Susanne Severeid: Magic in the High Sierras

Magic in the High Sierras

By Susanne Severeid

Copyright 2021

I was a young girl, about eight or so. It was very early in the morning, and I was awakened by sounds I did not recognize, sounds unfamiliar to my city-kid ears. I could hear a kind of rumbling, the distant clanging of bells, a whistle, barks, and bleating.

It was barely dawn, and I sat up in my sleeping bag. The rest of my family was still fast asleep. I pulled on my jeans, sneakers, and a sweatshirt and slipped quietly outside our tent cabin.  Not a soul in sight in the campground. I trotted through the pine trees and along the creek toward the noises, and as I made my way over a wooden bridge and up to the dirt road, I saw before me the most magical sight. There, coming toward me from the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains was a shepherd driving his flock. The large herd of sheep moved as one, a tufted undulating wave slowly rolling through the low shrubs and sagebrush. The shepherd’s dog barked and nipped at their heels, moving them along if they tarried to nibble. The bells around their necks were now loud clangs against the quiet of the nighttime sky fast slipping into daybreak.

I stood transfixed as if I’d stepped into a dream. The sheep moved past me; the shepherd, his walking stick in hand, paid me no mind as the dog darted quickly back and forth making circles around the sheep. And then they were gone. I could hear them as they moved out of sight over the next low ridge. The bells and bleating and staccato barking echoed through the air. I stood there for some time. 

I can still see that morning as clearly as if it were a painting, and I can still feel it. The sense of wonderment I had that morning was as if, for those few moments, I had been transported into two distinct and separate realities at the same time. One modern, and one from centuries ago. Even then, as a child, I knew I was observing something that was a window into the past, a glimpse of a vanishing way of life from a far simpler time; a way of life that had no use for our endless traffic, polluted air, and city stress.

I ran back to our campsite, eager to share what I’d seen. My brother and parents were up and getting ready for breakfast. Dad had pulled some trout from the cooler that he’d caught and gutted the afternoon before, and Mom was ready to dredge them in flour and toss them into the iron skillet. Dad was an excellent fisherman, and when we camped, it was fresh trout for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, fried to perfection over a campfire. When I told them what I’d seen, Dad barely looked up. “Basque sheepherder,” he said, casually, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

When I reflect on this now, so many years later, how far away and surreal that pastoral scene seems.  I am struck by how precious such memories are, especially as I confront the realities of climate change and how it is upending our lives.  I grieve for places I have known, for other ways of living, and for the struggles of the non-human creatures with whom we share this planet as they and their habitats vanish forever. I grieve as we, collectively, are now plunged into the reality of global warming; a reality no longer in the distant future.  As Stephen Hawking said, “We cannot continue to pollute the atmosphere, poison the ocean and exhaust the land. There isn’t any more available.”

Remember Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth? That was in 2006. Many shrugged it off at the time or called it alarmist. Yet our new reality is the stuff of a sci-fi horror film. We watch as our kelp forests and coral reefs disappear, and our forests and tropical jungles shrink and burn. Our summers, with their unprecedented heat, wildfires, and toxic smoke, no longer inspire joyful anticipation, but are now dreaded.  Is it really more important to over use plastic, eat so much meat, and drive fossil-fueled cars? If we don’t already know the answer, I am certain that we soon shall.

Years ago, that same documentary inspired Dutch environmental attorney Roger Cox, who recently won an historic case against Royal Dutch Shell when a Dutch court ordered Shell to cut its carbon emissions. According to Cox, as quoted in Associated Press, “The climate won today. This ruling will change the world.”

There is no longer a doubt that ours is a strange, frightening, and uncertain world. And though we must all share some collective responsibility, let us not overlook the appalling failures of our global community, governments, and corporations who could have done so much more, so much earlier, to mitigate this disaster.  

What can we do now? We can hold elected officials accountable and support legislation and legal enforcements to protect what is left of our oceans and wildlife habitats, clean water, and breathable air. We can do the hard work of educating ourselves with critical thinking–using proven scientific data—while steering clear of misinformation and denial. And, yes, we can work to reduce our individual carbon footprints and eat less red meat, use public transport when feasible, and recycle. We can do these things not only for our own well-being, but for the sake of our children and grandchildren.

For those of us who have been privileged enough to witness and enjoy the pristine beauty of crystal-clear ocean breezes or wading in cool mountain streams while camping on a sweet summer day, isn’t it the least we can do?

Susanne Severeid is an award-winning writer and author of five books.

Additional resources:

Revolution Justified: Why Only the Law Can Save Us Now, by Roger Cox,‎ Planet Prosperity Foundation 2012