The first Nature Center Centennial – Yosemite Valley 1910
by Melinda Pillsbury-Foster
|Primroses and Half Dome|
Today all of us are familiar with nature centers. We know there will be photos, illustrations, exhibits, items we can buy that allow us to better understand the world of nature and the history that accompanies it, usually specific to that location. Nature centers came from the idea that it would be well if we understood the natural world, being a part of it. The year after next will mark the centennial of the modern nature center, an event to be celebrated.
We take for granted those educational resources, familiar with their use of movies, lectures, specimens to explain to the curious the natural world. That was not the case a century ago.
The first such center was located near the Yosemite Chapel next to what was once the road that turned towards the Valley wall. Now that 'road' runs through the parking lot there. There is no marker. That first nature center occupied the small space alloted to the Studio of the Three Arrows, owned by Arthur C. Pillsbury, who had always been fascinated by the world of nature and saw the need to save the wild flowers then being mowed in the meadows of Yosemite. He could have protested, gathered petitions and appealed to Congress. Instead he decided that if people could 'see' the world of nature in all of its beauty and complexity they would love it, understand their connection, and ensure its survival.
Pillsbury said in his book, “Picturing Miracles of Plant and Animal Life,” published in 1937, “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 to wish to do something to stop the ruthless destruction of them which was fast causing them to become extinct.”
Pillsbury had first arrived in Yosemite on his bicycle from Stanford in 1895 along with his cousin, Bernard Lane, and a friend. There, he signed the guest book at the Cosmopolitan. His trip had been motivated by a mention of the glories of the Yosemite by an acquaintance of his mother's, Susan B. Anthony. That year marked Anthony's last trip to the Yosemite, this time without her long time friend and fellow advocate for the rights of women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Dr. Harriet Foster Pillsbury had gotten her degree in medicine at the Women's Infirmary of New York in 1880, three years before she and her husband, Dr. Harlin Henry Pillsbury, moved their family to Auburn, California, where young Arthur and his brother Ernest, were raised.
Arthur Pillsbury had grown up on the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. In the collection of small classics that accompanied him when ever he traveled, were well worn copies of their works.
Arthur's interest in nature began with cataloging plants and studying the ideas of Mendel; using the two microscopes his parents had brought with them to California. The family had also brought a massive library of books on all subjects relating to science. Yosemite was more beauty than Pillsbury had ever imagined possible. He fell in love with the place and all that he saw.
Arthur had begun attending Stanford University with a major in Mechanical Engineering its first year of operation. To earn his tuition he ran a combined photography and bicycle shop near campus. While at Stanford he invented a specimen slicer for microscopic slides and the first circuit panorama camera. Each came into existence to solve a problem he had encountered. The slicer was used for his own microscope and the circuit panorama allowed him to take in the vast spaces he encountered in nature.
While in Yosemite in 1895 Pillsbury had taken photos of the wildflowers. He would later write for his book, “I had still pictures taken of the meadows taken in early days in '95 showing them covered with flowers waist high and the same meadows as they were at this time.”
He had grown up hearing and reading and understanding that world through the lens of science so he used the then exploding technology of photography as his tool for helping others see as well.
Conservation had become a national issue through the bully pulpit of Teddy Roosevelt and the writings of Gifford Pinchot, whose book, “The Fight for Conservation,” framed the political debate on the subject. becoming , along with Herbert Croly's, “The Promise of American Life,” two of just a few books that would frame the Age of Collectivism in America.
Awakening understanding of nature itself and trusting the people to do right was different, contradicting the underlying assumptions of the New Progressivism that a cadre of leaders who 'knew best' should determine the future for everyone.
This became the first confrontation between the knowledge commons, the network, which today in the age of the Internet, we see as allowing individuals to cooperate through persuasion and consensus, and the rigid, top down approach typified by government and corporations. Over the next century the steady increase in human knowledge and the parallel growth of control through the alliance of government and corporations would compromise the very survival of humankind. It was a conflict between individualism and collectivism, open information sources and closed sources. This conflict in organizational structure would define the entire 20th Century.
Today we recognize that sharing knowledge is an essential aspect of freedom. Then, the view that people should know only what made them useful, interchangable cogs, was ascendant and fashionable.
It was a war of ideas that has only recently been decided.
On May 13, 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt delivered the opening address, "Conservation as a National Duty," at the outset of a three-day meeting billed as the Governors' Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources. He explained to the attendees that "the occasion for the meeting lies in the fact that the natural resources of our country are in danger of exhaustion if we permit the old wasteful methods of exploiting them longer to continue." The conference propelled conservation issues into the forefront of public consciousness and stimulated a large number of private and state-level conservation initiatives. A new role for government was being forged, one that would prove useful to corporations.
The past was filled with incidents of individuals abusing the environment, but it was nothing to what corporations, with the cooperation of government, would do in the coming years.
Writers such as John Muir were moved by the real and present problems in the Yosemite caused by, “cattlemen, shepherds and land speculators.”
An article from American Park Network reports on Muir's thinking, “One summer, with his trusty mule Brownie, he had traveled extensively in the Sierra Nevada to study the threatened territory. He was exhilarated each time he encountered an alpine meadow of wildflowers but also wondered if their kind would survive to witness the 20th century. His arguments for preserving them included their value as watersheds for the water-dependent San Joaquin Valley agricultural industry. Muir worked ceaselessly to keep Yosemite intact and in its original state. Among his many notable accomplishments, Muir was a charter member and the first president of the Sierra Club which was formed in 1892 to secure federal protection for the Yosemite region. He died on December 24, 1914, at the age of 76. “
Seeing a problem Muir had looked for a solution. But he did so without understanding that the means adopted will mold the future. The 20th Century would be marked by solutions using government to coerce outcomes instead of relying on the use of consensus and persuasion as the tools appropriate to a free people. Muir loved nature but his solutions were based on the idea that only with the intervention of force wielded by government could nature be protected.
The opposite theory that drove a lifetime of inventions for Arthur C. Pillsbury was the observed fact that if people could 'see' the world as it was, with its processes and beauty made visible for them, they would connect to that reality and be moved to understanding and so wish to protect what they saw.
To accomplish the preservation of the wild flowers and open nature to understanding Pillsbury made the first nature movie, built the first lapse-time camera to for plants in 1912, the first microscopic motion picture camera in 1927, the first X-ray motion picture camera and the first Underwater Motion Picture Cameras in 1929 and 1930. He then declined to patent them so that they would always be available to extend our understanding.
Instead of following the usual practices of inventors in his day Arthur C. Pillsbury dedicated all of his cameras to the extension of human understanding. His book, “Picturing Miracles of Plant and Animal Life,” published by Lippincott in 1937 is essentially a manual on how to build your own cameras and achieve the same results.
By do doing he employed action to make a statement about the profit he most valued from his life.
An explosion of understanding resulted. In the first half of the 20th Century insights flowing from the reality of the world of nature provided new approaches in medicine, physics, and every other discipline. Today we talk about the idea that there should be a commons in knowledge, unbound by the limits of individual ownership. Sometimes philosophy is something you live instead of something you just write and talk about.
Ideas adopted by individuals are passed by example and through the flow of our life experiences. Through that steady adoption of ideas through families, educators, and the day to day exchanges of life we compile our culture.
The first nature films were shown on the porch of the Studio in the evenings, starting by 1910. The flickering images were the backdrop to his lecture on the habits of the flowers found in the meadows. This venture into providing a new perspective on the living world would soon be followed by more, using the photography to provide a visceral understanding and appreciation. It helped but still the mowing continued.
He had seen the first lapse-time camera slow down motion at Berkeley. He decided that the same idea could be applied to bringing the motion of the flowers into a human frame of reference. He also realized that the attention span of most people was limited.
“I realized that a scene had to be very dramatic to to hold the interest for over 30 seconds,” Pillsbury wrote in his book; he went on to explain how he had thought out each step in the motion picture process he originated.
When he began work on the lapse-time camera to record the life story of plants, the idea of spending time preserving wild flowers was not on the horizon for those who then thought of themselves as Conservationists. The year was 1912 and the Sierra Club, lead by John Muir, who loved and wrote about flowers himself, was focused on the problem of the Hetch-Hetchy that would keep him busy until his death. Arthur had gotten to know John Muir in the late 1800s, photographing him in Alaska, Yosemite and for the magazine, Camera Craft, in 1900.
Muir chose Pillsbury's photos for his last book, "The Yosemite," in 1911.
The mowing of the meadows was ended after one showing of his first film in 1912. Pillsbury's approach had worked immediately.
You could characterize the work of Arthur C. Pillsbury as the last gasp of individualism, struggling to survive the deluge of collectivism that was then over taking America. Or you could see him as the first to see that technology could bring forth understanding that would, one mind at time, change the world.