days a week. Rations grew short. The team could fish but not hunt, as gunfire would have driven off the monkeys and other mammals that were their subject matter. Patton dropped from a lean 150 pounds to a skeletal 120.

Patton’s parallels with Grinnell are striking. Both men were Midwesterners, both sons of doctors—the one a reservation brat, the other an Army brat. Both were noted for their shyness and famous for their drive. Both were trim, fit men of unimposing stature who were much stronger than they looked. Both were indefatigable in the field. Both were gifted scientific draftsmen who illustrated their own papers. Both were famous for their skill at preparing skins. Where Grinnell had the Oglala Sioux, Patton had the Aguaruna Jivaro.

They never met. Grinnell died in 1937, and Patton was not born until 1941. Such gaps are not uncommon between incarnations. The search for a new Dalai Lama, for example, can take years after the death of the old one. Monks wander Tibet, showing infant candidates an assortment of items, from which one boy—the new Dalai Lama—unerringly picks out the belongings of his predecessor. Jim Patton, on arriving at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, was shown several hundred manuscript pages of a treatise on pocket gophers that Grinnell had begun. Patton, already a student of these creatures, read Grinnell avidly. He gravitated to the museum trays that held Grinnell’s gophers. He picked up the gopher specimens and turned them over ruminatively in his hands. “Grinnell never finished his work on gophers,” Patton said. “I had all of those archival manuscript pages to work from. I got to delve into his view of the world, as a result of my interest in the same critters, using the same specimens.” Patton’s papers on the evolutionary genetics of pocket gophers became classics and established him as an expert on the small mammals of North America.

Into Thin Air

In the summer of 2003, the first year of the resurvey of the Yosemite Section, the intellectual grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Joseph Grinnell, as they reworked their progenitor’s sites, kept an eye out for a number of creatures that the National Park Service suspected might be in the park, but were poorly known or unknown there. The Great Basin pocket mouse. The northern grasshopper mouse. The California deer mouse. The California pocket mouse. The ornate shrew. They failed to find any of these. The team looked for Merriam’s chipmunk, the yellow-pine chipmunk, and Allen’s chipmunk. No luck there either. The failure to find Allen’s chipmunk was surprising and troubling, for this species had once been widespread in the park.

Returning to the Sierra in 2004, Jim Patton succeeded in trapping four Allen’s chipmunks—a post-lactating female and three young—but this did not cheer him much. There should have been many more of them. Allen’s chipmunk, a dark species, is sometimes called the shadow chipmunk. In Yosemite it is becoming a shadow indeed.

Tamias alpinus, the alpine chipmunk, seemed to be in decline as well. “Sunshine chipmunk,” it might be called, for it is the palest, smallest, and highest-dwelling chipmunk in Yosemite. “In only one place was it observed below 8,000 feet,” Grinnell wrote. “The greater part of the population lives far above that altitude.” In 2003 the resurvey team, hiking up Lyell Canyon from Tuolumne Meadows to their base camp, saw no alpine chipmunks. During their work in the upper canyon, they spotted only three. In Grinnell’s time, they had been the dominant chipmunk in this zone.

In 2005 the resurveyors looked harder for Tamias alpinus. Because Grinnell had found many alpine chipmunks living at the base of Fairview Dome, one of the colossal, glacier-rounded, white-granite monoliths that rise from the dark pine forests and green muskegs of Tuolumne Meadows, Patton set his traplines there. He caught no alpine chipmunks. Tamias alpinus was gone.

The most startling change in the Sierra Nevada since Grinnell’s time has not been outright disappearances so much as the altitudinal migrations.

One species, the montane shrew, has moved down, but it has been the singular exception. All the other species that have shifted elevation since Grinnell’s day seem to be heading for higher ground.

The pinyon mouse has moved up. This big-eared desert mouse, an agile tree-climber that ascends pinyon pines and junipers to harvest the nuts and seeds, has migrated up the east side of the Sierra, gaining 2,000 feet of elevation over what Grinnell’s records show.

The California meadow mouse, too, has been upwardly mobile. Grinnell found this species low. In 1915, in a meadow near Coulterville, down in the western foothills, his team excavated a nine-foot-square section of the underground burrow system of this midsized vole. They peeled back the overburden—a sod roof of rushes, wild celery, foxtail grass, blue-eyed grass, soaproot, and buttercup—to expose the uppermost tunnels. The earth beneath was so soft that Grinnell’s men, like the meadow mice before them, were able to excavate the fine, black, damp humus with nothing but their paws. They mapped the system: its web of interconnected passageways; its surface holes; its short turnabouts, each one just large enough for a single mouse; its grass-lined nests in side pockets; its sump tunnels designed to drain the system, each sumphole partly filled with mud from past storms. The layout was as cozy and sensible as anything that Mole ever dug in Wind in the Willows. Grinnell’s blueprints almost make you want to be a meadow mouse. Since the original survey, the California meadow mouse has been shoved or pulled uphill into Yosemite, introducing its subterranean engineering to the park.

In sum, the demographics—or in this case faunographics—documented by the resurvey shows high turnover at the lowest and highest elevations of Yosemite as the higher reaches are colonized, with populations at mid-elevation swelling in a holding pattern as the fauna make the transition up. The scramble for higher ground is typical of animal behavior in a flood, but in this case the cause seems to be something like the opposite. The line James Baldwin lifted for the title of one of his novels, from the old spiritual, seems to apply: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign/No more water, the fire next time.” Few in the scientific community doubt that the retraction of populations upward is a reaction to global warming.

For the creatures adapted to the highest elevations, there is poignancy in the upward flight, for there is no place higher to go.

The three alpine chipmunks that Patton finally succeeded in catching in Lyell Canyon were all above 10,200 feet. The tallest summits of the Sierra continue 4,000 feet higher, but most of that ultimate landscape is bare, steep rock and snow.

The bushy-tailed wood rat is another species running out of room at the top. This wood rat is a handsome animal, with dense fur and a bushy tail to wrap around its nose at night. Wood rats—pack rats—have a peculiar fascination with shiny objects and are compulsive collectors of found art. “Campers tell many tales, some humorous, some semi-tragic, of the activities of the big ‘pack rat’ or ‘trade rat’ among their belongings,” Grinnell and Storer write in Animal Life in the Yosemite.

In July of 1915, the junior author, Tracy Storer, climbed Mount Lyell with three other members of the Yosemite survey. On reaching the 13,114-foot summit, the four ate lunch. A wood rat emerged from a crevice to scavenge crumbs of hardtack the scientists had dropped, scuttling back with each fragment to its crevice to eat. The wood rat, on one of its sorties, began to climb one of the walking sticks of the museum men, taking its measure. Somebody moved, startling the animal, which jumped off. The stick, having aroused the curatorial interest of the wood rat, maybe, was under consideration for inclusion in its own museum of pinecones, feathers, lengths of rope, expended shotgun shells, dimes, quarters, fragments of glass, wire-rimmed spectacles, penknives, and keys to Model-T Fords.

Ninety years later, when Grinnell’s successors returned to Mount Lyell and the rest of the Yosemite high country, the wood rats were not so forthcoming.

“The bushy-tailed wood rat, for whatever reason, we only got a very few specimens,” Patton said of his boreal trapping. It was not just the failure of the traps that impressed Patton; it was the absence of wood-rat signs. “The males have a very well-defined ventral scent gland,” he said. “In talus slopes or boulder fields, they’ll mark their territory by rubbing this scent gland on the horizontal edges of rocks, and then urinating over it. Over the years, it builds up a very distinctive whitewashing.” The whitewash is so striking from hundreds of yards away that a crude wood-rat census is possible at 50 miles per hour on Highway 80 over Donner Pass, or in negotiating the curves over Tioga Pass. It is Patton’s strong impression that the white signage of wood rats is fading from the high country.

Sharing the high rockslides, and the fate, of the bushy-tailed wood rat is the pika. This small relative of rabbits and hares—sometimes also called the cony, or the rock rabbit—is surely the most beloved animal in the High Sierra. The pika is adapted to life above timberline. Its ears have been miniaturized as protection against frostbite. It survives the long winters and short growing seasons above tree line by making hay, which it lays up in its granaries deep in the rockslides. In summer it stands sentinel on the talus. Posted atop the great jumbles of pale, angular granite boulders that have spilled from the faces of Sierra peaks, it warns of your trespass with its piping call.

The pika is as sensitive to heat as a mineshaft canary is sensitive to carbon monoxide. It is a creature of the Arctic-Alpine Zone, the highest and coldest in the Sierra. It cannot tolerate high summer temperatures. It has become the poster animal, the type species, for the effects of global warming in the mountain West.

“You can assess the presence of pikas visually, because they’re diurnal, and by their hay piles, or by piles of their feces,” said Patton. “Or you can assess their presence by their calls. At the lowest elevational limits, where those animals were found during the Grinnell days, we can’t find any evidence of them by those four means today. At Glen Aulin, for example, northwest of Tuolomne Meadows, there is an abundance of rocky talus slopes—ideal habitat—and pikas were clearly present in the Grinnell days. Now there’s no sign of them whatsoever.”

Researchers in the Rockies and the Great Basin are discovering the same thing: The pika is being forced out the top of those ecosystems too.

Aesop, had he grown up in the American West, would surely have made a fable of the fraternity of the rockslide: The Wood Rat and the Pika. The two talus-dwellers are sometimes mistaken for each other, especially if the wood rat keeps his tail down, yet temperamentally they are opposites. The pika is provident and industrious, making hay while the sun is shining. The wood rat slinks around at night, pilfering items for its big, lunatic collection of useless objects. But the moral, as it takes shape in the coming epoch of global warming, is anti-Aesopian. The moral is that virtue makes no difference. The pika’s industry and the wood rat’s kleptomania amount to the same thing, for the two animals are headed for the same oblivion. Above the Arctic-Alpine, there are no more zones for refuge. There is nothing but thin air and the mountainous topography of the clouds.

A Smoother Pebble

The atrium of the Valley Life Sciences Building in Berkeley is one of the more dramatic architectural entrances in academia, or anywhere else. The theme is Jurassic. In the well of the spiral staircase, its enormous jaws agape, strides the skeleton of Tyrannosaurus rex, buzzed from above by a pterodactyl.

On my final visit to the collection, climbing the spiral to the museum on the third floor, I had passed the tyrannosaur and come level with the pterodactyl when a thought occurred: Was Joseph Grinnell, too, a dinosaur? In this age of molecular biologists, radio telemetrists, gene splicers, and genome cartographers, were field naturalists and collectors like Grinnell and Patton becoming fossils?

Not yet, it seemed to me.

Collections like Grinnell’s were never in vogue, and are even less so now, but the old skins in these reliquaries continue to give us new data. Much of what we have been able to deduce about the environmental effects of heavy metals comes from analysis of specimens collected before those contaminants were released into the ecosphere. The connection between thinning eggshells and DDT was possible only because we had reference to inventories of eggs collected before World War II and the dawning of the age of pesticides. Old specimens continue to answer questions we did not know how to ask at the time of collection. Grinnell never heard of DNA, yet that molecular codex is now being analyzed in his skins. There is no reason to believe that new specimens collected by the resurvey will not, 90 years hence, have the same unimaginable afterlife. In a culture with the short attention span and selective memory of our own, record is invaluable. At the moment, Grinnell’s original Yosemite record, resurveyed, is part of the mosaic of evidence that is finally persuading our most obtuse politicians that global warming is real.

Relevance, then, was not the question. But what about recruitment? I did not doubt that future curator-naturalists were in the pipeline: Hanna Shohfi, possibly, who swore on her mountaintop, under the stars, that she would never go car-camping again. Or that young man Les Chow had told me about, moved to tears by the vista from Donahue Pass.

But it was also clear that each new generation of naturalists will be a step farther removed from its sources. As wilderness shrinks, and open space diminishes, and the technological cocoon around each of us grows more intricate, the connection to the land attenuates. Jim Patton, recently retired, is just three degrees of separation from Red Cloud, who lived his life entirely on the land. But the West of Patton’s youth is receding. The bleak day will come, not so far off, when one of Patton’s favorite words, “critter,” slips from the lexicon of science.

More and more recruits are entering the natural sciences from an interest in theory—in abstraction—and fewer are entering from some epiphanous childhood moment out on the Great Plains, in the company of Oglala playmates, in stooping to pick up an arrowhead, or fossilized horse tooth, or a smoother pebble than ordinary, while the endless prairie of truth lies all undiscovered ahead.

Kenneth Brower is a frequent contributor to the Atlantic Monthly and National Geographic and won the John Burrows Association Award for Outstanding Natural History Essay. The son of celebrated environmentalist David Brower, Brower is also an environmental activist and the author of more than a dozen previous books, including The Starship and the Canoe, A Song for Satawal, and Wake of the Whale.
Filed under: Science + Health
Image source: Photograph by Marcus Hanschen
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