YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK – PART TWO

BLOG #23, SERIES #4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #14
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK – PART TWO
June 12, 2013

I abjectly apologize for the long delay in completing The Great Circle. Just to recapitulate, Bob and Lucy Earp, and Connie and I were so impressed by Ken Burns’ magnificent PBS National Park Series films that we decided to personally explore our western national parks for ourselves. Since we’d also been impressed with Christine Barnes’ Great Lodges of the National Parks (aired just after the Burns and Duncan series by PBS) as well as the two books that preceded the film series, we decided to stay in those wonderful old lodges whenever possible.

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It took us two years to complete both the Northwest and Southwest portions of The Great Circle. However, the blogs that detailed our peregrinations came to a temporary halt on June 20, 2012; “temporary,” because I fully intended to return to the series in a couple of weeks, but so many timely, provocative, and interesting subjects intruded that almost a year has passed since then! This time, I promise we’ll complete the loop before I stray away again.

* * * * *

REENTER JOHN MUIR AND YOSEMITE

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It is impossible to read Duncan and Burns’ national parks blockbuster without being mesmerized by the role one man played in awakening the nation to a belated conviction that America’s endangered scenic wonders must be saved before it was too late.

John Muir (1838-1914) was born in Dunbar, Scotland, but moved when only nine to America. In 1867, while attending the University of Wisconsin, Madison, an industrial accident nearly cost him an eye. That near disaster changed the course of his life, for he abandoned his technical studies and devoted himself to nature. He walked from the Middle West to the Gulf of Mexico. In 1868, he trekked into then little known Yosemite Valley, which over time became his life’s lodestar. From this focal point he took many trips into Nevada, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska.

As early as 1876, Muir urged the federal government to adopt a forest conservation policy. The Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks were established in 1890. Early in 1899, President Grover Cleveland designated 13 national forests to be preserved from commercial exploitation; but powerful business groups persuaded the President to back off. But Muir penned two eloquent magazine articles that reversed the tide and swung public and Congressional opinion in favor of national forest reservations. Muir also influenced the large-scale conservation program of President Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1903, during his first term in office, accompanied Muir on a camping trip to the Yosemite region.

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The rest of Muir’s life was spent in almost continual battle with commercial interests determined to wrest control of America’s scenic wonderlands away from those who sought to preserve them for posterity. Though Muir won many such battles, one of his defeats all but broke his heart and hastened his death: the damming of Little Yosemite Valley and turning it into the Hetch Hetchy water reservoir for California’s Bay Area cities.

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Quite simply, Yosemite National Park is iconic in its being one of the world’s most famous wild spaces. Even in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln found time in 1864 to sign a Congressional bill granting Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Sequoias to the State of California as an inalienable public trust.

Today, in Mel White’s words, “Yosemite National Park, declared a World Heritage site in 1984 for its natural features, attracts more than 3.5 million visitors annually, most of whom see only the valley at its heart, a mile-wide, seven-mile-long area where the Merced River winds among waterfalls and granite monoliths.”

Among the wonders drawing tourists from around the world are the 620-feet-high Bridalveil Falls, the 3,000-feet-high El Capitan (the largest monolith of granite in the world), 8,842-feet-high Half Dome (Yosemite’s most recognized feature), 3,214-feet-high Glacier Point, three Redwood groves (the largest being the Mariposa Grove), 317-feet-high Vernal Falls, 500-feet-high Cascades, 370-feet-high Illilouette Fall, 600-feet-high Pywiak Cascade, 2,000-feet-high Sentinal Falls, 2,000-feet-high Snow Creek Falls, 1,612-feet-high Ribbon Fall, 1,250-feet-high Royal Arch Cascade, 700-feet-high Wildcat Fall, and the granddaddy of them all: 2,565-feet-high Yosemite Falls (including 1,430-feet-high Upper Fall, 320-feet-high Lower Fall, and the Cascades), besides the Park’s too many to count ephemeral falls [seasonal]. Mike Osborne says of the spectacular totality, “Many would argue that Yosemite National Park has the grandest assemblage of waterfalls in the world.” And there are many more in Yosemite’s high country (which few tourists ever reach). The spectacular Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, with its Horseshoe Falls, can only be reached by foot.

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Our visit will continue next week.

SOURCES USED

Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).

Northern California and Nevada Tour Book (Heathrow, Florida: AAA Publishing, 2009).

Osborne, Mike, Granite, Water, and Light: The Waterfalls of Yosemite Valley (Berkeley, California: Yosemite Association, 2009).

Walklet, Keith S., Yosemite: An Enduring Treasure (Berkeley, California: Yosemite Association, 2001).

SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #11 SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK – PART ONE

BLOG # 16, SERIES #3

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #11

SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK – PART ONE

APRIL 18, 2010

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Sequoias—the largest living things on earth—ought to be on everyone’s bucket list: something to see before you die.  They are also among the oldest living things on earth (enduring over 3,000 years).  Take the General Sherman sequoia, for instance.  It is more than 270 feet tall, 102 feet in circumference, and is estimated to be 2,100 years old (it was already a century old when Christ was born in a manger), and it should still be growing a thousand years from now.  A thirteen-story building would not even reach as high as its lowest branches.  It has enough lumber in it right now (it increases its girth 50 cubic feet a year) to stretch one by twelve boards, end-to-end 119 miles!  Heighth-wise, like all sequoias, it would have reached its maximum at around eight-hundred years.

Because of the value of its lumber, in all likelihood the sequoias would long since have been all cut down were it not that they are so massive and so heavy that when they do fall, they splinter into sections, shaking the earth like an earthquake.  Even so, it is a miracle that the species survives at all.

When the Pilgrims came to America, fully half of it was forested.  Indeed it was so vast and so dense that as late as the early nineteenth century, it was the common belief that much of the continent would still be unexplored a thousand years from then.  But then came the Industrial Revolution and Manifest Destiny; together, there was cranked up a juggernaut of such destructive power that entire forests were mowed down like so many matchsticks.  The sequoias would have been among them had not California’s Senator John Conness introduced a bill in 1864 to save the species from extinction.  Amazingly, even in the midst of the bloodiest war in our history, the Civil War, during which over 600,000 men died, there were enough senators who cared about preservation to push aside war matters long enough to pass the bill. It was said then that “These trees were alive when David danced before the Ark” and “The Mariposa Big Tree Grove is really the wonder of the world.”  When America’s first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, signed the bill on June 30, 1864, he had no way of knowing that he had just done something unprecedented in human history by setting aside in perpetuity sixty some square miles of wilderness land.  That moment represents the dividing line between destroying everything that blocks your way and the realization that preservation of beauty is essential for our well-being, both as a person and as a nation.

Galen Clark was chosen as the first guardian of these trees, ably supported by the U.S. Cavalry.  But from that day to this, fierce battles have continued to be fought by those seeking to preserve these sacred places and commercial interests determined to exploit them for personal gain.  It is being waged to this day: when “Drill Baby, Drill” is so infectious a siren call that those who counter with, “Wait, let’s first see what natural wonders might thereby be destroyed for all time,” are somehow viewed as little more than pesky obstructionists or ridiculed as “tree-huggers.”

Thus it was that the bill Lincoln signed was but the beginning of a ceaseless battle.  Enter John Muir, whose voice was so clear and his message so urgent, that he spawned a movement that continues to our time.  Duncan and Burns, in their monumental book, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, tell the fascinating story of a nation-changing meeting that almost wasn’t.  In the spring of 1903, Muir was so deeply disheartened by the obstructionists who were determined to prevent the Federal Government from putting teeth behind its preservation legislation that he was just about to abandon his futile efforts and escape on a trip to Europe and Asia when suddenly something totally unexpected happened: the new president, Teddy Roosevelt wanted to come out to California and make a trip into the endangered Sierras with him.  Muir canceled his foreign trip in hopes that somehow, sitting around a campfire, he might be able to do his cause some good.  What follows is so significant in the history of our nation that I’ll let Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns tell the riveting story in their own words:

On May 15, they set off from the town of Raymond for the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees in a caravan of wagons.  Muir was seated in the president’s coach—along with the governor of California, the secretary of the navy, the surgeon general, two college presidents, and Roosevelt’s personal secretary.  The other wagons carried more staff and dignitaries; a detachment of thirty African American troopers from the 9th Cavalry rode along as escorts.

It was hardly the trip he had been promised, but Muir tried his best to squeeze in words to the president and governor about the issue of making all of Yosemite a national park.  As they approached the grove of mighty sequoias, the president’s group paused, as all tourists did, for a photograph at the famous Wawona Tunnel Tree.  Later they posed for an official photograph lined up along the base of the Grizzly Giant, the oldest and most famous sequoia in Yosemite; estimated to be 2,700 years old.  It boasted a single branch that was six and a half feet in diameter.

Then the troops, the phalanx of reporters and photographers, and virtually all of the official party, headed back to the Wawona Hotel, where a series of receptions and a grand dinner were scheduled in the president’s honor that evening.  None of them knew that Roosevelt had no intention of attending.  Instead he remained behind with only Muir and a few park employees, who started preparing a camp at the base of one of the sequoias.  They built a fire and sat around it, eating a simple supper, talking as twilight enveloped them, getting to know one another in the glow of the blaze.

“The night was clear,” Roosevelt wrote, and “in the darkening aisles of the great sequoia grove . . . the majestic trunks, beautiful in color and symmetry, rose round us like the pillars of a mightier cathedral than ever was conceived even by the fervor of the Middle Ages.  Hermit thrushes sang beautifully in the evening.”  Roosevelt would later remark that “Muir cared little for birds or bird songs” —a failing the ornithologist-president found noteworthy.  Muir, in turn, could not help commenting on the President’s well-earned reputation for hunting.  “Mr. Roosevelt,” he asked, “when are you going to get beyond the boyishness of killing things?”

But it quickly became clear that under the darkening canopy of ancient trees, a deep friendship was being born.  “I had a perfectly glorious time,” Muir wrote his wife.

I never before had a more interesting, hearty, and manly companion.  I stuffed him pretty well regarding the timber thieves, the destructive work of the lumbermen, and other spoilers of the forest.

Long after sundown, with no tent and only a pile of army blankets for comfort and warmth, the two men finally went to sleep.  The next morning at 6:30 they saddled up for the long ride to Yosemite Valley, with the guide under strict orders from the president to avoid at all costs the Wawona Hotel and the delegation of officials he had jilted the night before.

In the high country near Glacier Point, with its spectacular panorama of the valley and its waterfalls arrayed at their feet, they stopped and once more made camp.  Then, their guide, Charlie Leidig, reported, they resumed their exchange of opinions and ideas.

Around the campfire Roosevelt and Muir talked far into the night regarding Muir’s glacial theory of the formation of Yosemite Valley.  They also talked a great deal about the protection of forests in general and Yosemite in particular. I heard them discussing the setting aside of other areas in the United States for park purposes.

“There was some difficulty in their campfire conversation,” Leidig added, “because both men wanted to do the talking.”

They awoke the next morning covered by a light snow that had fallen in the high country during the night.  Rather than feeling inconvenienced, Roosevelt couldn’t have been more thrilled., “We slept in a snowstorm last night!” he exclaimed to the crowds that [had] been patiently waiting for him on the valley floor.  “This has been the grandest day of my life.”

Hundreds of tourists had crowded into the valley’s hotels or established campsites in the meadows, all in hopes of seeing the president.  The board of commissioners in charge of the Yosemite Grant, already jealous of the way Muir had seemingly monopolized Roosevelt’s visit so far, planned to make up for lost time.  They had prepared a lavish banquet catered by a French chef borrowed from a swank San Francisco club, to be followed by $400 worth of fireworks, and then a grand illumination of Yosemite Falls by special calcium searchlights.  A comfortable bed with a cozy feather mattress was waiting in an artist’s studio that had been specially fitted out for the president’s private lodging.

Roosevelt would have none of it.  He paused long enough to shake some hands and talk for a few minutes with his disappointed hosts, and then mounted up and rode farther down the valley to camp one last night with Muir—this time in the meadows between Bridalveil Falls and the massive granite face of El Capitan.  Early the next morning, the wagon train of dignitaries, with its military escort, rushed the president back to the Raymond train station for the resumption of his cross-country tour, while Muir returned home to his writing.

“Camping with the President was a remarkable experience,” Muir told a friend.  “I fairly fell in love with him.”  Roosevelt, too, was changed by the experience.  “When he reached the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees [last] Friday evening the President was a tired, worried man,” the San Francisco Call reported.  “This evening he is bright, alert—the Roosevelt of old.”

And when the president spoke at the state capitol in Sacramento a day later, Roosevelt’s words sounded as if they could have come from the lips of John Muir.

Lying out at night under those Sequoias was lying in a temple built by no hand of man, a temple grander than any human architect could by any possibility build, and I hope for the preservation of the groves of giant trees simply because it would be a shame to our civilization to let them disappear.

 

They are monuments in themselves. . . .  I want them preserved.

 

I am impressed by the immensely greater greatness that lies in the future, and I ask that your marvelous natural resources be handed on unimpaired to your posterity.

 

We are not building this country of ours for a day.  It is to last through the ages.

Within three years, the California legislature and United States Congress approved the transfer of the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove back to the federal government.  Yosemite National Park now encompassed almost everything Muir had been fighting for.  “Sound the timbrel,” he wrote a friend, “and let every Yosemite tree and stream rejoice!”

I am now an experienced lobbyist; my political education is complete.  Have attended Legislature, made speeches, explained, exhorted, persuaded every mother’s son of the legislature, newspaper reporters, and everybody else who would listen to me.

 

 

And now that the fight is finished and my education as a politician and lobbyist is finished. I am almost finished myself.

(Duncan and Burns, 95-8).

We will continue the Sequoia story in next week’s blog (Wednesdays with Dr. Joe, April 25).

SOURCES USED

Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Kinopf, 2009).

Palmer, John J., Sequoia and Kings Canyon (Wickenburg, AZ: K. C. Publications, 2009).

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK – NORTH RIM

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #7

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK – NORTH RIM

 

February 8, 2012

“How long does it take to see the Grand Canyon?’

“From a moment to a lifetime.”

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado.  277 miles long, 10 miles wide, one mile deep.  It has been known for well over a century as the greatest scenic wonder in the world.  One of its earliest visitors, John Muir, was so awe-struck by it that he wrote of it,

Wildness so godful, cosmic, primeval, bestows a new sense of earth’s beauty and size.

John Wesley Powell, in 1869, pronounced it

The most sublime spectacle on earth.

Yet, even though it was generally acknowledged as such a global treasure, those who tried to save it for posterity faced fierce opposition from local ranchers, miners, settlers, and others who were determined to keep the federal government from imposing restrictions on what they could or couldn’t do with it.  It should have been the nation’s second national park; indeed bills were introduced to that effect in 1882, 1883, and 1886—all failed.  In 1893 President Harrison did what he could, inadequate though it was: he used his administrative power to designate it as the Grand Canyon Forest Reserve.  Twenty-six long years later, Teddy Roosevelt, in 1908, used his newly passed Antiquities Act to elevate it to national monument status.  Not until 1919 was it finally made a national park.  But even then, full federal protection was anything but a given: grazing was still permitted; as a result cattle herds roamed freely on both rims, the park was honeycombed with still active mining claims, and newly elected Arizona senator, Ralph Henry Cameron continued to act as though he—not the American people—owned the canyon.

Today, however, the Grand Canyon is loved to death by almost 5,000,000 tourists a year, over 4,000,000 of them congesting the South Rim, helping to make it one of the most photographed places on earth.

The Grand Canyon is really three distinctly different parks: The overcrowded South Rim, the forested North Rim’s Kaibab Plateau; and the Colorado River and its Phantom Ranch.

THE NORTH RIM’S GRAND CANYON LODGE

           

The Grand Canyon Lodge (the only lodging facility on the North Rim, is open only five months a year (mid-May to mid-October), and not always then, for snow can keep it closed later in the spring, and close it earlier in the fall.  Only one-tenth (400,000 plus) of the millions that mob the South Rim make it here, for though it is only a ten-mile glide across to the South Rim, it’s 215 miles by nearest road.  So it is actually closer to Zion National Park than to its own park headquarters.  To hike across is a daunting 23 miles.  Given that the North Rim is a thousand feet higher than the South Rim, hikers descend almost 6,000 feet on the famed Bright Angel Trail  from the North Rim and ascend almost 5,000 feet to the South Rim.  Climate-wise, hikers experience the equivalent of going from Canada’s Hudson Bay to Mexico and back up.  In Bruce Aiken’s words: “The Canyon is a nude of the earth.  It shows the layers, the bones beneath the skin—what’s beneath the vegetation that covers the rest of the world” (Jaffe, 116).

Matthew Jaffe, in his splendid paean to the North Canyon, maintains that you don’t really know the Grand Canyon until you explore the uncrowded North Rim.  It is truly a different world.  Serene.  Quiet.  The travelers who make it here are the connoisseurs of the world travel, and are almost afraid to speak out, or write about its glories, for fear the rest of the world will discover it and wreck their Shangri-la..

As for the lodge itself, as always, Christine Barnes is the ultimate authority for its story.  The Utah Parks Company (UPC) and National Park Service (NPS) were so pleased with architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood’s Bryce and Zion lodges that they contracted with him to create a great lodge on the North Rim, as soon as he completed the Ahwahnee in Yosemite.  The result, according to Barnes, is that “Grand Canyon Lodge is architecturally and geographically linked to Bryce and Zion Park lodges, but its elegance and panache seem to have sprung from the same inspiration that created the hotel in Yosemite.  While the Ahwahnee’s success had been the elegant incorporation of the hotel with the towering walls of granite, on the North Rim the architect would look down for his inspiration” (Barnes, 137).

Underwood magically created a lodge that prevented visitors arriving from the north from any view of the Canyon until they’d first encountered a huge front of stone that was crowned by a watchtower.  As guests walked into the lodge, they’d initially see only timber and stone-work, but then they’d see the light which would draw them to the stairway, into the sunroom and into the lobby—then “BOOM! There’s the Grand Canyon” (Barnes, 137).  Outdoor terraces and stairways cascaded down from the lodge.

Flanking the lodge on both sides were one hundred Standard Cabins and twenty Deluxe Cabins; in 1931, less expensive Housekeeping Cabins were constructed near the campground away from the rim.  Since the site didn’t have water, they had to pipe it up from Roaring Springs, 3,400 feet below the rim.  On June 1, 1928, the lodge and cabins opened with accommodations for 250 guests.  Tourists were bussed in from the railroad terminal in Cedar City, Utah.

But then, on September 1, 1932, disaster!  Fire broke out in the lodge in the middle of the night.  Employees and workers battled the blaze for but a short time when the water pressure gave out, dooming the lodge and two Deluxe Cabins.  All that remained were stone walls, foundations, terraces, stairways, and fireplaces.  Horace Albright, NPS director, was devastated at the loss.  Two years later, the UPC began rebuilding the lodge on the same footprint, but Underwood was not involved.  The first floor plan remained as before, and the lodge we know today is still a wonderful place, but Christine Barnes laments, “But the marvelous sense of the building in perfect harmony with the rim was partially lost.  From the canyon wall the original lodge still rises, but the asymmetrical stairstep quality of the walls and rooflines with their rich texture are mostly gone.  Instead, the design was simplified and capped with a traditional green gable roof” (Barnes, 141).  The eighteen surviving Deluxe Cabins and the reconstructed lodge reopened on June 1, 1937.  They’re still there.

OUR OWN JOURNEY

We awoke at 6:30, and ate breakfast at Zion Lodge at 8:00; then drove out of Zion National Park via Carmel Junction, and headed south across the Arizona border onto the Kaibab Plateau.  I’ve always felt the Kaibab ought to have been part of Utah rather than Arizona, for it seems a world away from the rest of Arizona.  Alas, the Warm Fire of 2006 burned over 58,000 acres of the once lush forest.  But how grateful we were to discover that the fire had spared the rim area and the lodge.  Also grateful that we’d reserved our Deluxe Cabin over a year before.  And imagine how we felt when we discovered that the lodge had only been open one day!  Whenever we were tempted to complain about anything, we asked ourselves if we’d been able to do any better when everything had been snowed in for seven long months!  Actually, there were very few glitches, even so.  Just as was true with Bryce, the North Rim concessions were run by FOREVER Resorts.  And true to their word, they’d saved us Deluxe Cabins to die for, right on the rim next to the lodge; and sitting in rockers on our porch, we could look down, down, and down the almost 6,000 foot-drop to the Colorado River.

But before our rooms were cleaned, we first had to experience once again Underwood’s staggering surprise.  I submit that in all of America’s wondrous national park lodges, there are only two that literally take your breath away: walking up the stairs of Jackson lake Lodge, and suddenly, on the other side of the wall of glass are Mount Moran and the Grand Tetons soaring above Jackson Lake; and, second, stepping down into the Sun Room or into the Dining Room of Grand Canyon Lodge and suddenly, one of the most stunning views the world has to offer: the depths of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado!  Guests are too awestruck to say much: they just stand there by the great windows–transfixed as time seems to stand still.

At 4:00 p.m., we brought our luggage in from the car and unpacked for two whole days.  Glory be!  In the evening, as the sun began to die in the West, we gazed out from our table near a window, and were too overwhelmed to say much.  Not until the shadows closed in.  Afterwards, we returned to that eighty-three-year-old cabin, mercifully spared from burning down with the lodge, even though it was the closest self-standing structure on that side.  Eighty-three years of blizzards, rainstorms, and fierce winds.  We lit the fire in the fireplace, crawled in bed, and listened to the wind and cabin walls complain!

          

Next morning, outside our window—that view!  A view so stupendous it will remain limned in memory as long as we live. Same next door in Bob and Lucy Earp’s cabin.  Bob had been up with camera since before sunrise.  The day passed all too quickly, beginning with breakfast in that iconic dining room; sharing the experience were tourists from all over the world, as cosmopolitan a group as you’d ever get into one room.  Europeans confessed that they’d never seen anything to compare with it! Later, Connie and Lucy washed and dried our laundry in the campground washateria.  Then Bob and I went shutterbugging down the rim to Point Imperial and Point Roosevelt, managing to get thirty miles lost in the process.  Afterwards, thanked Sonya Michaels, the lodge manager, for all she and her staff had done to make our stay so special—everyone so eager to please.  In midafternoon, we listened to a riveting lecture on condors.

After dinner, we played Phase Ten, and I, for once, beat Robert.  That night the wind really blew!  But snuggled together in the Cabin of our Dreams, we felt it would be hard to conceptualize a greater experience than this.  We fell asleep wondering if it would really snow the next day as some had predicted.

SOURCES

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks I (Bend, OR: W. W. West, Inc., 2002).

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred Knopf/Random House, 2009).

Jaffe, Matthew, “The Secret Canyon” (Sunset Magazine, May 2007).

Scott, David L. and Kay W., The Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1998, 2009).

White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C., National Geographic Society, 2009).

A Trembling World, Part Two

 A TREMBLING WORLD
 Part Two

 WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

In earlier blogs, I have referred to my own fascination with the turning of zeroes, how every fin de siecle results in a fruit basket-upset of all the values by which society lives.

Well, the last eleven years have proved that my assumption remains valid.  Almost nothing is the same as it was back in the 1990’s.

For one thing, never before has our planet been more interconnected, with national borders meaning less than today.  The world wide web has nailed the lid on that old order.  Thanks to this web, dictatorships are falling like so many dominoes in the Middle East.  But what takes their place is anyone’s guess.

Perhaps the supreme question is this: Is democracy possible in the Muslim World?  Or does the theocratic nature of Islam preclude the establishment of a true democracy.  As I write these words, thoughtful Egyptians are extremely apprehensive about what may follow Mubarak.  No one knows if Tunisia is capable of establishing a free society.  The same is true of Libya.  Turkey has been tilting backwards from a secular free society towards theocratic governance.

What we do know is that all across the Middle East there is a yearning for the freedoms we westerners take for granted.

STAGGERING TOWARDS A NEW TEMPLATE

What is coming at us, no one knows.  All we know is that there are ominously deep cracks in the old one.  According to famed economist, Kenneth Rogoff, “Europe and the U.S. are not experiencing a typical recession or even a double-dip Great Recession. That problem can ultimately be corrected with the right mix of conventional policy tools like quantitative easing and massive bailouts.  Rather, the West is going through something much more profound: a second Great Contraction of growth, the first being the period after the Great Depression.  It is a slow-or no-growth waltz that plays out not over months but over many years. [Quoted by Rana Foroohar, in “The Decline and Fall of Europe (and maybe the West),” Time, August 22, 2011].

In the U.S., as elsewhere in the world, what is desperately needed is not politicians but statesmen: men and women who put the good of their country over mere re-election.  In times like these, weakness at the top will inevitably prove fatal.  Not a temporizing Chamberlain but a Washington, a Lincoln, a TR or FDR—a Winston Churchill.  This is why so many current “leaders” are going to be “weighed in the balances and found wanting.” (See William Broyles “Oval Office Appeaser” (Newsweek, Aug. 22, 29, 2011).

Foroohar is anything but optimistic in her analysis: “The euro is the only viable alternative to the dollar as a global reserve currency.  The British pound is history, and emerging-market currencies are still too small, volatile and controlled.  And while plenty of investors are fleeing into gold, the world gold market isn’t big enough to accommodate serious dollar diversification without massive inflation in gold itself. . . .  It is unclear at this stage whether the euro will even survive the debt crisis that has engulfed Europe, one that is in many ways worse than the one we’re experiencing in the U.S.”

So, will Germany be the white horse that rides to Europe’s rescue” Foroohar is doubtful: “Even in good times, it is never easy to balance the fiscal needs of a high-cost exporter like Germany with those of cheap and cheerful service economies like Greece, Spain, and Portugal.  In bad times, it’s impossible.”

What about the U.S., are we likely to be the white horse again like we were after World Wars I and II?  Foroohar’s assessment of that likelihood is bleak: “both Europe and the U.S. will continue to struggle with the crisis of the old order.  Populations will have to come to terms with no longer being able to afford the public services they want.  Investors will have to cope with a world in which AAA assets aren’t what they used to be.  Businesses will deal with stagnating demand, and workers will face flat wages and high unemployment. . . .  It’s the end of an era in which the West and western ideas of how to create prosperity succeeded.  The crisis in Europe and the challenges yet to come on either side of the Atlantic take us into a whole new era.”

So, with Japan still reeling in the East, does that leave China as the answer?  Not likely.  China’s current growth rate of 8% will inevitably stall, and ominously its people are pouring billions into a housing bubble that may be even worse than those experienced by Japan and the U.S. (See Niall Ferguson’s “Gloating China, Hidden Problems,” Newsweek, August 22, 29, 2011).

So what are our options?

Next Wednesday, we’ll discuss some of them.