Season of Water

This has been the season of water.  I can’t ever remember seeing so much water flowing.  And it’s remarkable when you have the time to be in nature and consider what it’s saying.  What does it mean to be human, being born into this world and continuing to age and to grow.


Observing these realities continues to promote my own education – marveling and humbled by the flow of nature, living in the Tuolumne campground all summer long, constantly exposed to these elements – wind, cloud, rain, early morning fires, and observing sunrises with the Tuolumne river flowing just a few hundred feet away.  I’ve been sleeping on the ground in the same spot for the fifth summer in a row.  The trees and the boulder feel closer, like family members next to you, and the respect that I have for them has grown because of this fact of sharing this space, which continues to bring me into the context of sense of place and the indigenous reality that all of us carry in our DNA.


From all these unique spots high in the Sierra the Tuolumne River flows into Hetch Hetchy in one direction, or down the Merced River in the other.  As the water flows down and gets trapped in dams and diverted into canals and aqueducts, its message also gets clogged and lost.  We don’t know what rocks it touched, what canyons it shaped, what waterfalls it created. We are connected by this history, but we have lost its meaning.

Life for me in Yosemite is about migrating with the earth’s rotation.  This summer felt so short because the campground in Tuolumne opened late due to the snow.  Already, the earth’s movement has asserted itself, and the changing season has taken me back down to 2,000 feet in El Portal, where I’m observing the Merced River that continues to drain out the water from the higher country.  I find myself sitting with the fire already going with winter wanting to show up early.

It’s fun to reflect on the past summer and the 12 foster youth that came up to the Tuolumne camp.  It felt really great to be with them, a lot of laughter and visiting and exploring Tuolumne Meadows, and lots of good food prepared by Katie.  It inspires us to come up with a language of what we mean by education nature’s way, and the three years we have been involved with this. In the third year of bringing Merced youths to Yosemite through Sacred Rok, one reflection is this: “What’s wrong with us humans?  Can’t we listen to what these young people are saying?”  My connections with them have been an incredible inspiration to me.

What the Sacred Rok youth are telling me is the power of our “relations.”  I say this in the indigenous sense of the Miwok elders who use the term relations: every act has a relation to the land and to the elements of water, sun, wind, animals, plant life and kin.  At Sacred Rok, our key is to restore the balance and harmony of the relations that have been knocked way off base by our society with its metrics of productivity and accountability and class structure.  It’s almost like the dams that block the flow of the water down the rivers.  We are trying to facilitate the kids coming back up the stream to connect to the life source. Society tries to train the kids to understand, master and manage nature, rather than to educate them to honor and learn from our relations.


Every time a Sacred Rok youth steps into a river, touches a rock, appreciates a sunset, and honors the earth, we are learning from their actions and marveling at the power of that ceremony.  The instructions are written in nature, and we are becoming more literate at deciphering what is written with every passing experience.

In all of this, Yosemite occupies a special place.  Our relations with nature are influenced by the specific spots where the experiences occur, not just at any old spot.  For me as a climber, I consider it a privilege to have had so much time in Yosemite, which influenced the way in which my relations have developed over a very long time.

Our goal is to have continuous relations for the youth from the Merced area to develop, as well, over a very long time.  I came to Yosemite at age 14, and now it’s been 40 years, and I’m still learning how to honor the wisdom of nature.  The goal of Sacred Rok is to continue to learn, connecting Yosemite to Merced, and providing a long-term base for the students with whom relations have developed.  We hope to be a life-long base from which life foundations are formed.

Conversations with David Tyack

David Tyack is a professor at Stanford who thinks and writes about the history of education. He has written lots of books about what public schools mean to a democratic society, the values that they convey, the place of citizenship.

David has mentored hundreds of students who have gone on to important jobs in education. For someone who’s done so much in life, he’s incredibly humble and grounded in the reality of humanity and the earth.

David is now retired from his position at Stanford, but he has continued in his role as a teacher. He came to visit last month, accompanied by Kenji who wanted to bring back some early memories and to connect him with Sacred Rok.

David said that he first came to Yosemite in 1948. Back then, David was a student in Massachusetts, and he hitchhiked out here on the summer between high school and college to work on Blister Rust Control for the Civilian Conservation Corps with the Forest Service. He worked off of Tioga Pass Road, which at that time was just a small dirt road. I marveled in meeting someone who’s been here so long ago, and appreciated connecting to his wisdom. The west drew him. Although raised and educated in the east, David hitchhiked back to California the following year to pick fruit in Loomis, and then he taught in Oregon and at Stanford. He loves the mountains, adventure, and the experience of being with people.

Kenji had planned on coming up with David to enjoy the rushing water, but they hadn’t planned on a rainy weekend in early June. They came anyway, and we were rewarded by a hike around the valley floor in constant soaking rain. Although David is not the kind of hiker he used to be, he’s still strong and has the enthusiasm of a kid plus the wisdom of his years. The valley was crowded despite the rain, but we still found a quiet spot that was sheltered from the rain under the trees. We sat and enjoyed some snacks and a good conversation.

We talked about trees, and about what nature has meant to his life – the experiences, the metaphors, and the friendships. After all these years of teaching at Stanford and the academic wisdom he has shared, he said that what so many students remember most about him were the hikes and the bike rides that they took. What I most appreciated was the intertwining of our two very different lives – mine as a lifelong climber and student of the ways of nature, and David’s as a respected scholar and also a student of nature.

What David says about education is so profound and almost serves as a motto for Sacred Rok. In discussing a book “Tinkering toward Utopia” that he wrote with his good friend Larry Cuban, he said: “For goodness sake, let's stop talking about the financial value of education and talk instead about human capital, about schools helping to create people who are fully developed as human beings and as democratic citizens.”

The next day, as we were talking about our hike and our conversation about trees, he said he’d like to share poem that he wrote several years back about trees, and about their strength and their fragility. And he said we could share it in our newsletter.



Bristlecone pines cling to chalk cliffs expecting

fire to scatter seed over charred ground.

Redwoods shoot their green sprouts up dark canyons

toward the filtered sun.

Trees have gifts for living.

But girdle the tree and cut the cambium’s ever-circling flow,

and dead it will stand, erect awhile in central core, but

browning from decay.

This is how we feel about kids, with a gift for living, yet much of society is like girdling, suffocating the natural flow. David did share that he wrote this not with kids in mind, but about human relationships and love as well. David is not afraid to talk about love, its power and fragility, and about healing from suffering.

Later in the month, I participated in the annual spiritual camp in our Yosemite native circles, which always brings me back to the basics. The experience of people working together in our camp to honor and to connect to our life source and the powers of healing in the sweat lodge every morning and evening helped me consider our participation and responsibility as caretakers of the land. The songs that we sing are about nature and its ceremony. This went on from Monday to Friday, with the last day being the bear dance ceremony that brings people from all over the country.

The park rangers kept coming to give us daily reports of the potential of flooding in Yosemite Valley, which seemed like the outside world from the perspective of our camp. Curiously enough, just outside was also the world of Camp 4, where so many years of my youth as a climber were spent, as I’ve shared with you about Midnight Lightning and other climbs. Camp 4 was my high school, and now next door I’m in my university, continuing to learn to be human, now with indigenous perspective and knowledge about the reality of nature as our life source.

I so appreciated simply being under the trees at the spiritual camp, participating with the native elders and acknowledging that this is where people have been taking in the beauty for thousands of years, cultivating the richness of the wisdom and balance of knowing how to work together as a community.

It was special, too, having the conversations with David, the elder of his community of scholars with an understanding of the meaning of education, surrounded by these same trees. As these two experiences came together for me this past month, I could especially feel the force of rushing water that is the pulse of the earth. Kenji and I continue to reflect on what it means for Sacred Rok to bring kids from Merced, and how we can connect them to this community of nature and its power for healing.

Thanks to everyone for their donations and contributions, at this time it is what is keeping us going. Let's keep working together!


At this time of year when the snowpack is melting and flowing down the walls of Yosemite, it give me a sense of the earth. Water is the pulse of the earth, that continues the life cycles. These are part of what I call “my relations.” Earlier this month the guys from Planada came back up for the first time this year. It's been great to have on-going trips with them to help our story of Education Nature's Way. One of the first things they asked was "When can we fill our water bottles at the spring?" Going to the spring has been a great thing to experience with them, so it was our first stop.

What's fun about getting together is we don't necessarily have a plan. I think it is good to enter into Yosemite with an open mind, allowing for what may happen naturally. Being spring time, of course we wanted to check the water falls. So, we headed up the Vernal Fall trail with no expectation as to how far we might go. Along the way we took our time to visit and rest here and there. The guys stayed motivated to keep going and we ended up on top of Nevada Fall, where we found snow. It was the first time for some of the guys to experience snow in the mountains.

We've been together four or five times now and I feel like we move together well. We are always respecting each other and taking care of the reality to watch our step in an environment where there can be big drop offs and slippery granite at times. I really appreciate the opportunity to learn from our group how we can continue to build our reality by learning from nature.

By taking our time to enjoy and move with this natural pace we seem more connected to the moment rather than just trying to get to the top of the falls. Like we've said before this is an on-going opportunity to learn from the kids - how they find their own rhythm in nature, meaning truly being on nature time.

Without a doubt the healing powers of nature are real. Yosemite and all the natural world have always been our guide to the possibility of survival and well- being. Sacred Rok is committed to this way of nature as the teacher - Something we all need. But at this time, in such a technological world that pushes our youth at an unnatural pace, it is vital for their development. Finding a solid foundation with the earth is a way to learn to respect life.

Thanks for your on-going support and donations. Let's keep working together!


A heavy storm passed through our mountains at the end of last March. It was a Sunday evening and it had been snowing pretty heavily for a few hours when the electricity went off. It was real quiet, as it is here when it snows. And soon it all began. Our big oaks were being stressed by heavy wet snow. Unable to hold the weight, big limbs started to creek then snap and Kaboom! Hitting whatever was in its way. The mood became one of "Uh oh, this is really intimidating." Because within a few minutes the same creaking, cracking, Kaboom! echoed through the neighborhood, even at times shaking the cabin. After a long night of no sleep, I stoked up the fire before the first light, made some coffee and anticipated what it might look like and what had happened around our community.

As the light came I stepped out to a changed world. I knew Katie's cabin out back had been hit, I just wasn't sure how bad it was. The first thing I saw was the little greenhouse nailed by a limb. Katie's cabin was covered by a tree but miraculously unharmed. Across the street my neighbor's had been hit by a huge oak that was now laying on his house. As I continued making my way through town I saw trees down everywhere, blocking all the roads and hanging on power lines. The power was out and the phones were down. We had no way to drive away and widow makers hung over our heads. Life became simple, back to the basics, really fast. It was all about helping each other --sharing, supporting, working together. This went on for eight days.

It was a big experience to sharpen the reality to not only the power of nature but also to the power we have as a community. I realized how my wood stove is a priceless friend and how simple the need for food, water and shelter are. It seems so important to bring this into our education, becoming stronger and less dependent on things we might not really need but want.

The curious thing is that this had all started on the first day of Spring. Eventually the weather cleared, the roads opened and the phones came back on. A call came through from our Native Elder and I was soon gathering willow for a sweat lodge. It was time to rebuild the one that had been used for many years. It is always an honor to be asked to help our elders. In the dark, literally, for daysit was like coming out into the light as we started bending the poles into the shape of the lodge. Once again we were working together, for the benefit of everyone and in a sacred and respectful way.

For three nights people came from all different directions to share in the spring ceremony; which is the time for renewal. The fourth day was the ancient Bear Dance ceremony in the roundhouse at Yosemite Valley - where once again people come from all around to appreciate life, promote healing and simply be together in a community. For me this brings everything together - that's why we say "To All Our Relations," referring to Earth, plant life, rocks, water, animal life. It is an honoring of the sacred reality of our universal connection.

In nature's way everything is talking and we just need to remember how to listen and respect. The trees that fell around El Portal were a reminder, once again, that we all live here together and are counting on each other; that's our job. In my mind that's why Sacred Rok exists, to help our youth and ourselves to remember how to work together and take responsibility to respect life.

As we look forward to the youth returning this season, we are in a fund-raising mode. We were fortunate to receive word this month about a new grant from Clifbar, which will support trips with some of our Merced youth. It is really appreciated at a time when the agencies we work with are facing severe funding cuts. At this time, in exchange for a donation,  we would like to offer our Scared Rok T-shirt along with a photograph ,taken by me, from Tuolumne Meadows that represent the magic and beauty of these mountains, as well as a memory of climbing up the center of that dome at age 14 with my brother Mitch who was 16 at the time. Your donation will be used to help bring kids to Tuolumne Meadows this summer.

A $50 donation gives you the choice of either a T-shirt (S, M, L, XL) or a matted photograph.

A $75 donation gets you both!