Q & A with Bonnie J Gisel, Curator of LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite National Park

Updated on January 8, 2024 by Meg Pier

Bonnie J. Gisel

Bonnie J. Gisel is a John Muir scholar and author of three books on his life, the most recent of which is "Nature’s Beloved Son: Rediscovering John Muir’s Botanical Legacy," published by Heyday Books in 2008. Bonnie is also the curator of the LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite National Park, a position she has held since 2002. She is a Ph.D. who holds advanced degrees in fine art, nineteenth century cultural studies and divinity.

Bonnie touched on many themes in our conversation that are near and dear to my heart--the sense of awe and inter-connectedness that Nature inspires; the value of both remaining teachable and sharing our experiences for others’ benefit; the importance of friends and soul mates; the joy in creating what she calls 'moments of enthusiasm.' Particularly meaningful for me at this juncture in my life is her certainty that there is a Divine Order to things, and there comes a time and place when our gifts intertwine and we find our place in the world. I hope you will enjoy this conversation with Bonnie.

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else." - John Muir 1838–1914

LeConte Memorial Lodge Curator Bonnie Gisel on faith, love of nature, and her greatest inspiration, John Muir

Meg: You’ve said that you have a desire to instill in others a wonder of the world and an appreciation of nature so it becomes part of ‘daily breathing’ for each of us. Can you tell me a little about how you yourself came to that appreciation, the circumstances of your own such awakening and how you have ‘kept it fresh’ and maintained that desire?

Bonnie: I was brought up outdoors. There was never a moment when I was not connected or connecting to the natural world. My father was an outdoors person—hunting, fishing, camping. When I was quite young he took me hunting; and, after my brothers were born, our family traveled out to accompany my father on his weekend fishing and hunting excursions. I recall one episode where my father took us with him to hunt. It was winter and snowing. To keep warm my mother, brothers and I got inside a pine tree, under the boughs and made a little fire, pushing back the snow. The snowflakes glistened down like crystals. We camped in the Adirondack Mountains and the Catskills every summer.

I grew at a very early age to respect the natural world, its gifts to us, its changing seasons and what they produce, and a joy in being out in nature. There were few weekends throughout the year that weren’t spent along a creek or stream, in a peat forest, watching beavers build a dam—swimming and enjoying their lives, walking in larch forests, climbing mountains in the Adirondack Mountains, fishing for bass and pike, bathing in mountain lakes. My grandmother was a horticulturist. I grew learning trees and grasses; and loved walking with her in her garden. I loved her very much and could see that her kindness and love for me was something she shared with the plants in her garden. My feelings for the natural world are fresh each day because the awe I feel never diminishes. I am not quite able to explain the feeling but it is very strong. I see the natural world as God’s Creation, being created each day; and, believe that this requires of me a respect and deep regard and caring. As a child of God, my faith requires of me that I share the message of God’s Works. For me the homilies are about the natural world. This is what I am able to share.

Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls. Credit: Meg Pier

My first two degrees are in Fine Art. It was through the study of art that I developed greater skills of observation—color, shape, design. A strong desire developed to leave behind the creation of art to study the inventions of God—the natural world. This process coalesced with the birth of my son, Nikolaus, and my entrance into divinity school when he was five years old. I felt an abundance of celebration of life. Not knowing exactly how this would transpire, it was not long into my seminary training that the created order of things, environmental awareness, and a true appreciation of my gifts began to intertwine. I had thought I would give up who I was to become a new person in my faith journey. Instead, who I was closely fitted to who I was becoming. My deep abiding love for the natural world and my academic training became one.

Meg: It seems a thread throughout all of your endeavors—from advanced degrees in divinity and history, to your affinity with Nature and John Muir—is a deep sense of spirituality. Can you share what ‘spirituality’ means to you and describe your practice of it?

Bonnie: ‘Spirituality’ is perhaps the most precious part of being alive. Through this energy I am able to connect and reflect and accept and experience my connectedness to the natural world as well as to other human beings. But my connectedness is not disproportionate—that is I feel the same abiding respect and concern for all life. Having been trained in divinity school (I have an M.Div. degree from Harvard University), I have experienced a great variety of life experiences—as a student minister, a chaplain in a hospital, a candidate for ministry in the Presbyterian Church, USA. With my Ph.D. in nineteenth century interdisciplinary (cultural) studies—American Religious History, Environmental History, the History of Women in America, I had the opportunity to expand my understanding and appreciation of the importance of the message I strive to deliver.

My spirituality is at the root of all the work I do and derives from my close relationship with the Divine Spirit to whom I feel directly accountable. Spirituality for me wells-up from the grace given and received that empowers me to appreciate fully and experience my life completely in the wonder and amazement I see before me in the natural world. Prayer may be as simple as a walk, a moment of breathing, in the washing of my hands in cool water, the look I see in my Scottie dog's eyes—when I know he trusts me to care for him. The divine spirit is ever present and real in all things I see and the gifts I am able to use to do the good I feel called to do expand each day.

Meg: John Muir has been a major influence on you. For those who may not be familiar with his life and legacy, can you provide a little background on him, a sense of his contributions to the world?

John Muir in 1907
John Muir in 1907. Credit: Professor Francis M. Fritz

Bonnie: John Muir was born in Dunbar, Scotland, arrived in America at the age of eleven in 1849, and spent his life sauntering in search of Nature’s beauty, to understand the divine gift of life God had given in the created order of things. He was a man on a mission and the pilgrimage he sought brought to light and life a deeper and greater respect for the natural world. Traveling from Wisconsin to Canada, Canada to Indianapolis, Kentucky to the Gulf of Mexico, New York City to California, the High Sierra to Alaska, and around the world, Muir’s abiding respect for life in all its forms led to the creation of Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Club.

Muir was a field botanist and a geologist, because, I am convinced—from rock you receive soil, from soil you receive seed, from seed you receive bread. Appreciating the interconnectedness of all things, Muir wrote: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else.”

Following in the footsteps of Alexander von Humboldt and Mungo Park; he was befriended by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Roosevelt; and counted as his intimates William Keith and Jeanne Carr. He wrote books but not before he had published hundreds of articles and penned hundreds of letters to family, friends, and colleagues. I have written two books about Muir: Nature’s Beloved Son: Rediscovering John Muir’s Botanical Legacy (2008) and Kindred & Related Spirits: The Letters of John Muir and Jeanne C. Carr (2001). There are also many other splendid volumes that explore his life. I highly recommend Muir’s writings, especially My First Summer in the Sierra; The Mountains of California; Cruise of the Corwin; and my personal favorite A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf.

Meg: Could you describe your relationship with John Muir and what his life had meant to you personally?

Bonnie: This question is quite timely as I am beginning a book I have titled My Life with John Muir. This journey has been a long one—I have been studying Muir for twenty-one years and before that in terms of academic training, I began the study of environmental ideas and culture and environmental history four years before that. I found Muir sort-of by accident. While studying at Harvard his name was never mentioned—makes sense, he is considered a westerner. I, however, continued to read a reference book called the Religious Index that considers topics thematically. I anticipated becoming a biblical exegete—someone who studies biblical texts—however, ended up in a Ph.D. program in historical studies. Still comfortable with perusing biblical studies, I continued to look at the Religious Index for biblical references, particularly Hebrew Bible references. I found an article by a professor from the University of Wisconsin entitled “John Muir and Genesis,” read the abstract, and purchased Muir’s Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. For me there was comfort in Muir’s writing about his feelings for what we call the rest of creation, which is a curious designation to me, because it is as the result of what we call the rest of creation, in particular angiosperms, of which there are 250,000, that life as we know it exists. For me there is nothing rest about the organic and inorganic world around us.

Having myself given up the study of art for the study of God’s creation, in finding Muir I found a kindred spirit—someone with whom I could share my journey. He had, after all, given up the study of inventions—inventing—to study the inventions of God. The best thing about all of this was that I no longer felt alone in my belief that the natural world mattered as much as we do—for Muir and for me it was never about us in particular but about the world, the natural world collectively. There is nothing better than finding yourself out on a tree limb in the world of ideas with someone else—just in case it is sawed off, even if there is a difference of time, there is compatibility and hope that what he knew and what I know does make a difference and can be taught--that is shared.

Studying John Muir and his life and legacy has been an honor and a privilege just as my position as curator of LeConte Memorial Lodge has been. Muir’s ideas resonate today as much and if not more than they did when he spoke and wrote them. His prose is timely and easy to access and his message is clear and true. I am always finding new things in studying Muir and find that the more I study his work the more nuanced it becomes. Sometimes a letter that I have examined many times before strikes a new cord of understanding and I experience a moment of deeper appreciation—I like that.

Polypodium. Credit: Stephen Joseph

Exterior of the LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite National Park.
Exterior of the LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite National Park. Credit: Eric Polk

Writing about Muir has been a joy—though difficult to untangle some events and writing is not easy for me but the process is very fulfilling. I enjoy words, finding them pass before my mind’s eye, and incorporating them to narrate where Muir is going in any given experience. I never tire of the search in studying Muir and given that I live in Yosemite Valley it adds another component. It has been for me a journey of discovery well-spent and with the publication of Nature’s Beloved Son; Rediscovering John Muir’s Botanical Legacy, a new chapter in his life has been presented.

It was exciting to find Muir’s plant specimens and think about where he was and how he must have felt when he met each plant. I was able to locate his herbarium specimens at the Missouri Botanical Garden, the University and Jepson Herbaria, the Harvard University Herbarium, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, the John Muir National Historic Site, and the University of the Pacific. With all that had already been written about Muir here was a whole new world to explore. In working with Stephen Joseph, a landscape photographer from Pleasant Hill, California, we were able to share the joy and enthusiasm that we met in each of Muir’s plants and every flower he tucked in his pocket and preserved for all time.

Meg: John Muir had a mentor in Jeanne Carr—can you describe their relationship and what you have learned from studying it?

Bonnie: When John Muir left Portage, Wisconsin for the Wisconsin State Agricultural Fair in Madison, Wisconsin in 1860, his life’s journey began—as he searched for purpose in his life and as he would write later exemption from ordinary exertion to explore the ebbs and tides and floods that overmastered his soul. At the fair he met Jeanne Carr, the wife of Ezra Carr, professor of agricultural chemistry at the university. Muir was rustic in appearance dressed in hand-made clothes and unsophisticated. Carr was thirteen years his senior, a writer and horticulturalist, and prone to study.

Muir enrolled at the university and soon found himself at the Carr home on Gilman Street—studying in the library, walking with Jeanne in her garden studying plants. It was plants to which they gravitated and they were at the root of their abiding friendship that prospered through years of Carr mentoring Muir. When Muir left the University of Wisconsin to study in what he called the “University of the Wilderness” in Canada, he and Carr began to correspond.

In 1866 Muir returned to the United States and suffered a serious eye injury while working for Osgood & Smith, a manufacturing company in Indianapolis, Deciding to study the inventions of God rather than the inventions of man, and fearful that another eye injury might leave him in darkness forever—forever removed from the world of plants he adored, Muir left for a thousand-mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico where he sought strange plants in a landscape he had never before seen. Carr tried to keep up with him but mostly failed to follow his journey south.

Muir (r) and Roosevelt on Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park.
Muir (r) and Roosevelt on Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park. Credit: Creative Commons, Underwood.

Then by fate he would travel to California in 1868 and the Carrs arrived later that year. Muir walked into the Yosemite, the Carr’s settled in Oakland, where Ezra joined the faculty of the burgeoning University of California as a charter faculty member along with Joseph LeConte and his brother John. Jeanne continued to correspond with Muir and sent friends to meet him including Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Keith (California landscape painter), Albert Kellogg (botanist and founding member of the California Academy of Science), and Asa Gray (Professor of Botany, Harvard University). She would visit Yosemite in 1869, was unable to find Muir, and returned in 1873 to spend several months exploring with him, Keith and Kellogg. Their friendship continued, Jeanne introduced Muir to his future wife Louie Wanda Strentzel. It was Carr who brought in all ways attention to Muir’s gift as a writer, and it was she who believed in him probably more than anyone else.

On March 15, 1867, following Muir’s eye injury in Indianapolis, she wrote:

"Dear John, I have often in my heart wondered what God was training you for. He gave you the eye within the eye, to see in all natural objects the realized ideas of His mind. He gave you pure tastes and the steady preference of whatsoever is most lovely and excellent. He has made you a more individualized existence than is common, and by your very nature and organization removed you from common temptations. Perhaps He only wants you to love and to speak of Him. Perhaps He will not let you be a naturalist but calls you by this suffering away from that pleasant path to speak to other souls those messages of His your soul has heard. Do not be anxious about it. He will surely place you where your work is. Do I seem to speak over-confidently? Dear friend, my recognition of you from the first was just this—‘one of His beloved.’ When you are disposed to look hopelessly outward you may think, ‘Mrs. Carr believes fully in me. She would while there was enough left of my body to hold my soul.’ And you may think too that she does not pity half as much as she loves you."

For me their friendship is a testimony to the importance of having others in our lives—to trust, to love, to share, to celebrate, in whom we confide and find comfort. In the epilogue to Kindred & Related Spirits: The Letters of John Muir and Jeanne C. Carr (2001), I wrote: “Letters have an honesty that cannot be hidden. To a close friend we bare our soul. In and through the details of life that characteristically make us who we are and in and through the secrets we divulge only to those closest to us, we share our story, and in the telling and the hearing of our story we find ourselves on common ground—we no longer feel alone.”

In the friendship John Muir shared with Jeanne Carr, in the intimacy they wove through the Calypso orchid, and wove through other friends whom they shared in common, and found in the deeper spiritual qualities shared in the natural world, where church could be experienced in a garden, in Yosemite, in looking upon a field of Osmunda regalis, grew in trust and love to experience and share what he believed were the irresistible, contagious, and civilizing qualities of beauty set before all of us in the natural world. As much as Muir often wrote of experiencing wildness alone, he was never alone but gifted through friendship with all elements in the natural world to move through the pilgrimage of his life in the comfort and belonging of friends like Jeanne Carr.

Read: Discover another one of North America's scenic treasures, the Skyline Drive at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia! 

Yosemite National Park, "Home" of the Sierra Club and home to Bonnie

Meg: Dr. Joseph LeConte is the person for whom LeConte Memorial Lodge is dedicated. Can you introduce him to those who may not be familiar with him?

Bonnie: Dr. Joseph LeConte was a charter professor of geology at the University of California, Berkeley—the first campus in the system founded in 1869. He was a founding member of the Sierra Club and one of the first board members—until 1898. Traveling to Yosemite Valley in 1870 with eight of his university students, LeConte met John Muir who traveled with the excursion party for ten days. He shared Muir’s enthusiasm for the glacial origin of Yosemite Valley and returned to Yosemite in 1872, validating Muir’s glacial theory, publishing “A Theory of the Formation of the Great Features of the Earth’s Surface.” Returning to Yosemite on eight occasions, it was on the last trip in 1901, the first Sierra Club “outing” trips that would take club members to the High Sierra, that LeConte died in Curry Village just before the trip began. LeConte published a text book Elements of Geology highly regarded by students as was his teaching. LeConte wrote of Yosemite: “As I stood gazing down into the dark and roaring chasm, and up into the clear sky, my heart swelled with gratitude to the Great Author of all beauty and grandeur.”

LeConte Memorial Center
LeConte Memorial Center. Credit: Stephen Joseph

Yosemite valley

Meg: Yosemite is said to be the “home” of the Sierra Club—what does this mean to you?

Bonnie: Yosemite is the home of the Sierra Club in that Yosemite is where the roots of the Sierra Club were germinated in the work of John Muir and the relations that he developed and nurtured with like-minded individuals who sprang-forth the purpose in its organization. John Muir and Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of The Century Magazine are in large-part responsible for the birth of Yosemite National Park, established to protect watersheds—from grazing and lumbering--that flow into Yosemite Valley. YNP was established in 1890, the Sierra Club was established two years later in 1892, founded as a watchdog organization to oversee and advocate for the protection of YNP as well as the High Sierra. There were attempts to reconfigure the boundaries and in the early twentieth-century the battle for Hetch Hetchy asked serious questions about the protection of land set aside in perpetuity. John Muir became the first president of the Club and served until his death in 1914. The motto of the Sierra Club in seeking high places, is to enjoy, explore, and protect the planet. Here in Yosemite and in the High Sierra work began that today has carried the efforts of the Club to protect, preserve and conserve the natural wonder and resources of our planet.

Meg: You spend five months of the year working in Yosemite Valley as the curator of the LeConte Memorial Lodge. Can you describe what that role involves—and how it came about? It seems tailor-made for you.

Bonnie: Since 2002 I have been the curator at the Sierra Club’s LeConte Memorial Lodge, an environmental education center and the first permanent visitor center in Yosemite Valley, built by the Sierra Club in 1903. I am responsible for all activity involved in facilitating the daily operation and planning for the building. I actively seek approximately 120 Sierra Club members who volunteer to assist in meeting the public during our open hours of Wednesday through Sunday from 10 am until 4 pm. And, I train the volunteers who arrive in groups of five to six each week—camping with me here in the Valley, and prepare and provide them all necessary material to represent LML to the visiting public. I create, design, and generally build all the environmental educational projects—Wilderness Quilt Project, Words for Wilderness, Our Home Our Neighborhood, Green Shoes, and our current project Bear in Mind—that addresses global warming/climate change in the guise of a large green bear made from recycled materials.

I am also responsible for securing all the programs presented at LML from May through September, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings—with some daytime programs during the summer months—this amounts to about 80 programs each season—at one time I ran as many as 125 programs. I seek to find individuals who foster caring for Nature and the environment, who in their own lives explore and enjoy and respect the natural world and have a message of hope and possibility. People who believe in sharing their stories--whether academics or storytellers, hikers or search and rescue rangers, writers or poets, archivists or people who bring John Muir and Galen Clark alive—all have the opportunity to stand before our audiences of between twenty and one hundred to share their enthusiasm and their knowledge. I know there are many visitors for whom the education process stopped years ago—but here at LML we open their eyes and minds to discovering new things or providing avenues to reawaken old thoughts. I like that and I like the simplicity of the whole process. All programs are free and we do not sell anything at LML—but what we provide is priceless.

All the publicity for LML is directed by me and LML as a Yosemite National Park “Park Partner,” is a member of the interpretive team that jointly are responsible for coordinating all the programs presented in the park by the various partners including the NPS, the Ansel Adams Gallery, Delaware North, Yosemite Conservancy, and Nature Bridges as well as others. I am the eyes and ears of LML, and as a National Historic Landmark LML requires a certain amount of physical care, and I work to coordinate the support necessary to maintain LML. Occasionally I have the opportunity to lecture at LML about John Muir, women in Yosemite, LeConte and the architect who designed LML (Bernard Maybeck). And, on occasion I have the opportunity to travel to lecture to discuss LML, my work on behalf of John Muir, and my own interests and concerns about the environment.

LeConte interio
LeConte interior. Credit: Creative Commons, Eric Polk.

As the curator, I also have the opportunity to meet thousands of visitors who stop by each day from May through the end of September. Meeting families who care about the natural world and are committed to the same ideals that I am and that are encouraged by the Sierra Club is very hopeful and rewarding—an extension of the not being out on a tree limb alone kind of feeling. My life in Yosemite is complex in running LeConte Memorial Lodge but also very simple. The months I spend here help me to treasure the joys in life that are uncluttered and keep me in touch with the natural world and my relation to Nature. I find a balance here over the course of the five to six months I spend living in the Valley and the remainder of the year I spend in what I call "the real world."

While I had hoped to spend my career teaching in a University or Seminary, I was not able to find a permanent appointment—though I taught for seven years at Drew University, spent a year at Green Mountain College, and another year at the University of the Pacific. But, here in Yosemite, in the “university of the wilderness,” I teach each day, dive into our library, turn the pages and find a plant someone was curious about. I teach thousands of people each season and that is terrific. Yes, being the curator of LML is, perhaps, tailored for me with my background in divinity, American cultural and environmental history, and with my specialties in John Muir, American landscape painting, and Frederick Olmsted. Here, in this chapel-of-sorts in this granite temple/cathedral, who I am (who I have become) works nicely. I am blessed and grateful for the opportunities I have been given here.

Sierra Club (national) out of San Francisco took responsibility for LeConte in the late 1980s—it had for several years been run by volunteers from a Sierra Club Chapter in Fresno, California. Under the director of headquarters, a LML Committee was formed. A curator was hired to oversee LML and I am the most recent and longest-serving curator following the reorganization of LML. Interestingly, Ansel Adams was the curator of LML from 1920-1923—nice footsteps to follow!

Meg: Can you describe what it is like living in Yosemite for roughly half the year?

Bonnie: As the curator of LeConte Memorial Lodge, I live in Yosemite National Park in a tent—a real tent in a campsite. There is no electricity. This season has been a challenge. I arrived April 1 following a heavy snowstorm. There was one small patch in the campsite where the sun melted the snow; there I pitched my tent. On nights when the wind blew fierce in the ponderosa pine and rain pelted down, I took my Scottie dog, Atwood, and blankets and slept in my car, often to find in the morning my car covered in six inches of snow.

Bonnie's tent
Bonnie's tent. Credit: Stephen Joseph

There are bears in camp. They are opportunistic feeders and in the dark, it is difficult to see them. One evening after 10 pm, a friend had opened his bear locker, where all food is stored in camp. The bear heard the bear locker open and proceeded to the locker. I attempted to scare the bear away. Instead, weighing about 300 pounds, he charged toward me—within about two feet.

Meteor showers over Half Dome in August are spectacular. Spring storms that drop clouds below Yosemite Valley walls and hover in the meadows and on the granite walls are both beautiful and other-worldly. There is a community of stream orchids near my tent, showy milkweed with iridescent beetles, and mountain azalea. I live close to the Merced River, actually near where Dr. Joseph LeConte liked to camp. Under the Royal Arches and North Dome, each morning a meadow-walk takes me out to gaze upon Glacier Point and back to Half Dome.

Meg: One of your undertakings was the Wilderness Quilt Project—can you describe that, including providing an example of its meaning for you personally?

Bonnie: In 2002 when I accepted the position as curator of LeConte Memorial Lodge, I decided to bring fifty yards of muslin cloth, bottles of acrylic paint and paint brushes to begin the Wilderness Quilt Project. Years earlier while teaching studio art in a college in Amherst, New York, I sent my students to the zoo with muslin squares to paint animals. I stitched the squares into a quilt and had long forgotten it. In moving boxes from my parent’s attic to storage, I found the quilt. Believing that the best way to guide people of all ages to see the natural world around them is to involve them in drawing, painting, and writing about nature and their relationship to it, I decided I would bring a similar project to LeConte Memorial Lodge.

The Wilderness Quilt Project began the first day LML opened in 2002; and, by the end of the season in September we had collected over 600 squares. Anyone who visited LML was invited to paint a square—their memory of Yosemite National Park. At the end of the season a committee selected squares for six quilts—four of which are at LML, one is housed at the Sierra Club headquarters in San Francisco, and one is in the permanent collection at the Autry Museum in southern California. The quilts (coverlets) were stitched together by friends of LML and several quilt groups and individual quilters completed the quilting.

With two degrees in fine art and my interest in installation art/environmental art, I enjoy the process of participatory art. By providing the basic theme of an installation (in this case quilts), the individual artists are then able to incorporate their own creativity into their piece which then becomes part of the whole—sort of creative-diversity yet linked together. I built a similar thematic environmental installation when I was a visiting professor at Green Mountain College. UnGapped consisted of twenty-two large pot-holder shaped pieces, each about ten feet tall and eight feet wide, that were woven with recycled clothing, then rolled, and stood on end to make a forest.

Bonnie on being a student, educator, and her role at LeConte Memorial Lodge

Meg: Another of your projects is ‘Words for Wilderness.’ Can you describe this endeavor, how it came about, what it means to you?

Bonnie: In 2003 I decided to follow John Muir around the world with people's words—actually fifty words or less, either written on one-third sheet of recycled 8 ½ x 11 paper or submitted online. One of my key themes is environmental literacy—I hope people will take the time to connect with the natural world by writing their own story about places they have been and what they have seen. My father loved trees, grew them from seedlings, and scattered maple seeds across the landscapes of southwestern New York State. He taught me how to live outdoors, took me fishing, hunting, and camping—but he never wrote anything down for me to look back upon—the only thing he ever drew were little fish on the corner of everything he sent me. I still have some of those drawings. The expression of who we are and how we live in the natural world is so very important to then expanding our understanding of nature, caring for our planet, and preserving and conserving the natural world.

With the help of two LeConte Memorial Lodge committee members, we created a map that was displayed in LML that represented everywhere Muir traveled. The map was duplicated on the LML website—it is still on the website and individuals are still able to contribute their words. People of all ages drew, wrote prose or poetry here at LML, sent them to LML from schools or communities around the globe, and also sent them by email. I took the sheets of paper and created a chain, linking each to the other and hung the chain in LML for two seasons. Eventually we dismantled the chain and stored the Words for Wilderness. There were thousands of “Words.” Some of them were very beautiful in their simplicity of thought and other individuals created drawings of Yosemite or landscapes from their communities with pastels and colored pencils. It was the cumulative nature of the project that impressed me—an installation of paper and thousands of individual impressions.

Meg: You will be presenting a lecture entitled “John Muir: The Poetry of Plants and the Divinity of Glaciers” at the Atlanta History Center in October. It’s a beautiful theme—can you share a little about it?

Bonnie: The lecture I am giving at the Atlanta History Center is a keynote to open the exhibit that was created to accompany the book I published with Stephen J. Joseph in 2008 Nature’s Beloved Son: Rediscovering John Muir’s Botanical Legacy published by Heyday Books. The traveling exhibition will be in Atlanta under the direction of Exhibition Envoy, a California based not-for-profit organization that brings exhibits to institutions mainly in California. It is my hope to take this opportunity to create a portrait of John Muir that is inclusive of his sense of prose and poetry, wonder and delight, enthusiasm and faith, and his deep abiding love for the natural world and his desire to preserve the natural landscape and conserve natural resources. Muir’s sensitivity for plants—he called them his plant-friends--is intimately connected to his appreciation and regard for glaciers. I have lectured on both subjects—botany and glaciers—and now have the opportunity to integrate them. The lecture will include two poems that I have written about Muir. Following the keynote, a five minute film by photographer Stephen Joseph will highlight Muir’s herbarium collection.

Yosemite Falls.
Yosemite Falls. Credit: Stephen Joseph

The water trickling through the trees in Yosemite.
The water trickling through the trees in Yosemite. Credit: Meg Pier

Meg: Your role is that of both student and educator—can you talk about the ‘energy’ of the two different roles and how they work together?

Bonnie: Each day I set out to learn something or see something I did not see or did not see quite the same way as I did the day before. I start each day by thinking about growing not going—growing into the person I am always becoming. For me each day is a new experience—as if this tree or that plant had not been seen before. There is a particularly lush garden of grasses, young pacific dogwood, and berry bushes near my tent in Yosemite. The sun never quite bounces off them the same way—in appearance they are always changing, catching the light differently, being different in the wind and sun. It is a garden I have not cultivated, but it is a garden none-the-less—it is growing and I grow with it. I am a student of the natural world. As an educator, at LeConte Memorial Lodge, I take the lessons I am learning (growing) and apply them in teaching—less structured than a college classroom in a university, with a syllabus, books, lectures, but a “university in the wilderness” where the education is more along the lines of what I call “wilderness triage.” Visitors arrive at LeConte Memorial, ask a question, seek resolve to an inquiry about a hike or a flower they saw, and the process of teaching begins—relations are expanded. That is where the energy resides. In my public lectures and in the process of creating exhibits the teaching is more carefully delineated. I anticipate a certain outcome—excitement and joy in the person who will hear the words or see something presented in a way that creates an intimacy. I think of a lecture or an exhibit in the same way I once thought about painting or creating a sculpture when I was a practicing artist. The point is one of impact and in words or objects displayed I am looking to create tonality and a moment where the person hearing or seeing thinks about not having heard that or seen this or experienced it that way before. That is fun and exciting. I like creating moments of enthusiasm.

Meg: What gives you hope about the future of our environment?

Mirror Lake, Yosemite National Park
Mirror Lake. Credit: Meg Pier

Bonnie: The children that I meet at LeConte Memorial Lodge. The ideas, the messages that are being nuanced in our culture regarding caring for the natural world; the careful and caring use of resources and recycling; an integrative approach to the growing, production, and consumption of food; the importance of story in our lives—the story of our lives in the natural world, on the Earth; the importance of nature in our lives; and an abiding respect and knowledge of the natural world are being introduced and integrated into every facet of children’s lives and it is having an impact. Young children today are very much aware of what it means to be green. Thousands of children visit LeConte Memorial Lodge each season and draw and leave messages that are filled with hope about the world they are inheriting. Many ideas and considerations that seem so difficult to accept today, will, I think, become part and parcel of the lives of today’s children who will be tomorrows adults. Explore is one of the three concepts that make up the motto of the Sierra Club—enjoy, explore, protect the planet. I always say that “imagination” is the greatest nation and the children that visit LeConte Memorial Lodge understand the “explore” element very well and apply their imaginations to explore the world. Their inquisitive minds and open hearts are hungry to grow and they appear to me to have a strong ethical sense with regard to the world around them. I am hopeful and I pledge and promise, in and through my work to help prepare them as best I am able.

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Meg Pier

Meg Pier

Publisher and editor of People Are Culture (PAC). This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.


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4 thoughts on “Q & A with Bonnie J Gisel, Curator of LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite National Park”

  1. I had the wonderful opportunity to work as a volunteer with Bonnie at LeConte Memorial Lodge, twice around 2008. I learned so much about nature, history and the environment from Dr. Gisel that have had a long term effect on how I view the world today. Excellent interview!

    • Tracy, what a lovely comment! I can only imagine it must have been a wonderful experience to work closely with Bonnie. Not only is she an expert on the amazing John Muir, but she herself is a font of information and insights about botany, fine art, nineteenth century cultural studies, and divinity. Thanks for sharing your experience!


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