No fate but what we make  

Posted by Jonathan E Johns in , , , ,

My heart was broken a few times this evening.

But let me start at the beginning.

In the early 1990s, I liked to go to the local public library and borrow video tapes. Documentaries mostly, some films, but for the most part I watched films such as Ken Burns Civil War, and some travel videos.

One I came across was called, “Yosemite: The Fate of Heaven.” I took it home and with wonder and amazement watched the tale of Yosemite Valley as told by the Sundance Institute, and the Yosemite Association. Narrarated by Robert Redford, who also executive produced, it follows a narrative from the Diary of Lafayette Bunnell, a Company Doctor, who in 1851 accompanied a battalion of soldiers who were sent to explore the area. Intertwined with this historic narrative are scenes from modern day park life (It was filmed in the late 1980s) with interviews with Park Rangers and visitors. These scenes reveal the heartbreaking struggle between sharing the beautiful public space with people whose very presence deteriorates the park itself. The compelling score and sound under the breathtaking film footage of this park pulls the viewer in, and creates a sense of longing to see with ones' own eyes these gorgeous vistas.

Every time I watch this film, my heart aches. I want to go there, and see that. I want to go back in time, and prevent the tragedy that the soldiers, in the name of the United States Government, put forth on the Native Americans who inhabited the land. I want to see the things that Ansel Adams photographed in order to share the new National Park System with the American Public. I think I share the feelings with many people that we wish to see this place as if we were the only people there. I think, ironically, that all 100,000 visitors a week want this same oneness with nature, all at the same time.

Ansel Adams could put similar feelings in my heart that this one hour long film does, but with a single photograph. He grew up in the Bay Area, only a few hours away from Yosemite, and used his immense skill at capturing images to create eternal snapshots of such beauty that viewers of his photos often find themselves in tears with emotion.

I was so moved by this film and the narrative, and so interested in History, that shortly after I saw the film for the first time I asked the local librarian to help me find the published book that the Narrator reads from. I didn't think my small town local library would carry this book, so I asked for an inter-library loan, and after a few weeks, it came through. I was stunned to see the book. It was not only a first edition leather bound copy, it was from the library at Yosemite National Park. It had penciled notes on the borders, and some water stains. I read it carefully, but hungrily, and upon returning it to the library, I asked the librarian to include a note from me thanking whoever sent it along. To my further surprise, in reply to that note, the librarian at Yosemite wrote me back stating that this is one of very few first edition copies available to the public, and has been read by 'some very famous people' including Ansel Adams, and the book was 'used prominently' in the making of the film The Fate of Heaven. Did the director read this copy? Did Robert Redford? I was astonished that something of such value had been in my hands. Another very rare thing that, although is meant to be enjoyed, is slowly destroyed in the process of enjoying it.

I think back to the years I spent here in Northern California, only a few hours away from this place that I longed for, and my heart cracks a little that I never took advantage of the proximity of such a place. When I first watched this film, I thought I would never ever get the opportunity to go there. I was borrowing from the library, because I could not afford to rent videos from a video rental store. Airfare, and expenses were so far out of reach as to be unthinkable. But through the grace of something more powerful than I, I got to move to Northern California in the mid 1990's. I honestly thought I would find the time and money to visit Yosemite. But these two things never came into my life at the same time, and I never did. When I moved back to Missouri in the mid 2000's, I wasn't sure if I would be able to afford to go back to California, and many times I wondered if I would get back to Northern California at all. As I watch this film, the cracking of my heart is almost audible at the time and money I've wasted not taking advantage of the opportunity before me.

So sometime after I had moved to Northern California, I spoke often of this film I had seen on Video Tape from the Library. I urged people I didn't even know to find the time, to take the time, to go see Yosemite. I looked for the video tape, or DVD of the film, but could not find it available for purchase anywhere. (The internet was not really what it is today, back then.) But again, serendipity crossed my path, and at a garage sale one day, I found a VHS tape for sale for a Dollar, and snatched it up as if I had found a copy of the Declaration of Independence.

Much like the Park itself, I wanted to share it with everyone I knew, but I did not want to share it either. I told everyone I could find that I had found it, and retold the story of Dr. Bunnell, and tried to share some kind of description of the visuals through emotions, but I wouldn't dare lend it out. I didn't even want to show it to anyone. The few very close friends I did let watch it often left wondering what I had been going on and on about. So either I had built it up way too much, or it simply did not touch everyone the way it touched me.

But I watched it. Over and over. When I was feeling lonely, or afraid, or any other kind of strong emotion, I watched this film, and it made my feelings transcend into other feelings until I was no longer feeling anything but longing, and hope, and deep down, shame and fear. I longed to see the Valley, I hoped that something in my life would lead me there, I was shamed that I didn't make it happen myself, and I feared I never would.

It has been nearly 6 years since I watched this film, due to some strange circumstances, I lost it in my packing and storing, and moving, but when I was packing up to move back here to Northern California, like some kind of sign, I found it in a box, under some unrelated things. When I finally got unpacked here in my new place, I put it prominently on my shelf of movies, with plans to watch it soon, as sort of a personal welcome back to myself.

So this evening, I pulled it out, dusted it off, and put it in the VCR. Before it started up, the same old feelings came up in my heart. The longing to see the film again, which can so easily transport me to another place, to another time, just as it had way back when I first saw it; When I still hoped to move away from the mid-west someday and see the world; When I thought more about history than current events. Before it started I thought to how I felt back then, and how something like this film could have touched my heart and my life so simply, yet so profoundly. I longed for that time again, just as I longed to be at the Valley before the soldiers came. I wanted to be somewhere else, as so many of us do; Someplace different, somehow better.

As I pressed “Play” on the remote, the familiar late 1980's distribution company logo came onscreen, and the first notes of the strings began to play, the voice of the narrator began, and my heart began to break. The quality of the sound was fine, but the video quality of the tape had deteriorated terribly. It was not unwatchable, and when compared to a High Definition Blu-Ray copy of BBC's Planet Earth it was terrible, but it was of low TV quality. I felt like I had let the poor thing down. I felt like I feel when I watch the folks in the film, who want to share the park, who love the park, but by simply enjoying it, they are destroying it. I watched it too much. I didn't protect it enough. The final heartbreaking loss of the story is that it is out of print. There are copies to be bought, but they are from the last production run of the video tape from back in the 90's, and they will be of a significantly better quality than mine, but over time, they will simply lose their quality as well. I could buy a copy or two on the internet now, and save them for the future, but I doubt this film will ever be digitized, or made into a DVD. The thing about it is, I could easily go to the Valley now, and feel the emotions, and have my breath taken away, and fulfill the dream, but the film that inspired me is slowly decaying, and I fear one day it will simply be unwatchable. I am torn between watching it intently several times to fill my memory, or wait to watch it one last time a few years from now.

I've written some e-mails to several of those involved in the making of the film, in hopes that I can somehow gain a high quality version of the film, or at least be informed about the possibility of it coming out on DVD, as well as getting a copy of the sound track, but my hope is pretty weak. If you ever get the chance to see this film, please do. Don't expect too much, and you will not be disappointed. But don't ask me, because I am still not willing to share it.

Here is some info for you:

At the bottom of this list of songs is an excerpt from the soundtrack:Just click “Yosemite: The Fate of Heaven -Hymn” for a beautiful String arrangement.

Apparently it was shown on PBS at one time, here is a nice description:

The Internet Movie Database entry:

Here is an interesting link to an excerpt of an interview with the filmmaker:

(Shortened link: )

And here is some info regarding the book used in the narrative:

A beautiful copy on GoogleBooks (Downloadable)!

(Shortened link: )

and finally an online copy from the Yosemite library:

This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 27, 2009 at 10:57 PM and is filed under , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .



July 4, 2010 at 1:32 AM

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