(Muir)eflections and the dilemma of poppies as tourist attractions.

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I went with Eric a couple weeks ago to the Walker Canyon California poppy super-bloom in Lake Elsinore, and the number of people there to see it was just below Disneyland at full capacity.  If I had to guess, I’d say there were about as many spectators as there were innocent poppies being trampled.

As fascinating as the number of people, though, was the variety of folks who showed up for this once-every-several-years show put on by God and Mother Nature. During the two mile in-and-back jaunt, I spied people in head-to-toe hiking gear, complete with neck-shade mullet hat, hiking poles, and mid-shin lace boots. Then, on the other end of the preparedness spectrum were those I can only guess had come directly to the hiking trails from church. Skirts, bejeweled sandals and even high heels were spotted along the rough gravelly incline.

I observed people wearing so many articles of clothing to block out the sun, they had essentially invented the burka of hiking apparel – eyes the only visible humanness beneath sweat drenched Northface attire. There were also girls wearing next to nothing, in sports bras and dolphin shorts, soaking up the first ninety degree day since early November, and sporting the pink shoulders and gawking men to prove it.

Dogs were also out in full force. Some just as you’d expect – leashed and bouncy and taking their owners for walks along the bunny-scented trail. What I wasn’t ready for was the dogs inside of backpacks: dogs too small or frail to walk along the trail, but whose parents KNEW they’d simply love to be brought out to the wilderness in a satchel to witness the poppy bloom from the safety of a Doggy Bjorn. Perhaps these were ailing “Make A Wish” dogs who had to see a field full of poppies a la Wizard of Oz before heading to canine heaven. It’s hard to imagine what else a Lhasa Apso would want with a poppy bloom, unless the blossoms have Pupperonis for stems.

My favorite dogs of the day were two brown teacup poodles – one boy and one girl. How did I know their genders at a glance? The girl was wearing a lace-trimmed gingham dress, and the boy was wearing lederhosen, obviously. These groomed, clothed dogs had to have been mortified being brought to a location where coyotes regularly romp and drag possum carcasses along the very same trail. It was a sad moment for evolution.

Our attendance at this event of nature was able to provide an answer to a pressing existential question: if wild poppies bloom on a hillside, and activewear-clad women don’t take twenty selfies in front of them, did wild poppies actually bloom on a hillside? The answer, according to what I witnessed, is unequivocally “no”.

I couldn’t help but wince a bit each time another girl lay down in a patch, friends hovering above with their iPhones, telling her “putting your arm above your head” and “turn your face toward the light” as a hundred and fifty poppies allowed their stems to give out under the weight of her body, never again to turn their faces to the sun.

In the masses of spectators, I pondered whether natural phenomena and the hordes they attract are advantageous or detrimental for our Earth. It conjured memories of the hundreds of cars I witnessed, lined up to enter Arches National Park, bumper-to-bumper traffic created by the beauty God and nature and time and weather had crafted. Or likewise, the thousands on the trail up to delicate arch, just waiting to snap their own photo in front of the famed piece of God’s handiwork – turning a feat of nature into a veritable county-fair backdrop with a face cutout.

Is nature glad to be observed? Even when it becomes a tourist attraction? When it becomes Niagara Falls on the Canada side, with mini-golf and Ripley’s museums and poutine restaurants all competing with the natural wonder? Am I justified when, for a moment, I hang my head in dismay at how we’ve cheapened creation?

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I imagine Muir in a canoe in the Alaskan wilderness – the lone witness of ice shards cracking off turquoise blue glaciers. The single audience member to meteor showers and howling packs of wolves and towering sequoias. As my mind pans back to “Poppyland”, I ask myself, “Is this what Muir envisioned?” When he arranged for essentially the first Alaskan tourism boat trips- thus paving the way for the Alaskan cruise industry, and when he forged trails meant for others to follow – was his goal for thousands of selfie-stick wielding men and women with chihuahuas in backpacks to witness these wonders?

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In the end, I do believe nature is for everyone, and that whatever woos us outside from our NCIS stupors, be it a geyser that sprays sulfuric waters every hour on the hour (give or take), weathered rocks forged into arches, or even a poppy super-bloom, I have to call it positive – maybe even wonderful.

I become disquieted, however, when we all show up at once, creating a circus spectacle from the wonder afforded by natural miracles. The lesson, I suppose, is to see every wondrous natural event one can, and rub shoulders happily with the hiking pole users, selfie-takers, and dog costumers alike – appreciating that Mother Earth still draws theme-park-sized crowds. But – and as PeeWee would say, it’s a BIG “but” – one should also seek the solitude creation waves tantalizingly before us. We should press on past the crowds – to the Muir Moments – creamsicle sunsets viewed in seclusion, a caterpillar inching across the road with no one around to mistakenly trample upon him, the stillness of the night beyond freeway cadences and power line buzzes – nights so quiet, that rustling in the grass could be a sparrow or a grizzly – because every noise is deafening.

Then, and only then, will we know whether the tree that falls in the forest makes a sound, and how deeply the Earth can restore our weary souls.

“The grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never dried all at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.” – John Muir

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*Photos by Eric and Miriam Bernard

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