“I never go to national parks,” a young woman dressed in tight capris and climbing shoes said to her bearded friend. It was one of those overheard conversations at an airport. “They aren’t wild enough for me,” she explained and went on to associate our 58 national parks with bumper-to-bumper traffic, long lines for the bathroom, and goggle-eyed tourists with cameras.

Truth is, I shared some of her fears in 2017, when my family and I numbered among the 4.12 million people who visited Yellowstone National Park in 2017. Yellowstone ranks as the oldest (1872) and one of the most heavily traveled national parks, and I worried about crowds ruining our trip. However, my son, an enthusiastic young scientist, wanted to see those geysers.

To get off the beaten track, I’ve learned, requires research. Through my sister Ann I located Janelle Brown, a journalist, who lives in Idaho and visits Yellowstone as often as once a year. “It is like nowhere else on earth, the geysers, hot pots, wildlife, mountains and scenery continue to amaze, and the great thing is if you get away from the road at all you are in pristine wilderness,” she said. “Of course, you’ll want to have bear spray.” One of the most important pieces of advice Janelle offered for our trip was to stay inside the park boundary. The Grand Loop road in Yellowstone is 142 miles long, so don’t spend an additional hour in the car getting there, she advised. Staying inside the park, Janelle said, will help you capture early morning and evening hour views of wildlife while minimizing crowds.

I started planning in January for the following summer, and this was too late for many of the hotels. However, I found a good selection of campsites in Madison Campground and so decided on car camping. Most elk prefer daybreak, so my son and I rose early on the first day and counted seven by the Firehole River. Although the national park campsites typically offer flat tent sites and clean bathrooms, be careful about tent placement: Yellowstone has a lot of late afternoon rain storms, and because of the rocky ground water has no place to go except in the bottom of a tent. People from all over the world stay in national park campgrounds, though, so visits with the “neighbors” can be a lot of fun. Our favorite sign from the Madison Campground bathrooms:

Bathrooms in Yellowstone all post this delightful sign about tourists getting too close to buffalo.

As a frequent national park visitor, I have learned that if you are willing to walk at least a mile, you can often escape the crowds. Naturally, I asked Janelle about favorite day hikes, and she recommended Mount Washburn, a 6.4 mile hike with a 1,400 foot elevation gain up to the 10,243 foot summit. (“Don’t forget the bear spray!”) The morning in July that my family and started on this hike, it was awash in wildflowers, Indian Paintbrush in a magenta color as well as purple lupine and tall yellow thistles. We met a couple of young women from Clemson University who were studying the habitat of pikas. An indicator species for global warming, Ochotona princeps (a tiny member of the rabbit family) favors high elevations and these cooler habitats are sadly in decline.

We met only a few parties on that lovely morning hike, (the trail became more crowded in the afternoon), and at the top we saw 14 big horn sheep. These “charismatic megafauna,” as one of my park service friends calls them, were a thrill to see so close. They posed for photographs but snorted loudly if a hiker invaded their personal space. With steep cliff drop-offs in every direction, I respected their boundaries. On a clear day, a map in the fire tower at the top oriented visitors to the entire park in a panoramic view.

 

Young big horned sheep near the top of Mount Washburn.

In general, I do not enjoy the “most visited site” at any national park. I advise friends to skip Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or the Tunnel View in Yosemite. However, my son wanted to see the famous Lamar Valley, and the Visitor Center at Mammoth Springs (on our way there) has a bookstore not to be missed. The knowledgeable rangers verified that we had seen a sandhill crane on our drive. They also offered suggestions for the best viewing times of Lamar Valley and where to see an osprey nest on the way. The bookstore included Native American history, which was woefully inadequate in park interpretation. The most important thing we got, however, turned out to be a small book published by Montana State University, called Living Colors: Microbes of Yellowstone National Park (Montana State University, 2013). I bought it as a guidebook for my science buff, but it ended up changing all of our experiences.

One reason I was reluctant to travel the Lamar Valley was because I read the 1986 book, Playing God in Yellowstone, which argues that the scenes of buffalo and elk in the park are the result of mismanagement. To supply visitors with a safe view of nature, the National Park Service in the early twentieth century engaged in predator control, including wolves, mountain lions, and coyotes. The NPS did not allow hunting, which then limited Native American culling of the herds. The overpopulation of elk in particular led to a loss of vegetation, which drastically limited beaver populations and changed the nature of the land. Chase even blasts the 1963 Leopold Report, pushed by environmentalists, which moved the entire agency toward ecosystem management. Chase, the ultimate curmudgeon, argued this was another way of “playing God.”

The park drew criticism after the advent of ecosystem management, for no longer feeding bears (1970); for cooperating with elk hunters on the borderlands (1986); for allowing some areas of the park to burn in a fire (1988); and for reintroducing wolves (1994). Some of these experiments worked better than others, but it’s important to remember that few scientists do their work in as public an area, and the Yellowstone rangers must keep 4.12 million people safe who want to see the charismatic megafauna and not get killed.

All this controversy acknowledged, the Lamar Valley with its ranging bison was breathtaking on a July afternoon. On the way into the scene, a buffalo dodged behind our car. When the traffic slowed to a crawl because of a “buffalo jam,” we simply parked by the side of the road and watched the herd. An adult bison weighs 1,000 pounds (cow) to 2,000 pounds (bull) and stands at the hump about six feet. They run as fast as 40 miles an hour. What you cannot get from a postcard photograph of American bison, however, includes their sound. While we watched from a safe distance, two male bison had what appeared to be a disagreement over a female. She munched grass, unconcerned, as the two bulls grunted, stamped their feet and made noises with those giant chest cavities that I can only describe as roars. We half feared and half expected them to lock horns, but after about 30 minutes they went their separate ways. It was thrilling in the way of megafauna.

Be sure to call these charismatic stars of the Lamar Valley bison NOT buffalo.

I thoroughly enjoyed all of our encounters with elk, big horn sheep, sandhill cranes, bison, and other wildlife. Yet one can become a little competitive within such abundance, boasting with strangers about the number of animals “captured” in photographs or the best places to snag a view of one. Maybe that’s why the highlight of the trip, for me, did not take place on remote hikes or in the presence of large animals or even in a place without people. It happened because of the research we did through the little guidebook, Living Colors. We had already enjoyed a fabulous sunset over Norris Geyser Basin; the effervescent glub-glub of Paint Pots; and the beautiful travertine formations made by carbolic acid called Mammoth Springs, both the Upper and Lower terrace. My family and I had marveled at these beauties, but Living Colors opened our eyes to something we hadn’t seen.

Living Colors explains that the beauty of the famous hot springs is not caused by chemical dyes or geologic interactions but by billions of living microbes inside the geyser basins. The microbes in Yellowstone are called extremophiles, because they exist under such harsh conditions. The odd green-blue colors in Mammoth Hot Springs, for instance, are called Chloroflexus, and scientists are studying them because they think they might help us understand the evolution of photosynthesis. One type of extremophile, Sulfurihydrogenibium, has been found in deep sea thermal vents. Living Colors explains that extremophiles may hold the key to alternative energy fuels; hazardous waste control; and even disease treatments. The landscape, which appeared at first glance barren (if fantastic in formation), became filled with mystery for us.

The color of Grand Prismatic Spring is supplied by microbes.

The largest hot spring in America, Grand Prismatic Spring, became the climax of our adventure with microbes. Surprisingly, it no longer mattered that we were sharing this experience with dozens of people who shuffled behind us on a boardwalk. We were, perhaps, annoying to other tourists, because we stayed at the center position for a long time, cataloging Calathrix, a bacterium that lives in water above 86 degrees and has a chemical in it that provides its own sunscreen. Another bacterium, Pharmidium, exists in 95-135 degree water temperatures and produces the bright orange color in the photograph above.

My family had taken all the photographs they wanted, and my son and I had identified the three major extremophiles in the spring. Everyone started back down the boardwalk, but I lingered. I myself could not survive in the hot water this environment, should I fall into it, but extremophiles organisms thrive. The microbes in the rainbow-colored pool suddenly pulsated with a beauty that was thrilling and terrifying at the same time.

It’s all alive, I thought, wonderstruck, every color present is filled with life. And, perhaps most surprisingly, I didn’t get off the beaten track to encounter these creatures, and they consist of the opposite of megafauna. Alone for a moment with the Grand Prismatic Spring I felt connected not only to the 2,200 acres of this magical place but also to “the eternity in an hour.”

Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

Lately, I find myself thinking about Ida B. Wells (1862-1931). Wells comes to my mind every time someone mentions having “outrage fatigue” or declaring the latest political crisis, “outrageous.” In her diary, Wells doesn’t appear to get fatigue. A journalist and public speaker, she spent five decades voicing one of the greatest outrages in American history: the epidemic of lynching in the South that began during the 1890s. I think about her because she never stopped believing in the ability of our country to turn itself around, even though she did not see that happen in her own lifetime.

Technically born a slave, Wells’ earliest memories included freedom, the reunion of families, and the creation of a black community in Holly Springs, Mississippi, during Reconstruction. Perhaps she saw her father vote. Her father did purchase a framed house and worked to support the family, while her mother kept house, even winning a prize for their children’s Sunday-school attendance. Wells was nurtured into the idea that life would be better for African Americans and the key to success was education.

Alas, a yellow fever epidemic struck this promising start to life. More than 400 Holly Springs residents died, and Wells lost both of her parents. At 16, she went to work as a teacher in a country school to support her siblings. Two years later, her Aunt Fanny invited the family to live in Memphis, Tennessee, where she landed a teaching job with better pay.

In comparison to rural Mississippi, Memphis seemed a cosmopolitan place. About 39 percent of the population was African American, and they operated a commercial district that included boarding places, barbershops, saloons, undertaking parlors, eateries, Zion Hall (an auditorium), a men’s fraternal group, and a newspaper. They supported their own churches as well as grocery stores. The future, again, appeared brighter. In this decade African Americans like Wells took the train to visit each other and attend education conferences.

At the same time, though, Tennessee Democrats were re-gaining control of the political system and passed the first segregation law. In September 1883, Ida B. Wells boarded a “colored car” in the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) and saw a drunken white man and smokers. Because she bought a first-class ticket, Wells moved to the first class car and tried to bury her nose in the newspaper. When the conductor came to get tickets, he asked her to move. She refused. When the train paused at a station, she refused again. The conductor tried to physically pull her from the seat but she hooked her feet and bit his hand. With the help of two other passengers, she was dragged to the colored car, but she chose instead to get off the train.

Seventy-one years before Rosa Parks’ famous moment, Ida Wells hired a lawyer to demand justice. At the trial, the conductor acknowledged that neither smoking nor drinking was allowed in the colored car. Numerous testimonies corroborated the presence of smokers and an inebriated man. Others acknowledged that black nurses and nannies often rode in the first class car with their employers. On the stand, Wells appeared calm and petite and dressed like a lady of the time. She won her case and damages of $500.

Although she lost on appeal and the laws of segregation eventually tightened, Wells focused her sense of outrage into the legal system. It is for this reason that I always teach my students about her. Young people tend to see history as an inevitable march of fate, and they need to know that neither segregation nor disenfranchisement came without resistance. They also need to know that white southerners did more than pass laws separating the races: they terrorized African Americans.

In 1889, Memphis papers carried the news that Eliza Woods, a black cook from Jackson, Tennessee, was lynched for poisoning her white employer. The mob that murdered Eliza Woods stripped her naked and riddled her body with bullets based on the fact that the employer was killed by arsenic and Woods had a box of rat poison in her home. Wells was filled with what could be described as true outrage: she was overcome with emotion to the point that she had to pray to God for wisdom and composure as she wrote about the event in her diary. Two years later, the husband of the white woman confessed to killing his wife. Fury returned to Wells, but this time she wrote about the disgrace of lynching in the newspaper, and she exhorted black men everywhere to “rise to their manhood.”

Finding her voice increased Wells’ fame, and she became staff writer and part owner of the Memphis Free Speech. In 1891, another black man was lynched for killing a white man who had intimate relations with the black man’s wife. In retaliation, black men set fire to several homes and barns in the white community. In response, white community members patrolled the streets and tensions in the city grew. A fight between two boys—one white, one black—over a marble game accelerated the situation. The owner of the People’s Grocery came out to defend the black boy, and a fight broke out among adults. The next day, arrests resulted in a shootout at the grocery store. There were more arrests, and then 75 white men surrounded the jail at 2:30 a.m. and dragged three men out of the jail and shot them in a horrific manner. By the next day, gangs of white men roamed the streets shooting at any group of black men, and the Memphis unrest made the front page of the New York Times.

“Tell my people to go West,” were Tommy Moss’s dying words. “There is no justice for you here.” Wells was a close friend of Tommy and his wife, Betty. Although Wells had long protested the mobs that took the law into their one hands, she knew that she needed to do everything in her power to raise awareness about lynching. Eventually, Memphis whites burned the offices of the Memphis Free Speech and Wells was forced into exile because of threats on her life. She moved to Brooklyn. “Having destroyed my paper, had a price put on my life, and been made an exile from home for hinting at the truth,” Wells wrote, “I felt I owed it to myself and to my race to tell the whole truth now that I was where I could do it freely.”

For the next 10 years, Wells researched the reasons for lynching. She quickly found (using interviews and white newspaper accounts) that the “charges” claimed to justify lynching were untrue. Mobs typically claimed that a black man had raped a white woman, and the horror of this idea to northern audiences prevented the state and federal governments from intervening. Wells was able to compile enough research to prove that the accusations were rarely true. While exiled in New York, she raised money by speaking her truth to public audiences and using the money to publish the Red Record Crying “rape,” she argued, was used to hide hostility toward African American economic and political successes.

More than 100 years later, Wells’ research has been verified.   However, at the time it was difficult for the United States to accept a woman as a valid researcher and a credible activist. Booker T. Washington begged her to soft-pedal the complicity of white women in lynching. Carter Woodson left her out of the first history of lynching. W.E.B Dubois invited her to participate in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), then left her name off official records.

From 1890 through the 1930s, Wells continued to speak and write about the truth of lynching. Eventually, she moved to Chicago, married, and had children. She may be the first nursing mother to have ever given a public address. Although she did not receive credit for her achievements in her lifetime, she effectively channeled her outrage and published the truth before anyone else dared.

David J. Ley, PhD, a clinical psychologist and writer for Psychology Today explains that the oft-used phrase “outrage fatigue” is not a diagnosis, but it is a real problem here in the present. Because we are today assaulted with a 24/7 news cycle and cell phones, we experience hurricanes, police shootings, political infighting, and apocalyptic predictions at a rate unprecedented in history. Ley offers good suggestions for “outrage fatigue,” but from the biography of Ida B. Wells I offer a few more. The first is this: what is a true outrage?

Southern lynchings were true outrages. African American men like Sam Hose, in 1899 in Georgia, were killed in broad daylight by a mob who staged it in front of more than a thousand men, women, and children. His body was mutilated and pieces of it were sold as souvenirs. The mob then dumped oil over him and set him on fire while he was still alive. It doesn’t matter whether or not he did commit a crime: No human being in a country governed by law should be treated this way. What anyone tweets about anyone else, however ugly or inappropriate or disrespectful, cannot be compared with this heinous lack of respect for the law and the lives of human beings. When I find myself manipulated into anger by someone’s words, I think it’s worthwhile to put it in perspective in this way.

And there’s more. Ida B. Wells did not take on all of the outrages of her time (child labor, 12-hour work days, tenements, lack of fire codes, to name a few). She focused on one. She did her own research and did not rely solely upon the media of her time. She negotiated support from her husband at a time when women were expected to put all of their energy into their husband’s career. She was a woman of faith, who called on spiritual guidance to give her courage. She believed, despite northern white apathy and lack of action, that law and justice matter, and that they are, in the end, the American way.

Photo:

Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

Sources:

Duster, Alfreda. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B Wells. University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Giddings, Paula. Ida: A Sword Among Lions, Ida B Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

Royser, Jacqueline Jones. Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900 Second Edition. Bedford/St. Martins, 2016.

 

In an early morning hour, I am recording a dream before it slips back into the night-time world. I sit at the dining room table, engrossed in a faint memory of a Caribbean couple who asked if they could design me a magical dress. I can no longer see their faces or remember what magical powers this garment might possess. The dining room table where I write starts to come into focus, as a final glimpse of a purple and turquoise batik fabric fades into the pile of unsorted papers. Bills, a birthday card, and a grocery list with the word “mangoes” come into view.

Bam! Chloe, our beagle mix, spots a chipmunk and pushes the French doors open to run outside. The lovely cool morning air slips inside my world, so I leave the door open. Gathering into my consciousness, though, is Chloe’s bobbing tail, as she disappears through the fig bushes in an effort to catch the little critter.

I look up, still trying to remember if my husband is in this dream, when Bonk, a small bird hits the open door, struggles over the top, and flies into the room and onto my table of papers. Outside, a hawk – the one, I quickly realize, must have been chasing the small bird – banks quickly to avoid my dining room and flies away. The small bird, now flying crazily, lands on top of the sideboard filled with my in-laws’ china and falls backward against the wall.

Did that just happen? Is there a dead bird in my house? I have enough experience with dying animals to I know they can fight with their last breaths. I run to the screen porch and grab my husband’s leather gloves. Sliding the gloved hand between the wall and the sideboard and using my body as a wedge, I hold my hand out behind the sideboard to catch the bird. It lands in my palm. Slowly sliding my hand out from the back of the sideboard, I look at the bird, a small woodpecker, maybe?

And then, something amazing happened. The bird moves his head and looks at me. We are less than a foot apart, his dark black eye very much alive.

All my life until that moment I have been a dedicated feeder of birds but certainly not knowledgeable enough about them to be called a “birder.” I remember my father, the engineer, donning his puffy down jacket and big hat with ear flaps to feed the birds on a sub-zero Minnesota day. Feeding the birds was a duty, like mowing the lawn.

Who are you? I look at these tiny black eyes, which seem to be regarding me closely, unafraid–just curious. I walk out the French doors onto the deck, holding out my palm, but the little woodpecker doesn’t take his eyes off me. I am thinking he will disappear, but he cocks his head a bit, to get a better look at the unkempt appearance of his rescuer. I inch out the door with my outstretched palm toward the edge of the yard. My neighbor, Adam, works for the local wildlife center knows a lot about birds, and he’s often home in the afternoon watching his young children. I hear someone on the porch.

“Adam?” I call, softly, so as not to disturb my little friend. “Adam, are you there?”

The sound turns out to be a babysitter, checking her cell messages while the children are napping. She offers to take a photo of the woodpecker over the fence with her phone and send it to Adam. I will always be grateful to her, because I ended up with a photo of the bird in my hand. Adam, who views this photo from work thinks it’s a juvenile downy woodpecker. “Don’t worry, he’s probably just stunned,” he tells me through the babysitter.

“How long are they stunned?” I ask, and the Downy looks for the first time at the babysitter, as if he, too, wants the answer.

“Maybe ten minutes or so. Small hawks like a Cooper’s will stun their prey first, then kill it. You probably saved the bird’s life – just watch him and give him some room.”

Thanking the babysitter, I turn toward my own backyard. Ten minutes seem like a long time and no time at all. What do you say when you have the full attention of a Downy Woodpecker? Which words of wisdom should I share? How do you explain the insanity of human beings to a fledgling?

With my palm open and my arm outstretched, I give my little charge a tour of the yard. I tell him about the wildflowers that I transplanted, when the owner of my old rental was going to raze the old house and build condominiums. I explain why I have to move the raised beds, because they are in something called a frost pocket. Maybe I will plant a nice pollinator garden here. His eyes never left my face, but I confess mine kept turning toward the flowers and trees, what next?

All this time, Chloe is wandering the backyard in search of the chipmunk, completely uninterested in the tour.

“This is where we buried a robin that died, when Frank (my son) was small. He was so sad about the dead bird, and I wanted him to know that all lives matter. The butterfly bush is doing so well there,” I say, feeling a bit foolish, but the woodpecker appears fascinated.

Above me, on the telephone line, I see two birds making quite a bit of noise. It occurs to me that this might be the bird’s parents.

I walked back toward the French doors, thinking I will pick up my binoculars and check to see if the birds on the line are woodpeckers. As I near the doorway, the fledgling becomes airborne without so much as a push off. He simply opens his wings and joins the breeze.

I return to the dining room table, then, and look over my scribbling about some imaginary dressmakers in faraway lands. I close the journal. I wonder why that seemed so important to me, when all the drama of life and death, changing fortunes and magic I ever dreamed of are right outside my window.