Friday, November 14, 2014

If These Cliffs Could Talk: Tis-sa-ack and Tu-tok-a-nu-la (A Geologic Love Story)

Tis-sa-ack (Half Dome) from near Yosemite Falls

A love story...

Unnumbered snows have come and gone since The Great Spirit led a band of his favorite children into the mountains, and bade them rest in this beautiful Valley of Ah-wah-nee. They were weary and footsore, and were glad to rest after their long journey. Here they found food in abundance. The streams held swarms of fish, meadows were knee-deep in sweet clover, great herds of deer roamed the forests in the Valley, and on the high mountains, oak trees were bending under the weight of their acorns, grass seeds and wild fruits and berries grew in bountiful profusion. Here they stayed and built their villages. They were happy, and multiplied, and prospered and became a great nation.

North Dome, Washington Column, and Half Dome in the clouds

How many stories begin in paradise?

I find the myths of different cultures to be fascinating. They provided their people with an explanation of the unexplainable, a comforting story that suggests there is order in the apparent chaos of the universe. In the perspective of geology, we can sometimes see the whispers of eyewitnesses to significant geologic events: the eruption of Mt. Mazama, for instance, which resulted in the formation of Crater Lake, is described in Native American oral histories. In this post we see one of the legends of Yosemite Valley, with all the embellishments and cultural biases of a 1922 narrative. Still, it's a good story

To their chief came a little son to gladden his heart. They wanted this son to become a great chief, capable of the leadership of a great people. He was made to sleep in the robes of the skins of the beaver and the coyote, that he might grow wise in building and keen of scent. As he grew older he was fed the meat of the fish, that he might become a strong swimmer, and the flesh of the deer, that he might be light and swift of foot. He was made to eat the eggs of the great crane, that he might be keen of sight. He was wrapped in the skin of the monarch of the forest, the grizzly bear, that he might grow up fearless and strong in combat. 

So many stories come with the hero, and the most interesting stories have heroes with flaws...they had everything. But then things happen. The world and the people who live in it are not perfect. And frankly, life would not be interesting.

And, when he grew to manhood, he was a great chief and beloved of all the people. His people prepared for him a lofty throne on the crown of the great rock which guards The Gateway of the Valley, and he was called Tu-tok-a-nu-la, after the great cranes that lived in the meadow near the top. The people of Ah-wah-nee were happy, for Tu-tok-a-nu-la was a wise and a good ruler. From his high rocky throne he kept watch over the Valley and the people whom he loved. He called on The Great Spirit who sent timely rains, so that the acorns grew in abundance, the hunters returned from the forests with game, and the fishermen from the streams with fish. There was peace and plenty throughout the Valley of Ah-wah-nee, and when Tu-tok-a-nu-la held speech with his people from his high throne his voice was deep and strong like the deep sound of the waterfall.

Tis-sa-ack from Sentinel Bridge

But paradise can't last forever. Trouble was coming, or more to the point, the trouble lay hidden in the heart of the hero, and it was about to be made manifest. There were no doubt all kinds of communications between the many Native American bands in California, and the trading of knowledge and technology. I'm sure this led to problems at times as well.

One day as Tu-tok-a-nu-la sat gazing into the glowing colors of the west, he saw approaching his valley a strange people, led by a maiden of wondrous loveliness. He called to them and the maiden answered him, saying, "It is I, Tis-sa-ack. We have come from the land of my people in the far south to visit with you. We have heard of the great and good chief, Tu-tok-a-nu-la, of his great people and his wonderful valley. We bring presents of baskets and beads and skins. After we have rested we will return to my people in the far south." Tu-tok-a-nu-la welcomed the fair visitor from the land to the
south and had prepared for her and her people a home on the summit of the great dome at the eastern end of the Valley. There she stayed and taught the women of Ah-wah-nee the arts of her people. Tu-tok-a-nu-la visited her often in her mountain home. He was charmed by her wonderful beauty and sweetness, and begged her to stay and become his wife, but she denied him, saying: "No, I must soon return with my people to their home in the far south." And, when Tu-tok-a-nu-la grew importunate in his wooing, she left her home in the night and was never seen again.
To-ko-ya (North Dome), Nangas (Washington Column) and Tis-sa-ack (Half Dome) from Glacier Point. The Ahwiyah Point rockfall scar is visible just right of center below Half Dome.

The perfect women, the Helen of Troy, the Eve. Of course, perfection is a tricky concept, subject to many biases and assumptions. It doesn't much take into account the actual relationship between those involved. As Mr. Spock mentioned in a famous episode of Star Trek: "After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting". Bad things are about to happen.

I admit, I've never heard the word importunate before. 

When the great chief knew that she was gone, a terrible loneliness and sorrow came to him, and he wandered away through the forests in search of her, forgetting his people in Ah-wah-nee. So strong was his love for her, and so deep his sorrow, that he forgot to call upon The Great Spirit to send the timely rains. So great was his neglect that the streams grew smaller and smaller and finally became dry. The crops failed. The hunters came back from the forests without meat, and the fishermen returned from the streams empty-handed. The leaves and the green acorns fell from the trees, and the bright flowers and green grasses became dry and brown.

From Washburn Point it is obvious that Half Dome isn't just a boring name, it is a mathematically wrong name. Three-Quarter Dome, maybe. I would just go with Tis-sa-ack

This is where the geologist in me starts paying attention. California has droughts, and there is evidence of mega-droughts that lasted more than a century. Check out this post for some of the striking evidence. These droughts both occurred within the last 2,000 years, recently enough to be remembered in the oral histories of a people.

And then things get interesting in a hurry...

The Great Spirit became very angry with Tu-tok-a-nu-la. The earth trembled with his wrath so that the rocks fell down into the Valley from the surrounding cliffs. The sky and the mountains belched forth smoke and flame. The great dome that had been the home of Tis-sa-ack, was rent asunder and half of it fell into the Valley. The melting snows from the high mountains came down into the Valley in a flood and drowned hundreds of the people. But the wrath of The Great Spirit was quickly spent, and the heavens again grew quiet. The floods receded, the sun shone, and once more peace and calm reigned over Ah-wah-nee. The life-giving moisture from the renewed streams crept into the parched soil. The oak trees put on new leaves and acorns. The grasses again became fresh and green, the flowers lifted their drooping heads and took on their old gay colors. The fish came back to the streams, and the game to the forests.


"The earth that the rocks fell down into the Valley from the surrounding cliffs". Earthquakes have rocked California for a lot longer than humans have been around, and no doubt played an important part in causing mass wasting within the valley. John Muir experienced the 1872 Lone Pine earthquake while in Yosemite Valley (magnitude 7.8 or higher) and witnessed the collapse of a cliff. I've witnessed a few small rockfalls that I will never forget. Imagine the impact of a really large quake and the accompanying rock falls on the collective memory of a people.

"The sky and mountains belched forth smoke and flame". Yosemite lies just west of the Long Valley Caldera and the Mono Craters, and eruptions have occurred there as recently as a few hundred years ago. Imagine the impact of a fair-sized eruption over the mountains on a people who maybe had never witnessed such a thing, or only heard about it in legends.

"The melting snows from the high mountains came down into the Valley in a flood and drowned hundreds of the people." It's not hard to imagine the impact of a Pineapple Express (an atmospheric river storm) falling onto a thick snowpack in the mountains above Yosemite Valley. Such an event took place in 1997 (be sure to check out the video). Much of the valley floor was covered by as much as 6-8 feet of water, and the event was devastating to the human developments in Yosemite Valley.

Ironically, the natural environment was far less devastated. The ecosystem of Yosemite evolved in an environment of occasional huge floods, and life sprang back quickly.

And, when the Valley was once again clothed in beauty and plenty, there appeared on the rent face of the dome which had been her home, the beautiful face of Tis-sa-ack, where it can still be seen to this day. And the dome was named Tis-sa-ack, in memory of the fair visitor who had been loved by all the people of Ah-wah-nee. At the same time, that all might hold his memory in their hearts, there appeared on the face of the great rock supporting his throne, the majestic figure of the great chief, dressed in a flowing robe and pointing a finger to where he had gone, to El-o-win, the happy land beyond the setting sun.

And thus we have the story of how Half Dome, Washington Column, and North Dome came to be. I am struck by how lifeless these names actually are, and I wish we could see their names changed to reflect the very interesting stories of their origins.

We have stories too of the formation of how these rocks came to be. They involve the formation of granitic magma deep in the hellish regions of the Earth's crust, the intrusion and cooling of the granite, the uplift and erosion of the rocks by rivers and glaciers, and the shaping of the rocks by the working of jointing, exfoliation, ice, and mass wasting. It's a good story, based on careful observations, but the ancient legends? They were based on careful observations as well. The Native Americans maybe didn't have the technology we have today, but they did a pretty good job of describing the phenomena, and designing models to explain their observations. 
This version of the Half Dome story is from The Lore and the Lure of The Yosemite by Herbert Earl Wilson, published in 1922. Another legend of Half Dome involves an argument between a husband and wife, with thrown baskets and other unpleasantness. I like the story above better!


Anonymous said...

I have not heard it told that way, I had previously only heard the throwing of baskets and a great marital disagreement that angered the great spirit.

Doug N

RobsGoldVine said...

Thank you for this story Gary. It is a compelling story full of humanity. It is hard for us, with our modern knowledge, to imagine how we would explain or understand events such as prolonged droughts, eruptions, earthquakes when we had no science and only oral histories.

I read this story aloud to myself and was quiet moved by it. In Australia we have similar stories - Dreamtime stories - and sadly many have been lost in just a few hundred years.

RobsGoldVine said...