Sierra Summit

Conversations and observations about California's mountains

October 2, 2008
Living History - Remembering Joseph Grinnell
Seven decades ago, Elmer Aldrich of Sacramento (left) spent a few weeks in the Mojave Desert with one of California's most famous naturalists, Joseph Grinnell.  They camped, collected specimens for U.C. Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and took a lot of notes. 

Today, Grinnell's detailed notes from his collecting expeditions across California have become an invaluable source for climate change researchers, showing, among other things, that alpine chipmunks and other small mammals in Yosemite National Park have retreated higher into the mountains over the years in search of cooler, more hospitable climes. 

Grinnell died in 1939 - and Aldrich is one of a handful of people still alive who studied under him and worked with him in the field.
This weekend, Aldrich - who is now 94 - will recount his experiences with the legendary naturalist in a talk at the Berkeley museum, including his collecting expedition with Grinnell to  the Providence Mountains in the Mojave Desert in 1938. "Way before the word ecology was hardly used, Grinnell was one of the best ecologists I ever met and worked with," Aldrich told me recently. 
"He was all business. When he was there with us, things became very orderly. He organized everything. We had set times for breakfast and dinner and we had a meeting after every breakfast."
Grinnell's strategy, Aldrich elaborated, was to document almost everything he observed outdoors because the value of such records might not be clear until many years later. Today, it is that treasure trove of old field notes that scientists like U.C. retired zoologist Jim Patton and others are beginning to mine for fresh insights about global climate change. 

During our phone conversation, I asked Aldrich if he believed in global warming.

"Oh, absolutely. Absolutely," he said. "I've noticed it myself in climbing to higher altitudes." Specifically, he mentioned that a small cold-loving cousin of the rabbit - the pica - is growing scarce above timberline in the Sierra Nevada. It's the same thing that is hurting the polar bear, he said. In short, living things that depend on colder temperatures - including many here in the Sierra - are going to diminish, Aldrich said.

Bee Photo by Autumn Cruz

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About Sierra Summit

The Author
Tom Knudson lives in the Sierra Nevada and travels widely throughout the range. His hobbies include fly-fishing, backpacking and cross-country skiing. He is the recipient of numerous journalistic awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes, one for a 1992 Sacramento Bee series "Sierra in Peril," a watershed work about environmental threats to the mountain range. E-mail Tom at

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