California Field Course: Yosemite to the Sierra Nevada

The CGES California field course finally ended today, after an excellent 10 days encompassing several sites within Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Nevada. 

We’ve been lucky enough to get a real taste of the diverse environments that California has to offer, from the searing deserts near Bishop’s Tuff to the geothermal springs and salt flats near Crowley Lake, to ancient Bristlecone Pines in Inyo County, descended Mammoth Mountain and explored the world-famous Yosemite, with views of the stunning El Capitan and Half-Dome. As an experience, it has been wonderful, opening doors in a part of United States that I may well have never visited. We’ve had access to some very good resources at the Sierra Nevada Aquatics Research Laboratory, and have had a lot of fun completing our research projects along the way (even if mine involved walking through a cold stream two days in a row). We’ve discovered that the group has diverse musical tastes, especially within the staff- exposure to acid house was not necessarily on my bucket list but is appreciated nonetheless.


Make no mistake, California is a deeply beautiful place. There are just so many stunning landscapes that it is almost hard to process, and that doesn’t necessarily mean Yosemite either. The Sierra Nevada and the Mammoth Mountain area was strikingly beautiful, in a very different way, as only drylands can I suppose. Trees make way for sparse, scraggly shrubbery, glacial moraines and a beautiful, pinkish light that makes photography in the evenings a dream- I took better images in the Sierra Nevada than in Yosemite. The previous trip saw multiple bears, so it was naturally disappointing to miss out this time around, especially as someone as wildlife-mad as me! Regardless, I was able to tick off 20 or so new species of American bird, including a very special sighting of a Bald Eagle at the side of Convict Lake, flying over our heads into a blend of a blazing sunset and a literal blaze- the Owens River Fire.


The Wildfire was strangely one of the highlights of the trip for me, as we saw the fire from it’s humble beginnings (with a small smoke plume as we drove into SNARL) into a raging inferno the next day, with an impressive Pyrocumulus cloud. I’ve learnt a lot about wildfire response and hazard management throughout modules at University as well as through school, so to see huge DC10 jets dropping fire retardant overhead, fire engines of every shape and size all over the town of Mammoth and the SkyCrane tanker helicopters, of Vietnam War vintage, taking off from the adjacent airport was a fascinating, inspiring experience. I’ve always had a strange obsession with the emergency services and their work, but to see the way wildfire is fought in person was an incredibly humbling experience. We had previously explored how wildfire is actually a natural, regenerative process in some ecosystems, and that management may actually be environmentally counterproductive- witnessing a fire in person however, felt very, very different.


The fire was disturbing beautiful, and the smoke plumes, whilst they killed the air quality, had an almost ethereal quality to them. It inspired my first poem of many a year, and made me really reconsider my photographic style and technique. In fact, the field trip was incredibly rewarding from an artistic perspective, which will sound completely mental to anyone who knows me as I’m about as artistic as a brick. Nonetheless it was, freeing my creative writing block that I’ve been fighting for months. Words inspired by Muir, Twain and the great landscapes of the region flowed (and continue to flow) beautifully, and that is the last thing I expected this fieldtrip to achieve!


It is very easy for me to say that the ‘experiential’ learning we did in California, designing dozens of mini research projects until we got them right, was brilliant, because it was. It is how I learn the best, and I know that the lessons learnt in the field on this trip will stand me in good stead for my coming dissertation and hopefully my later career. There is something to be said, however, from the development of the individual in the field- it isn’t all about the research, the lectures and the sessions- operating in an unfamiliar environment presents challenges that I absolutely relish, and I know that I’ve taken a lot away from that alone. I imagine others will have too.


Finally, there was a big emphasis early in the course on the concept of ‘wilderness’, and it’s taken a while for me to synthesise my thoughts on the matter. Wilderness could be seen as a colonial term to some extent, as these lands were never really wild- Yosemite was inhabited by Native Americans before they were turfed out by Burrell & Lafayette of the Mariposa Battalion. Thus they were not discovered- unless you mean by white, European settlers. Regardless, how do we define what is wild, especially in the technological age? Is it escaping the everyday hum of the internet, or going where no cars can be found (a la Rousseau)? If so, then perhaps Yosemite isn’t the place to be. Is it the potential for things to go wrong, with predators lurking out of sight? I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘wilderness’ as such does not exist, and it never really has. Regardless, humanity is constantly reaching, grasping for the most fleeting taste of wilderness, for that feeling of being ‘in the wild’. Strictly speaking, nearly every habitat on earth has been modified by humans, and thus in reality wilderness doesn’t exist as such- but that will not stop man and woman from camping under the stars, paddling from source to sea, and hiking deep into forgotten valleys. We primally desire, nay require, our earth to be wild, for their to be the unexplained and the unpredictable in an increasingly binary world.

In the words of the great Thoreau, in Walden:

‘We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable’.


And with those words ends a truly great field trip, one that I will cherish and remember for as long as I live. I’d like to express a sincere thanks to the Centre for Geography, Environment and Society for organising the trip, with special mention to every single member of staff who travelled with us for making it the memorable experience it was.

#CGESInTheField #CGESHeadingHome


Billy Burton,

San Francisco, USA.


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