Horsetail Fall—Flashback to Yosemite Firefalls

Man-made Firefalls

“Is it not by his high superfluousness we know
Our God? For to equal a need
is natural, animal, mineral: but to fling
Rainbows over the rain…”

The seven-mile-long, one-mile-wide Yosemite Valley arguably contains more extraordinary scenic wonders than any other 7 square mile patch on Planet Earth. Even so, it seems like Mother Nature cannot keep herself from blatant superfluousness.

A quick glance at this photo may even remind older viewers of Yosemite’s man-made “firefalls.”

Yosemite firefalls were summer-time events that began in 1872 and continued for almost a century. Burning hot wood and embers were spilled from the top of Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park to the valley 3,000 feet below. From a distance it appeared as a glowing waterfall. The owners of the Glacier Point Hotel conducted the firefall. History has it that David Curry, founder of Curry Village, would stand at the base of the fall, and yell “Let the fire fall,” each night as a signal to start pushing the embers over.

The firefalls ended in January 1968, when the National Park Service ordered them stopped because the overwhelming number of visitors that they attracted trampled meadows to see them, and because they were not a natural event. NPS wanted to preserve the Valley, returning it to its natural state. The Glacier Point Hotel was destroyed by fire one year later and was not rebuilt.

Horsetail Falls
Horsetail Falls

But Horsetail Fall is not man-made. It is a wonder that can only happen when environmental conditions are perfect. The sun’s angle of inclination is critical and only happens on a few days in late February. The weather has to be clear and there must be an adequate water supply spilling off the north wall of Yosemite Valley, east of El Capitan. Not surprisingly, favorable days often attract hordes of photographers trying to capture the perfect photo.

In a very strange synchronicity, I was taking a graduate biology class that spent one week in Yosemite during the summer of 1967. We viewed the “Fire fall” with no foreknowledge that it would be the last summer of the event and I would later lead 24 classes to Yosemite NP.  God, may not only be superfluous, He often moves in very mysterious ways.

Lowell H. Young
Author: Biodesign Out For A Walk

Carl Sandburg—Henry Van Dyke—Joe the Barber Visit Grand Canyon

Screen shot 2016-01-24 at 4.49.14 PMExcerpt; Biodesign Out For A Walk, chap. 13. “Canyon Visions.”

“He snorted, “Jesus! Why in hell are you going there? I know that I’m a bigot, but I read National Geographic. So, after the umpteenth article, I told the wife we better go and see what all the fuss is about. Well, we drove to hell and gone and got there and couldn’t see a damn thing. We couldn’t even see the river at the bottom; we high-tailed it to Las Vegas. Now, that’s something to see.”

The words were spoken by my late barber (RIP) and reflect the bipolar chasm between those who see “the works of God” in Grand Canyon and those who see emptiness.

While watching a sunset over Grand Canyon, poet Carl Sandburg mused:

‘There goes God with an army of banners;
who is God and why; who am I and why?
He told himself, This may be
something else than what I
see when I look—how do I know?
For each man sees himself
in the Grand Canyon,
each one makes his own Canyon
before he comes, each one brings
and carries away his own Canyon—
Who knows? And how do I know?


Even though my wife does not like the following Van Dyke poem, I read it each year at the bottom of Grand Canyon. He is obviously using an uncharacteristic form of satire to question the logic or efficacy of believing in “nothing!” Indeed: A universe with; “no Captain on the ship?”

Then is thy gorge a canyon of despair,
A prison for the soul of man, a grave
Of all his dearest daring hopes! The world
Wherein we live and move is meaningless,
No spirit here to answer to our own!
The stars without a guide: The chance-born Earth
Adrift in space, no Captain on the ship:
Nothing in all the universe to prove
Eternal wisdom and eternal love!
And man, the latest accident of Time,–
Who thinks he loves, and longs to understand,
Who vainly suffers, and in vain is brave,
Who dupes his heart with immortality,–
Man is a living lie,–a bitter jest
Upon himself,–a conscious grain of sand
Lost in a desert of unconsciousness,
Thirsting for God and mocked by his own thirst.

Grand Canyon: Daybreak: Henry Van Dyke

Both Sandburg and Van Dyke were poetic giants and both realized that Grand Canyon can be approached from “right” or “left” brain; from real or symbolic; from literal or metaphorical, from physical or spiritual perspectives. However, both of their views were from “The Rim” of Grand Canyon. Looking out over Grand Canyon is not unlike looking at the cover of a book. Both require opening.

One year, a group of guys pressed me to add three miles to our ascent and go out to Plateau Point. We had no idea that we were going to see a little miracle involving a visit by two ravens. We were looking 1800 feet down into The Canyon when:

“About a quarter mile beyond us, they suddenly locked their wings in the gliding mode. They banked to the left, made a swooping U- turn, and headed in our direction. I had never considered that birds could calculate, but their glide angle was such that they would be at our eye-level when they passed by. They were about 50 feet out in front of us, flying over the inner gorge. At the exact moment that they passed, they did a perfectly synchronized snap-roll, while making their familiar clicking sound. In a flash, they righted themselves and soared about 100 yards before they caught a thermal draft coming up from the lower canyon. With only minor wing beats, they gracefully ascended to their previous altitude, exited the thermal, and resumed their flight to the northwest.”

Everyone was stunned into silence and as we silently resumed our ascent, one of the guys turned his head back over his shoulder and said, “I think I have just had a religious experience.”

R.W. Emerson inferred that Grand Canyon is a metaphor for every human mind that beholds it. He would agree with explorer J. W. Powell, Sandburg and Van Dyke by proclaiming that Mystery reigns supreme and “scientism,” letters and graphics woefully fail to describe Grand Canyon. Little wonder my barber was confused.

Lowell H. Young
Author: Biodesign Out For A Walk