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"Chronology of Carl Sharsmith"
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"Selected Impressions and Remembrances of Carl Sharsmith"



"He loves people, and he loves nature, and he loves people to love nature." --How Ferdinand Castillo described Carl

by Len McKenzie, with additions by Bill Jones, both former Chief Park Naturalists, Yosemite National Park

Ranger-naturalist Carl Sharsmith with children in a spell-binding nature talk. How he did capture their interest! Photo courtesy Douglass Hubbard, from Hello World: A National Park Adventure.


Dr. Carl Sharsmith was synonymous with Yosemite National Park.

For more than 60 summers beginning in 1931, Dr. Sharsmith fired the intellects, touched the emotions, sparked the imaginations and inspired the lives of untold thousands of Yosemite visitors.  His podium for most of those years was Tuolumne Meadows, the centerpiece of Yosemite’s high country.  He was the first ranger-naturalist at the Meadows and worked alone in that capacity until 1946 (Sharsmith and Shields, 1996, page 79). As an interpretive ranger, he led visitor walks and hikes and presented campfire programs that personally connected visitors, many for the first time, with the intrinsic values and special-ness of Yosemite.  For those people, Carl, as he preferred to be called, was an icon, and a visit to Yosemite was incomplete without a personal contact with him.  His reputation never stopped growing, and his programs were “musts.”  Countless Yosemite aficionados owe their love and their advocacy for this place to their exposure to this legendary ranger-naturalist.  For them, he was the “Yosemite experience.”

Carl's roots.

Born Karl Wilhelm Schaarschmidt II in 1903 in New York City, Carl grew up in Europe and Canada as well as the United States.   His nomadic parents, natives of Switzerland and Germany, moved back to Switzerland, then to London (where young Carl anglicized his name), then to Montreal by the time Carl was 10 years old.  After sojourns in Vancouver and three American cities, the family migrated to San Francisco when Carl was almost 16.

By that time, Carl’s interest in books and nature had blossomed. So had his sense of wonder and excitement with each new discovery in natural history.  He read voraciously, studied woodcraft, kept detailed notebooks (extant) embellished with his own sketches, masterfully drawn, and faithfully recorded his newfound knowledge and explorations. It was in Galveston, Texas, before the move to San Francisco, that Carl, long entranced by mountains, discovered the writings of John Muir and, with his parents’ permission, began taking forays into the Texas woods. Perhaps it was prophetic that Carl would later come to revel in the same landscapes that Muir had loved. 

In California, Carl continued his explorations, hiking and backpacking extensively.  Having dropped out of school at age 14 and been trained by his father, a baker and chef, as a pastry apprentice, he knew that the kitchen was not his future. Though he continued to work for his father at a country club for a time, his outdoor adventures kindled his passion for flowers, thus setting the course for his voyage into botany and nature education.

The outdoors beckoned, and Carl worked for several years as a logger and a railroad worker in the forests he had come to love.  At age 19, he decided to return to school—as a ninth-grade student.  It was then that he became a leader of the elite Trailfinders for teenage boys, taking his acolytes on backpacking trips in the Western states, including the Sierra Nevada, where, in 1927, they climbed Mt. Whitney and several other Sierra peaks.

Carl entered high school in 1923, then junior college in 1928.

Carl's professional career and recognitions

In 1930, Carl was accepted into the select Yosemite School of Field Natural History, a springboard to a ranger-naturalist position, then entered the University of California--Los Angeles that fall.  The following summer of 1931 the National Park Service hired him as a seasonal ranger-naturalist at Tuolumne Meadows, launching a seasonal career that spanned 64 years and touched hundreds of thousands of Yosemite visitors.  He received his bachelor’s degree from UCLA in 1933 at the relatively advanced age of 30.

Carl continued to spend his summers as a ranger-naturalist at Tuolumne Meadows, and after a two-year stint on the faculty of Washington State University, he attended the University of California at Berkeley and was awarded his doctorate in botany in 1940.  Six years on the faculty at the University of Minnesota, followed by a research position in the Stanford University herbarium, allowed him to return to Tuolumne Meadows each summer.

In 1951 Carl joined the faculty of San Jose State College (now SJS University) and started its herbarium in 1956 (now the Carl W. Sharsmith Herbarium). He remained at this institution the rest of his life, inspiring many students to gain knowledge and even start careers in both his field of botany and his role as a National Park Service ranger-naturalist.

Carl at his Herbarium, San Jose State. Photo courtesy of San Jose State University. From O'Neill, Elizabeth Stone, Mountain Sage: The Life Story of Carl Sharsmith, Yosemite's Famous Ranger/Naturalist, used with permission granted 4/26/2006.

That same year, 1956, the Department of the Interior presented Carl its Meritorious Service Award, the highest award it can bestow on an employee. In the presentation, Yosemite National Park Superintendent John C. Preston made the following statement regarding Dr. Sharsmith’s meritorious service in Yosemite:

In his Citation from the Secretary of the Interior, Carl in some 25 summers of duty has been an inspiration to younger men, in the National Park Service, both permanent and seasonal. His comprehension of the aims and ideals of the Service is combined with an ability to impart this to others, both visitors and co-workers. Without reservation we can say, that the interpretive programs, nature walks, hikes and camp fires conducted by this Ranger Naturalist could be cited as an example of the ideals for which the Service should strive. At least two generations of park visitors at Tuolumne Meadows have enjoyed the friendly teaching of an outstanding educator and a great Naturalist. [John W. Bingaman, Guardians of the Yosemite, 1961. Similar quotation in Congressional Record, 12/10/1979.]

Significantly, Carl continued to serve the department at its highest level until his death in 1994.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Carl performed basic research on alpine meadow impacts in Yosemite and Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks, undertaken as a contractor with the National Park Service, and his subsequent recommendations served as models for improvement in their ecological management.

In 1970, the U.S. Forest Service engaged Sharsmith to direct visitor impact studies in a particularly choice area of the Sierra Nevada in Inyo National Forest. (Congressional Record, 12/10/1979.)

Circa 1972, the then Yosemite Natural History Association restarted the former Yosemite School of Field Natural History in a modified format known as Yosemite Field Seminars (this institution has again evolved into the Yosemite Outdoor Adventures under the now-named Yosemite Association), with Dr. Sharsmith as a lead instructor. Significantly, the U.S. Forest Service took advantage of this training opportunity and sent several of its Sierra Nevada rangers and resource managers to learn from this master National Park Service teacher at his home base in Yosemite National Park.

In 1977, San Jose State University dedicated the herbarium that Carl had started as the Carl W. Sharsmith Herbarium in the Biological Sciences Department. He had collected more than 13,000 specimens of more than 1,300 genera, and as of 2006 there were 15,000 sheets in the herbarium, according to its website (http://www2.sjsu.edu/depts/herbarium: exits  name4carl.org) and had established himself as one of the preeminent botanists in California and an expert in native grasses. He and his wife Helen discovered "an attractive forget-me-not with blue flowers and rounded leaves" which turned out to be a never-before-described species that is now named for them: Sharsmith's stickseed (Hackelia sharsmithii); they found it at the Mirror Lake near Whitney Portal after climbing Mount Whitney. Carl also discovered 3 other formerly unrecognized species. By 1981, Carl was Professor Emeritus of Botany.

Carl also substantially expanded the Yosemite Museum herbarium, collecting and/or classifying about half its specimens. He never met a flower that he didn’t seem to be meeting for the first time, for there were always variations in form and habitat—and his enthusiasm for his new "friend" was contagious.

On December 10, 1979, Congressman Tony Coelho of California in the United States House of Representatives entered a "Tribute to a Dedicated Public Servant", as follows:

Mr. Speaker, I would like to share with my colleagues a biographical tribute to Dr. Carl Sharsmith, who has served for nearly half a century as a naturalist-botanist in the Yosemite National Park area, which I represent. Dr. Sharsmith has been heralded by the National Park Service and by innumerable comments from individuals who have visited the High Sierra. I believe that it is fitting that this body likewise express its gratitude to this gentleman who continues to serve the public.

It is not easy to construct a brief biography on Dr. Carl Sharsmith. To state simply that he started his career as a Sierra Nevada botanist in 1930 and has been pursuing this as a naturalist, with the National Park Service over the following 49 years would represent a half-told story and would preclude a subjective assessment of the knowledge, joy, and the deep impression he has made on an estimated 400,000 visitors to Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada.

...Sharsmith's unique presence became legendary among high-country visitors. Carl fascinated avid mountain enthusiasts on his week-long hikes and casual visitors at his evening campfire programs.

It is safe to say that no one ever forgot Carl Sharsmith... {Congressional Record, 12/10/1979.)

On June 26, 1980 Dr. Sharsmith became the first recipient of the Yosemite Award, which recognizes truly outstanding accomplishments and extraordinarily significant contributions to Yosemite National Park. Yosemite Superintendent Binnewies noted this as a "singular honor. Added to [Carl's] previous laurels, this special award, which only a handful of Yosemite employees will ever share, acknowledges the phenomenally rich legacy he has given this park." (letter of August 11, 1990).

Carl is featured in the movie Yosemite--The Fate of Heaven by Robert Redford and John Else, produced in 1989.

Carl's values and legacy

Carl valued and passionately promoted stewardship of Yosemite’s wilderness values.  He was a catalyst in the chemistry between people and place. For 64 years he brokered the personal connection so many visitors to Yosemite came to feel for this special spot  His name is often mentioned in the same breath as those of John Muir and Ansel Adams.

An indication of his purpose in life--and that of Helen, the mother of his two children--lies in the names given to his son, John (after John Muir), and his daughter, Linnea (after the botanist who developed the binomial naming system for species).

Carl’s influence was—and still is—unquantifiable.  He made innumerable friends for Yosemite and the National Park Service as a revered ambassador for national park values.  He brought countless visitors into more personal and intimate contact with the distinctive qualities that make Yosemite worthy of protection, personally building a constituency that has become a powerful collective voice of advocacy for the park.

As a role model and mentor to thousands of other interpretive rangers during his six-plus decades in the park, he graciously shared his knowledge and insights, helping develop the core competencies and esprit-de-corps that made Yosemite the flagship in NPS interpretation. Indeed, his was a pivotal role in developing the principles of this new educational concept during its formative years, now established not just in the national parks of America, but also the states' parks and even those of the world.

And, Carl combined his Yosemite work with that of his professional field of botany and education. The young woman, Mary, for instance, had just spent a week with a group that Carl led in the High Sierra (as reported by Elizabeth S. O'Neill in "Walking with Carl" in Sierra for May/June 1981): "'I've been pulled in one direction and another in my college life," she confessed. "But now I know I want to give my life to studying botany."

Another story is in National Geographic:

Given Carl's wages of $8.21 an hour [in 1985], after all these years [since 1931], his devotion to this land can only be classified as religion. For three generations he has delivered the gospel of John Muir; college kids who held hands on his nature walks have returned with their children and their children's children. ["Yosemite--Forever?" in National Geographic, Vol. 167, No. 1 (January 1985)

There are so many who tell similar stories of Carl's magical influence!

Perhaps his influence came from his skill at presenting science and art at the same time, as he said at the start of a weekend nature tour circa 1980:

There are two ways of approaching Nature. One is through the factual, the scientific, the coldly objective or analytical way of doing things. The other is the artistic or aesthetic. Rarely does someone come along who can bring it all together, because the two rarely merge in the English language. The mood we should be in this weekend should reflect both aspects. [Huntington, Ardeth, A Winter Day in Yosemite: an account of a walk in a Yosemite forest with Dr. Carl Sharsmith, published 1981 by the Yosemite Natural History Association, Yosemite National Park, California.]

Or perhaps that influence came because Carl understood early what we now call ecology. He was once heard to say about the term ecology, "Oh, yes. Isn't that what we used to call natural history?" Some have called John Muir the first ecologist, even longer before the word came into common usage.

Again, Carl's words, delivered orally circa 1980:

...as with anything dealing with Nature, there's ever so much more to it, there's never an end to the study of it. As soon as we learn as much as we can about one aspect of Nature, we begin to realize that we've just lifted the curtain. Oh, the beauty part comes to us all; that much we can share. But then there's the other side: how can we put the pieces together, how can we have a comprehension of the numerous things that are involved? It leaves one in a state of humbleness. [Huntington, Ardeth, A Winter Day in Yosemite: an account of a walk in a Yosemite forest with Dr. Carl Sharsmith, published 1981 by the Yosemite Natural History Association, Yosemite National Park, California.]

Dr. Carl Sharsmith died in 1994 at the age of 91, and he left a legacy matched by few.  As a ranger-naturalist, a botanist, an educator, a mentor, an academician and an inspiration to countless thousands of visitors to Yosemite, he stood apart from others of both his and following generations.  His contributions to the “Yosemite experience” and to the preservation of this special place are beyond measure.  His efforts and his name warrant commemoration in perpetuity with the naming of a geographic feature in the park and the mountain range he so loved, and beyond this, to provide continuing inspiration to those park visitors who would educate themselves to the processes of nature and to those park managers who would use sound ecological understanding in administering park goals.

This "Who Was Carl Sharsmith" page last modified 10/16/2007: \name4carl\n4cbio.htm.

Home & Synopsis/Status Reports    Purpose & Method  WHO WAS CARL SHARSMITH?  Why name a Yosemite feature for Carl?/Origin of Proposal    Which feature should be named for Carl?   How can a feature be named for Carl?  Summary of Supporting Statements   Contacts/Resources Webmaster Search Form