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Sierra Club Environmental Education Program
LeConte Memorial Lodge

LeConte Curator Raises Yosemite Visitors' "Environmental Quotient"

by Karen Dusek

Mariposa Gazette, August 4, 2004
(reprinted by permission)

Bonnie Johanna Gisel Photo July 3, 2004 by Harold Wood

Three years ago Bonnie Gisel gave up a teaching position she had held for seven years at Drew University and agreed to become the seasonal curator of the Le Conte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite, but only under one condition--that she be allowed to live in a tent.

The Sierra Club, her new employer, saw no problem with her request and she soon began making preparations for a journey across the country and into a rustic lifestyle that is, at times, both satisfying and frustrating.

“I couldn’t live in an aluminum trailer,” she said emphatically. “It would be like living in a shoebox. I had to be here in a way that made sense to me and that was low impact. I had to be example setting.”

Along with her tent and a few personal items, including a quilt made from squares painted by art students, Gisel packed up 50 yards of muslin, a colorful assortment of fabric paints and a box of miniature journals she had fashioned from scraps of paper tied with bits of ribbon. They would be the raw materials for the first two projects she planned to undertake at the LeConte.

But when she arrived in Yosemite and walked into the lodge, she almost walked right back out. “It was dirty and full of scaffolding,” she recalled. “But I have a passion and this is what I was given.”

She set up her tent in a corner of a campground and, for the next five months, carefully avoided mentioning any specifics about her living quarters to her family, who, thinking she was residing comfortably in a trailer, repeatedly asked her for pictures of her new home.

During her first meeting with the Le Conte Memorial Lodge Committee, Gisel showed them the quilt she and her students had made and told them that she wanted to create several “wilderness quilts” using squares painted by visitors to Yosemite that would allow them to share their wilderness experience with other people from around the world. She also wanted to make the tiny journals available to people and encourage them to record their thoughts while in the park, as John Muir had once done.

Gisel felt at home in her new surroundings almost at once. It is little wonder, since she is intimately knowledgeable about every aspect of the life of the man who founded the Sierra Club and who was responsible for the establishment of Yosemite as a national park.

Among her many accomplishments, Gisel served as interim director of the Center for John Muir Studies at the University of the Pacific from 2000 to 2001, coordinated the 2001 John Muir Conference and edited Kindred and Related Spirits, a compilation of the correspondence between Muir and his good friend, Jeanne C. Carr. She is also a consultant for the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez, California and is working on a second book chronicling Muir’s life as a botanist around the world with photographs by Bay Area photographer Stephen Joseph of specimens Muir himself collected.

A permanent collection of Joseph’s photos of Yosemite wildflowers is now on display at the lodge. The display was inspired by a collection of wildflowers at the lodge in 1907. Gisel wanted to duplicate the list of plants collected at that time for the centennial celebration held last month.)

Despite an extensive academic career that includes undergraduate degrees in fine arts and painting (Damon College), masters degrees in painting (Rochester Institute of Technology), divinity (Harvard) and philosophy in history (Drew) and a doctorate in cultural and environmental history (Drew), which she completed while raising her son, Nikolaus, 24, as a single parent, Gisel said that “the education I have received here in three years has been equal to the education I received in the university.”

“I want to instill in others a wonder of the world and an appreciation of the world so it becomes part of our daily breathing,” she said. “I have learned a lot about that here.”

“I am really interested in changing the way we live in the world,” she continued, “but it all starts here. If we don’t connect then we don’t understand why it’s important to move (out of the suburbs) back to the city….Opening the doors as often as I can to encourage people to care about the world they live in is the most important thing I do.”

Gisel has encouraged the 50,000 people who have visited the lodge during her past three summers in Yosemite to develop a sense of wonder and caring about the world around them by offering hundreds of free, volunteer-led programs and inviting them to make a quilt square, share their thoughts in her “Words for Wilderness Around the World” project (inspired by Frederick Law Olmstead’s desire to link parklands in a “living necklace” of green), start a journal, make observations, seek answers to questions about the natural and cultural history of the area in the LeConte library and absorb the spirit of John Muir, Joseph LeConte and other pioneer naturalists whose legacy is the park.

Gisel is midway through her third season in the park. The Sierra Club has provided her with more spacious accommodations this year--still made of nylon with zippered windows and doors but set on a wooden platform and luxuriously furnished--for a tent-- with a small desk and chair, a rocking chair and a bed, the latter constructed by George Pettit of San Jose, a talented man who also built the exhibits in the lodge. On the headboard he painted a scene of the lodge at night, complete with tiny signs reading, “Closed“ and “The curator has gone to bed.” A caribou skin and sheepskin vest keep her warm on cold nights but there is no escape from the heat of the summer, the smoke of campfires or the shortening daylight hours, which, when you are trying to write a book with no electricity, becomes increasingly annoying as the season wears on. (Having learned of her daughter’s living situation last year, Gisel’s mother donated $100 to the Sierra Club toward the purchase of the tent.) Gisel will likely spend the winter in New York City with her son, but the lure of the simple life is already drawing her back to the valley, stirring her imagination. Next year, she said, she is going to start a new project that she will call “Dr. Nature’s EQ.”

“I am going to ask people to develop an environmental quotient,” she said, “ to think, to connect, to care and to wonder. Unless these things become heartfelt, unless people find their way to wonder, I don’t think they are going to care.”

She calls one part of her program “1-1-52.”

“For one hour, one day a week, 52 weeks a year, do something,” she said. “Tell a story, take a walk, connect with the natural world somewhere, somehow. It’s not too much to give back.” “It’s something people can take with them in their hearts and minds. It doesn’t need a backpack, a piece of paper or a pencil. It’s just a way of tuning in, a way of making us feel just a little bit better.”

She will invite those who commit to participating in the program to share what they see with her by e-mail. It is just one more way to help people to continue to expand their awareness and respect for the world around them and to develop a lasting connectedness with the earth.

“Muir said that nature is God made visible, she said. “It’s very true. Life here engenders a different kind of relationship with just about everything.

  • Read more about Curator Bonnie Gisel and her predecessors on our Curator page.

Photo of Bonnie Gisel, July 3, 2004, by Harold Wood.

Information and Donations

For more information, during the summer contact Sierra Club LeConte Memorial Lodge Curator, P.O. Box 755, Yosemite, CA 95389, (209) 372-4542.

During the winter, contact LeConte Lodge Committee Chair, Harold Wood, P.O. Box 3543, Visalia, CA 93278; phone: (559) 697-3525; e-mail:

Help us keep the Sierra Club's oldest public outreach and education program in Yosemite National Park. We need to continue the Sierra Club's legacy at the Heritage Center and the time has come to raise funds for the program and ensure its existence for future generations. To start, we need to raise $90,000 by October 1, 2016 to fully fund operations for fiscal year 2017. (See Fundraising Fact Sheet) (PDF)

Please make a tax deductible donation to preserve the Sierra Club home in Yosemite National Park!

  • Make an online donation using our secure web form; or
  • Write a check payable to "Sierra Club Foundation," marked "restricted for the LeConte Memorial Fund." Please send to: The Sierra Club Foundation, 2101 Webster St., Suite 1250, Oakland, CA 94612.

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