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Hetch Hetchy, Yosemite, and the battle for National Parks

Video transcript

[Music] we're in the galleries at the wodsworth Athenaeum looking at a large painting by Albert Bierstadt called the Hetch Hetchy Valley California when we think about the amazing national parks out west we might think about Yosemite and in fact Hetch Hetchy is within the boundaries of Yosemite Hetch Hetchy Valley it was formed by the same glaciers that formed give a seventy Valley you have incredible cliffs beautiful autumn foliage and the Ptolemy's River meandering quietly but we can't go visit it anymore and look at this same scene Hetch Hetchy Valley was dammed in 1923 in order to provide water supply for the city of San Francisco so if we were gonna go look at this now we would see those towering granite cliffs but where the valley is is an enormous reservoir it's been completely flooded so all of what you see in the middle ground and in the distance is underwater there was a huge public outcry about this and quite a battle between those who wanted to protect this valley but others who felt that the need for water for the growing city of San Francisco was a priority naturalist like John Muir visited Hetch Hetchy Valley and sang its praises and soon began to fear what would happen if this dam was built there was such rapid development in America throughout the nineteenth century and one of the things that we see in American landscape painting is this feeling that we're watching Americans develop the land and create industry and create wealth but at the same time we're watching this landscape disappear Bierstadt earlier in his career was part of a Geological Survey to help reveal to Easterners what the West looked like these were remote places people on the East Coast were reading about them in newspapers and magazines and in books but seeing a painting by Bierce that in full-color on a grand scale captured people's imagination that sense that God created nature is so important to the Hudson River School painters but ironically was also part of manifest destiny and led to westward migration which would impact the same land and I think your stat does give us that sense that the West was this place that was an Eden it was God's Cathedral it was a place where you could escape from the turmoil of modern life but at the same time the idea that this was uncharted territory was a misconception because indigenous peoples Native Americans had long lived in this area and were in fact forever impacted by westward migration it's been suggested that in the center of the painting these puffs of smoke were part of an Indian encampment which is possible but at this point in the late 19th century the area had been largely affected by the displacement of indigenous peoples and bierstadt was part of a generation that attempted to document the customs of Native Americans and what he considered to be a vanishing people so here we are in the early 1870s the West as an idea becomes apparent after the Civil War where artists were aware of the increased access to the West there was also this emerging interest in vanishing cultures whether that was the American cowboy or Native Americans and the idea that the East was an area of conflict and the West was an area of promise and escaped hold strong for someone like Albert Bierstadt the mountains feed back into luminous mist and there's a softness to the forms but we've got detail in the foreground with specificity of leaves of trees of moss Bierstadt has a wonderful tiny inclusion on the lower left of a figure who appears to be holding a sketchbook and surveying the patch Hetchy Valley before him the figure may be a stand-in for the artist or it may be a stand-in for how the country was looking west after the Civil War John Muir when he talked about Hetch Hetchy described it in beautiful terms Hetch Hetchy Valley is a grand landscape garden one of nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples to sublime rocks of its walls seem to glow with life whether leaning back and repose or standing erect in thoughtful attitudes giving welcome to storms and calms alike their brows in the sky their feet set in the groves and gay flowery meadows while birds bees and butterflies help the river and waterfalls to stir all the air into music since that time environmentalists have bemoaned the fact that this area was dammed there are a lot of efforts to restore Hetch Hetchy Valley to remove the water to allow the plants and trees to grow back muir did say when the battle for Hetch Hetchy was lost the long drawn-out battle for nature's gardens has not been thrown away the conscience of the whole country has been aroused from sleep and from outrageous evil compensating good in some form must surely come so the idea of what could be lost was very clear in the public mind thanks to a touchy you