A Voice for the Wild Flowers
By Melinda Pillsbury-Foster
If the tourist's vision is distracted from the magnificent heights and vistas of the Valley looming all around them for a moment that attention focuses on the undulating meadows or even on the Yosemite Chapel that still stands just where it has been for over a century.
Yosemite has that effect on us.
It is the transcendental beauty of Yosemite that made it the focus for many in the environmental movement. Many of the first activists, Galen Clark, John Muir, among them, were inspired by that beauty and, appropriately, the first nature film was made and shown in Yosemite Valley in 1912.
This surprises most people. Firsts of all kinds are normally widely proclaimed by those involved. The reason for this oversight is understandable. The making of the first nature film was perhaps the least important factor in play at that moment in history.
The man who saw the need, built the camera, made the film, showed it to the Park Service and extracted their commitment to change policy was Arthur C. Pillsbury. He was determined to give nature, in this case the wild flowers, a voice of its own. That he was successful is evidenced by
the fact that it is images of nature that drove the environmental movement from the time he showed his first movie until today.
The world of 1912 was very different from today.
The technology of the 20^th Century was altering the values and perceptions of the 19^th . Photography would play a pivotal role throughout the century. The inventions that would take the human eye inside the cell, under the ocean, and make it possible to see a flower blooming would prove to be transformational in many ways. Photography would remake the tiny environmental movement into a major force for conservation. Pictures of the world of nature would allow nature a voice it had never had before.
A. C. Pillsbury was the determining factor in the direction of change. He was the first to see that technology could be used to change the course of history by providing more enlightened understanding of the natural world. He saw the potential that would allow nature the voice it desperately needed.
He believed the images would tell their own story.
It was in the second decade of the 1900s that America began to see the images and therefore understood the need for conservation. The environmental movement of the 19^th Century produced volumes of words about the natural world, but was attempting to swim upstream against the
tides of change that were taking Americans into the cities and suburbs and away from a day to day relationship with nature.
At the beginning of the second decade of the 20^th Century environmentalism involved only a limited elite, those who had time, money and inclination to spend time in the wilderness. Theodore Roosevelt, the president most committed to preservation, became committed to a view of conservation that included husbanding the resources of lumber and water. Trees, with their majesty and awesome size, were the horticultural focus of the work of Muir and the Sierra Club from 1906 until Muir's death in 1914. Environmentalists saw nature as something to be preserved unchanged. They saw humanity as separate. A. C. Pillsbury saw them as expressions of the same evolutionary forces. Humanity needed to be reminded of the generative power of Nature to understand its relationship with the Earth.
Sometimes the same agenda can come from different perspectives.
Muir's death came at the end of his losing battle to defend Hetch Hetchy from being dammed as a water supply for San Francisco. Muir lost that battle, deemed to be the most vigorous of his career despite his unremitting efforts and the assistance of hundreds of activists. Muir did not use images in his campaign. He relied on words, petition, and pleas to government at the state and national levels. An elitist movement had failed to move an elitist government.
There is a general tendency to credit Muir with anything having to do with conservation during the early 1900s. This is not supported by the facts. Muir's focus was on Hetch Hetchy. His horticultural attentions, where they went anywhere, were on trees. His attitude on action and on his priorities is encapsulated in this quote:
"Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed -- chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones... Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries since Christ's time -- and long before that -- God has cared for these trees... but he cannot save them from fools -- only Uncle Sam can do that."
The focus of Muir's life and of the Sierra Club was to persuade government to act to preserve places like Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy. At that point in time no one had mentioned the wild flowers that were rapidly disappearing. The wild flowers would become a test case to prove that a picture is worth many thousands of words.
It happened in Yosemite.
A small boy who watched that showing under a night sky lit with stars, enchanted as the images of a flower danced its way into bloom, flickering across the small screen hung on the porch of the Studio of the Three Arrows in Old Yosemite Village told me about how it had touched him.
When he told me about that evening the little boy, AC ‘s son and my father, had become a very old man, but the showing was still alive in his memory for many reasons. It had been a proud moment. This was the first time a group of people gathered and saw with their own eyes a flower blooming, an event that takes, depending on the kind of flower, hours or weeks in our time to
film. He had helped make that happen.
That first showing took place in the summer of 1912.
The man who invented the camera, made the film, and then narrated that evening's presentation was Arthur C. Pillsbury, the owner of the Studio of the Three Arrows. Later the same year A. C. Pillsbury showed the film to those who could change policy with the Park Service. One showing was
enough to do that. The impact of images was already being felt.
The technical details of how the process was originated were cataloged in Picturing Miracles of Plant and Animal Life_ by Arthur C. Pillsbury, published by J.B. Lippincott, 1937. Through the decades of the twenties and thirties lapse-time films and the many other films A. C. produced through his business, the Pillsbury Picture Co., Inc. would continue to bring alive the fascinating world of nature. His work is also collected for its superb beauty. It is easy to photograph beauty and touch the viewers heart, but A. C. Pillsbury had also touched their minds.
His films would be shown both in Yosemite and in theaters around the country as short subjects before the main showing. At first only A.C. made such films but soon it became an industry that continues to this day, moving from the big screen to the small one of television and from there on to the Internet.
A.C.'s films would also be shown as part of the lecture series that took A. C. around the world. A. C. lectured before the National Geographic Society in Washington, D. C. many times. A. C. sold his films to others so they, too, could use them in presentations. David Curry used films produced by the Pillsbury Picture Company for his own lecture tour.
A. C. addressed the Town Hall in New York, was invited to MIT and most major universities. Those who heard him said it was an experience they would never forget and most of the movers and shakers in America attended one or more of his lectures and screenings. Most Americans first saw a flower blooming and the unlocking of the mysterious, unseen life of the microscopic first in one of the films A.C. produced with a camera he built himself. A. C. had majored in mechanical engineering
while at Stanford. His films were purchased by schools and universities for their own use, as well. Many of those reels of film wore out, screened into fragments.
A. C. Pillsbury was a visionary and an activist who used cameras instead of petitions. He ignored politics as a source of frustration, choosing a path straight into the minds and hearts of the public. He was convinced that the best solution was insights from education that could evolve
into persuaded commitment on the part of the public. As an individual he lived within his limitations and he was a busy man. When we are busy we try to solve several problems simultaneously. One of the problems he needed to solve was personal.
The personal story, the 'why' remained with the small boy who grew up in Yosemite and Berkeley and went on to a career in engineering. That story did not make it into the books, it was private. My father told me about that evening after he retired from the University of California and was living with my older sister in 1990.
The porch where that small boy watched the showing was between the road and the Yosemite Chapel. It, and the entire village that once stood there, are now gone with the exception of the concrete sidewalks that line the street between the Chapel and Sentinel Bridge. In 1912 the Village was the hub for the Valley. The Studio of the Three Arrows stood at the most prominent corner at the bottom of the Village near the Chapel. The corner was a Y where the main road into the valley joined the main
street of the Village. The road into the Valley at that point ran near the valley wall and turned left into the Village in front of the Studio of the Three Arrows.
A. C.'s concern had been growing for several years. In 1912 the wild flowers were disappearing from Yosemite. He saw species vanish. The meadows, where the Evening Primrose lived, were being mowed by the Park Service, then under the management of the U. S. Cavalry. The Park Service used the small amount of 'hay' thus produced as fodder for their horses. A. C. was a student of botany and was appalled by the steady attrition and loss of entire species. He could have petitioned and written letters but instead he took stock of the tools at hand and did something else. A. C. still believed individuals could make a difference.
In so doing he solved several problems at one time and spoke volumes about how he looked at the world.
He needed a chore that his youngest son could help with that would take the boy's mind off a family tragedy that had taken place the year before, an accident in which the boy had been injured that had left him afraid of heights. Young Arthur was set up in Bridal Veil Meadow, then the closest location where they could find the flowers he wanted to photograph, with a stop watch and pencil and paper. He was told to time the motion of several varieties of flowers. For several hours a week Young Arthur did this, determining the time it took for six different species of flowers to go from bud to bloom. Over the next several months
Young Arthur fell in love with nature. He learned to climb, extinguishing his fear by learning how to scale the Ship Stone, a rock that still sits near the site of Old Village. His desire to find flowers
and careful training helped him conquer the fear of heights instilled in him by the accident.
While this was going on, in his spare time, A.C. Pillsbury, perfected the first working mechanism for a camera that allowed for the automatic exposure of film at set intervals, making the process of lapse-time for plants possible. He used Young Arthur's notes to do this. Then the
operation was moved to a shelf in the very cramped Studio of the Three Arrows and a budded plant was transplanted there to be filmed.
From Miracles of Plant and Animal Life by Arthur C. Pillsbury
“This early work was carried out as a hobby in my Yosemite Studio. Only
the most cramped space was available – the camera on a narrow shelf so
it could slid back and forth, the flower in the corner and just room to
squeeze in beside the camera to focus it and tend the flower. The
results were shown in the little evening entertainments we gave the
Yosemite tourists on our open porch. A few flowers at first, the number
increasing year by year, until all of the most distinctive ones were
pictured......One of the first reactions of seeing a reel of flowers
growing and opening was to instill a love for them, a realization of
their life struggles so similar to ours, and a wish to do something to
stop the ruthless destruction of them which was fast causing them to
The Studio of the Three Arrows became a learning center for Yosemite using the technology of photography in ways that were eventually copied throughout the world. The 'informal entertainments' provided in the evening for tourists became a standard still used today.
Films were shown, lectures given; questions answered; Cards illustrated with tinted photos the types of plants and flowers to be identified were sold.
The employees, A. C.'s children and their friends spending the summer in the small compound of tents clustered around the Studio, became a school for photography, botany, Sierra zoology and art. They produced the post cards, tinted the cards, practiced their photography, and learned to identify all of the plants and animals living in the Valley. At the Studio the visitor could buy a box of those botanical cards with a tinted print of the flower on one side and a description of the plant on the back. Awareness helped to build the movement for preservation, just as A. C. had thought it would.
Images, connecting directly to the emotions of the viewer, changed public opinion through education and opened up an avenue for environmentalism to the general public. Lapse-time films would become staples in Hollywood within a a handful of years, the microscopic films following soon after the invention of that camera in 1927.
Entrepreneurship, using the innovations provided by an individual moved fast.
Most of the young people who worked at the Studio of the Three Arrows were from Berkeley and Stanford. They went on to careers in every imaginable profession, carrying with them the lessons they learned at the Studio of the Three Arrows in Yosemite.
One the back of the card for the Snow Plant it says,
“ Sarcodes Sanguines or Snow Plant grows up through the pine needles as
soon as the snow melts, throughout the Sierras at an elevation from four
thousand feet up. The lower fleshy, semi-transparent stalks have long
curling bracts, among which the wonderful flaming red waxen bells hang,
the whole plant looking like a glowing lighted taper in the aisle of a
cathedral. It is a saprophyte, growing in clumps. I have counted twenty
in a group.”
The front of the card:
The Outcome for Environmentalism
In the wake of making the first lapse-time film of wild flowers a newly revitalized movement for conservation sprang up. A. C. had shown his film to many garden clubs throughout California and especially around Berkeley in Northern California near the Pillsbury home; it had an impact. Women's groups began asking for protection for wild flowers. Then as today, it was the images, not words, that made this possible.
The year after he introduced the first film of a flower blooming another problem introduced itself to his attention. This time it was the economic marginalization of the Native Americans who had originally lived in Yosemite, the Miwok. A. C. began thinking about the problem because his three kids had become interested in playing Indians. A. C. had already published a book with some of the legends of the Miwok when a friend of the family who had studied the ways of Native Americans came to spend time in the Valley during the summer of 1913. She encouraged the kids to dress up as Plains Indians and for the next several years the Studio of the Three Arrows rang with play acting and crafts learned from the Miwok still living in the Valley.
Through this interaction A. C. became aware of the economic problems the Miwok faced. His solution was the institution of what was called Indian Field Days. This event took place in August of every year and brought together tourists and concessionaires to enjoy a series of games with prizes and the opportunity for the Miwok to sell their baskets, a craft that provided badly needed income. A. C. became the chief organizer for all of the entertainments that drew people to Yosemite.
All of the photographic concessionaires took pictures of the Indians. They then sold prints to tourists thus making a profit. But it was A. C. who thought about how the problem faced by the Miwok, in the face of progressive policy that ignored their heritage, their needs, and their dignity, could be surmounted.
We now understand the impact that compelling visuals can have on events. Vietnam and other major events have proven that public opinion shifts fastest on images. Visuals drove the culture of the last century. Visuals are still the most potent medium for change, now at the beginning of the 21^st . Consider for the moment the impact of the photos from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq as opposed to the written reports. It is the visuals that evoke our outrage, our sympathy and our action. In 1912 A. C. already understood very well. Others had been working, talking and writing. A. C. supplied the visuals.
A.C.'s earlier career included years as a photo journalist. He had recorded the first fraternity Rush at Stanford University, chronicled the opening of the mining towns in the Yukon with a panorama camera he built while still a student at Stanford in 1896. He took the panoramas of the burning of San Francisco that made vivid and real to the world the destruction of that great city. Those became the images published every where that brought the reality home to humanity. A. C. would use
the profits from the San Francisco photos to buy his studio in Yosemite.
Images tell the story; they penetrate our minds and and emotions, staying with us, changing how we view the world and events. Images far more than words move us to action. The story of the wild flower, its struggle to live, its beauty and endurance, first became real for humanity on the porch of the Studio of the Three Arrows in Yosemite.
Seeing was believing.
A.C. helped others learn his techniques, always glad to share. He made his inventions available to everyone, refusing to patent them. This included the lapse-time camera for photographing flowers, the X-ray motion picture camera (1917), the microscopic motion picture camera (1927), and the underwater motion picture camera (1930). This was not ignorance but evidence of his personal commitment to education.
These became tools for Hollywood almost immediately. Hollywood knew a
good thing when it saw it.
A. C. said in a magazine article printed in Sunset Magazine in the spring of 1927 written about the development of his microscopic motion picture camera, “ I believe this discovery will be of inestimable value in bacteriology and probably will lead to much greater knowledge of
communicable diseases, their cause, prevention and cure.” Then he added: “This invention is to be dedicated to educational purposes. I could not think of even attempting to make money out of it. I will not commercialize it.” The writer, H. H. Dunn, went on to say, “ That is the attitude of the Californian who, saying he is not a scientist, yet has made one of the most important contributions to the science of medicine.”
The applications would prove to be endless.
A. C.'s goal was to solve problems, giving scientists and the public better tools for understanding the world around them. He had been invited to Berkeley to finish the development of the camera whose images proved to be transformational for that generation of scientists. His ability to see the application for innovations to solve problems was one aspect of the lesson his life offers. The second is his willingness to share, thus enriching the world with images that have become our common heritage. Individuals can solve our problems if they have the freedom and desire to do so.
The lapse-time camera was one step in a logical progression through the life and work of one man. As Margaret Mead would say a few years later, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” The individual is the smallest group of
people. Sometimes that is all it takes.
Clearly, A. C. did not rest on his laurels. He moved on to other projects. For him there were always more things to do, enough to fill several life times. In refusing to patent his inventions he believed he was making them most available to the world. He was also following the rules by which he had been raised, to serve others and society. That probably seems naive today. It isn't really. It is still the right thing to do when it is what we choose for ourselves.
The innovations of A. C. Pillsbury provided the tools that were used by him and others to transform the way we see the physical world and ourselves. They accomplished the goals seamlessly. They provided insights into disease and cures. They were used by the entertainment Industry to make countless movies that helped formulate our views of the world in which we live; Hollywood also used them to connect us to worlds of the imagination. His inventions were and are used in schools from
primary to graduate all over the world every single day.
His inventions took the words on the page and converted them into images that touched us emotionally. When you go to the theater and see the worlds beyond our eyes now you will know how and where the means were created. A. C. Pillsbury was a man who rejected the idea that government
had all the answers. He believed the answers were with individuals – and he was right.
When you drive by the Chapel in Yosemite now you will know what happened there and why it matters.