Living on Top of the World
By FINN SCHWARTZ
After hiking an exhausting 10 miles with over 2000 feet in elevation gain, I finally found myself looking over the basin in which the restoration work I would be conducting for the next three months would take place. 15 years of restoration work by National Park Service biologists preceded me as we began the last leg of our journey into the lake basin. We would be spending the next week learning the procedures of the eradication work that would dominate our life for the next three months.
This past summer, I spent three months in the high country of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Yosemite National park. I worked for the NGO, Freshwater Life, conducting a restoration project, in partnership with the National Park Service, aiming to restore habitat to encourage population growth of the endangered Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog (Rana sierrae).
Flash forward two months into the restoration project and my crew had settled into a
comfortable routine with the work required of the project. Having spent the whole day conducting work in the backcountry of Yosemite, we decided to commence an evening survey for Mount Lyell salamanders (Hydromantes platycephalus) along the steeply sloping mountain peaks that surround the lake basin. Subtle shades of red dominated the skies as we approached the base of the mountain peak; I couldn’t have asked for a prettier sight. The sound of rushing water loudly proclaimed that a creek was nearby, perfect to fill our bottles full of water before we embarked up the rocky outcroppings the salamanders call home. As all amphibians need a source of water nearby to thrive, I was convinced we wouldn't find any here - the land was dominated by large boulders that looked as if they had fallen down the peak just a couple days before. Regardless, I followed the crew as we huffed and puffed our way up the mountainside. Eventually we reached a grassy patch of land amongst the rocks, where, to my surprise, water was seeping out from within the mountain. Presumably, the rocks were squeezing out the remnants of water that had found their way within from a recent storm. The seepage of water proved to be the perfect refuge for the Mount Lyell Salamander, providing them with moisture, as well as providing ideal habitats for their favorite snack - insects. Getting down on our hands and knees, we peered our headlights into every crevice amongst the rocks. Although most of the time, we found nothing noteworthy, every once in a while, we would find a slight disruption in the pattern of the granite outlining a hidden salamander. The same color as the boulders themselves, I wondered how many salamanders I may have missed.
In order to catch insects for a meal, these salamanders utilize their perfect camouflage to stand still. When an unsuspecting insect flies by, the salamander quickly lets loose its unwinding tongue, catching the insect before it even realizes what’s happening. I was astounded that any living creature could call this mountainous terrain home, and it wasn’t just one hermit of a salamander living out in the rocks - we found about 10 individuals that night alone!
Found at the peak of mountains, the alpine presents hardships to the plants and animals that call the habitat home. As you stare at the immense boulders that make up the mountain peaks, it may seem that little to no creatures could survive here, but despite the harsh realities, these salamanders are abundant throughout, truly making the most out of their extreme environment. The alpine, unexpectedly full of life, is in a precarious position as our climate continues to warm. The subalpine (occupying the territory found just below the tree line) is slowly creeping upwards and colonizing previously alpine habitat. The subalpine has plenty of room to move upwards, but this fact does not stand true for the alpine zone. As the alpine occurs only at the peaks of the tallest mountains, it could simply disappear with the warming climate. Spruce, firs, and plenty of other plants and animals could soon call the peaks of mountains their home, kicking out any plant or animal who currently prefer the alpine environment.
The plants and animals of the alpine have successfully adapted to warming conditions as the world emerged from the last ice age. They’ve managed to remain resilient despite the harsh realities inherent in their precarious environment. Searching for plants and animals in the alpine, in a world that seems lifeless, and walking away having found not one, but multiple examples of life, left me feeling hopeful. The new realities of climate change will place new stressors on the plants and animals around the world. Knowing these salamanders have continued to thrive despite the harsh conditions of the alpine and the ever warming planet, gives me hope that despite the realities of the world we find ourselves in, life will find a way, flourishing despite the curveballs we throw at it.
Although it wasn’t even 10 pm yet, my crew and I were getting tired; the sun had been down for about 2 hours at that point and other than the salamanders, nothing was keeping us up. As we peered down the mountainside, we saw a massive column of fog roll into the basin where we set up our tents. Regardless, we decided to begin the journey down the mountainside. As expected, we found ourselves in thick fog, where we couldn't see more than five feet in front of us and were surrounded by similar looking patches of grass. Although the journey back to our tents seemed to take longer than usual, not once did we feel as if we wouldn’t make it back to our tent. After getting myself settled for the night, I thought to myself that I had finally found solace in the backcountry of Yosemite. For the first time, the basin and the beautiful nature that lives within felt as if it was my home. I would live in the basin for 8 days at a time and over the course of the summer, I became very familiar with the layout of the land. All my needs and wants were met when I was working in that basin and for the first time in my life, there was nothing I was “wanting” more of. I was content spending my summer away from the hustle and bustle of the cities below, instead spending my time in the thin air of the mountains, sleeping amongst the plants and animals who call this place home.
Returning back to San Diego after my summer spent in the Sierra Nevadas, I experienced something of a “culture shock” - despite the fact I grew up in this city. Although I worked the entire summer, not one day went by where I dreaded going to “work.” I’m even tempted to say that I spent a summer relaxing, not working. When I came back to San Diego however, I found myself having a hard time getting comfortable in my own home. I had just moved and everything around me was in constant motion, a complete 180 from my experience during the past three months. Despite the constant rush of everyday life, I found myself free one evening, during which I decided to hike the nearby Rose Canyon Open Space park. The sun had already set, but that was no issue. I had multiple headlights and flashlights for me and my friends to enjoy exploring the canyon together. Hearing the creek trickle towards the ocean and finding the plants and animals living in the serene habitat provided by the towering oak trees and trickling creek, I once again found comfort. We stepped outside of the riparian zone that hugs Rose Creek and were thrust into an amalgamation of grasslands and chaparral. Similar to the salamanders, life had found a way to thrive in this urban canyon, despite the ever diminishing trickle of the creek, the encroachment of invasive species, and the constant litter that finds its way into the preserve. That was the first time since returning from Yosemite that I felt as if I were home. I had found, once again, solace in nature.
The last 8 months of my life have been marked by transition. I’ve had the opportunity to travel across California and spend three months in Yosemite. I’ve spent a quarter of this year sleeping outside and half of this year spending no more than 10 days in the same bed. I moved in with my friend from high school and started my second year at UC San Diego. I’ve made lots of new friends along the way and have drifted away from old friends as well. I've had five unique jobs this year. The person I was at the beginning of the year is unrecognizable to the person I am today. But through all this I’ve had one constant: nature. Being comfortable in nature has provided solace to me, which I have found nowhere else. When you show your love to nature, you feel nature return that love. When I walk out the front door, even if just commuting to work or school, I am delighted to see how the plants are doing, to greet the insects as they pass through, hear the birds as they sing loudly and to ever so often spot a reptile scurrying across the ground. To return to the comfort and solace I found in the nature of Yosemite, I don’t need to return to the park itself, I just need to keep myself open to the wonders of nature that surrounds us all. So the next time you get out, even if just to walk across town, notice all the nonhuman plants and animals that call this place home, think about the precarious nature these plants and animals find themselves in and the resilience they’ve shown time and time again. Eventually these plants and animals will open up their nonhuman world to you, providing insights and perspectives that otherwise would have gone unnoticed.