The Roman poet, Ovid, was banished to the outskirts of Thrace (now Romania, around the edge of the Black Sea); at the edge of the known world. Surrounded by hostile tribesmen in the middle of Terra Incognita (or the Latin version of that idiom); Ovid did what any decent writer would do: he wrote about his circumstances. The cool part is that we still know about the man and the works he wrote in (and about) his exile; Ibis, Tristae, George, and Ringo.

Even though I’m not in Ovid’s weight class, at the time and place of writing (late October 2020, in Yosemite National Park); I feel like I’m also at the edge of the known world. The Yosemite of today bears very little resemblance to the one of my youth, and that’s generally for the better — the forest is better managed so that the park isn’t a massive tinderbox that periodically explodes, and there are far fewer people than usual. The latter is obviously due to a new plague destroying society — and, before accusations of recklessness come in; I should point out that this is a family trip, and interpersonal maneuvering in my gene pool makes the tales of Brutus, Nero, and Caesar look like schoolboy pranks.

However, the plague, and the fact that I’m now downwind of some massive infernos reinforces a feeling in my generation that we’re hanging on to a cliff ledge in time and space (or time and ecology, to be more precise), and our fingers are slipping. If only we’d raked the forests more.

Yosemite has long been a canary in the coal mine for ecological trends. This is still the only park I know of (although I’m sure others have followed) that requires visitors to remove even grocery receipts from cars as a way to discourage bears from breaking into cars. And, now, I feel like we’re at another weird, trend-setting, tipping point in time and space. And, like so many other ecological trends, Yosemite is ground zero.

Today, Yosemite is nearly-deserted. Which is sort of upsetting, until you start researching the number of ghost towns on the West Coast. If ghosts were real, California would have a serious poltergeist infestation.

I only bring that up because I was near Curry Village — hey, the calendar said there was a taco truck in the vicinity, and you absolutely can not tell native Californians that there is a taco truck and not expect us to investigate (also, for the record, there is no taco truck; I think I took the news of my hamster’s death at age four better)(I mean, you can always get another rodent; good Mexican food is a much harder find) — it was like a ghost town. All of my memories of the place seem to increase my overall impression that humans have an overpopulation issue. Now, humans are — if not rare, then certainly far-fewer and less-visible in the park than any of my other memories.

And, unsurprisingly, the wildlife is benefiting from that. I saw a bear in the daytime, in the wild, at Yosemite. That might seem like a, “Does a bear crap in the woods” level of obvious stupidity, except black bears are nocturnal, and tend to prefer dumpsters to acorns, and I’ve never seen one in a natural setting (in dumps and suburban settings, ironically, they’re fairly common, and I’ve seen bears semi-frequently in that setting). Yet, here they were, rooting for acorns. And, oddly enough, in that late-afternoon shadow dappling, their black fur camouflages them very well. All of this within view of vehicles (or a few vehicles, to be more accurate).

It’s kind of like watching David Attenborough’s grand view of future ( in which mankind lives in harmony with technology in a completely sustainable fashion. Which, upon thinking of it, is kind of the 21st century way of saying, “Let future generations deal with it,” but no one will know until roving bands of cannibals unite in the 22nd century to compare notes. Except, here’s the freaky part, it was actually happening in front of me — Callenbach in real-time — in 2020. I swear to god, there was an actual “bear patrol,” and rangers were required go and shoot paintballs at any bears that got too close to any picanic baskets. We’re not in the apocalypse, we’re trapped in a Jack Hannah short from the planetary view.

On the one hand, 222000 American lives seems like a steep price to pay to lean the lesson, “If we all literally did a little less damage to the planet, we could create paradise here, like that Joni Mitchell song in reverse!”

On the other hand, it’s heartening to get to ask the ultimate Ask A Survivor question:

Q: What happens if others vote/get to decide my fate without my consent or input?

It’s both disheartening to see a national park so devoid of human life; on the other hand, “devoid of human life” is the natural, default setting of the natural world, depressing though that may be. So, yeah, I’m worried about many, many things (especially the election, whenever that is), BUT, I’m not worried about the planet and our precarious ecosystems. I now have some solid first-hand evidence that just minimizing our presence is enough to tip the balance of nature. On the other hand, I’m still getting over the naked price gouging involved in charging $20 for a good-but-not-great Caesar Salad.

Written by

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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