The Hotel on Pluto


I am seeking investors for a hotel on the planet Pluto. The hotel will be called the Ahwahnee. Lodging will be free, but there is a catch. You’ll have to sign petitions saying that you will believe until your dying day that:

  • Pluto is a planet.
  • The fancy hotel in Yosemite is called the Ahwahnee.
  • Shooting Stars will always be in genus Dodecatheon.

With those niceties out of the way, you can check in. Our highly trained staff will make sure that their every action will enable you to live in the confident belief that the world will never change and will always be the same as it was when you were a child.

All literature from after 2006 will be carefully scanned by staff for trigger words like [trigger word alert!!!] “dwarf planet” or “Majestic” or “Primula.” We will take a snapshot of the internet off and freeze every website at 2005. Once ensconced in our cozy hotel, you can research all you want on the web and you will learn:
* Pluto is god of the underworld
* Pluto is a cartoon dog
* Pluto is a full-fledged, first class planet as it always was.
* The famous hotel in Yosemite Valley is the Ahwahnee as it always was
* Shooting Stars belong to the genus Dodecatheon as they always have.

There may be some challenges to commercial success. Your thermometer, during the warm part of the orbit, will register a balmy -223C (-369F). The ten year travel time might discourage a few people too.

This is purely an investment for me. I have no dog in this fight, not even a cartoon Pluto. But I believe the intense desire to believe that the way things were when you found them is they way they should always be might be enough to overcome these otherwise relatively minor obstacles of distance and temperature.

Maybe Pluto should be a planet, but what’s interesting is how many people care, even though Pluto itself is the exact same body no matter how it’s classified.

The belief that Pluto or the Majestic or Dodecatheon was “always” one way or another, though does rankle the historian in me. After September 11, 2001, when people said, “We will never forget,” the historian in my immediately thought “Oh yes you will, and faster than you think.” The words “always” and “never” are hard ones for a historian to hear or even think. The idea that there is a “right” order of things, especially with respect to ephemeral names, is even harder to swallow. Paris was not always called Paris and, from a historians point of view, the idea, let alone the name for France or America are both fairly new in human history.

Pluto is between 4.46 and 4.60 billion years old. Let’s make it easy and say that Pluto is 4.5 billion years old. For the sad first 4.499999924 billion years of its existence, Pluto languished as an unnamed body floating around in the also unnamed Kuiper Belt. In it’s heyday, which lasted for 0.000000076 billion years, Pluto not only had a name, but was considered a genuine, full-fledged, first-class planet. Just like Earth.

Sadly, for the last 0.000000012 billion years, it has been demoted to the status of dwarf planet, one of many trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) that orbit the sun out past Neptune. To add insult to injury, it isn’t even the most massive of those objects. That honor belongs to Eris, who has never been considered a planet, though that could change.

A large number of people (including respected planetary scientists) are perturbed that the International Astronomical Union demoted Pluto. Why? Because Pluto has always been a planet. Well, at least for most of the last 0.000000088 billion years anyway. Assuming you are not a member of the IAU.

And by the way, if Pluto becomes a planet again, Eris will almost certainly become a planet. So the choice isn’t between the heretical 8 and the familiar 9 (familiar to those of us born in the last 0.000000088 billion years anyway), but between there being eight planets and there being ten. The nine-planet solar system is gone forever.

Meanwhile, closer to home, countless people are incensed that the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite has been renamed to The Majestic. They decry the loss of history and heritage. Tradition has been trampled. Their cherished memories have been stolen.

I have heard all those things several times. I’m not sure how one steals a memory by renaming a building, but apparently you can.

For the first, say, 3.5 thousand years of human habitation in Yosemite Valley, there was no Ahwanhee Hotel. The hotel existed under that name for a mere 0.089 thousand years. Tourists have been coming to Yosemite for 0.163 thousand years. There was no hotel at all in that spot for the first 0.072 thousand years of tourism. Then followed the glorious 0.089 thousand years when the hotel was there and it was called the Ahwahnee, as is just and right and necessary for the order of the universe to be preserved. In the most recent 0.002 thousand years when it has been known by a different name, we have seen our world fall apart with demagogues elected in formerly free parts of the world. Coincidence?

Before that, the area where the hotel stands was known as Kenneyville and the meadow, which is still known as Ahwahnee Meadow, was known as Tecoya Meadow. Before that there were, no doubt countless names for those areas as different peoples came and went from Yosemite Valley. People have probably lived there 3,500 years ago, back before some upstarts changed the names of perfectly good towns in Europe to insipid new names like Paris and London (strangely, no petitions to change those names back nor to rename New York back to New Amsterdam). We may surmise that the features of Yosemite have also had many, many names.

If we were going to cry about names that have been changed, we should think about changing back to the first known names, or the nearest versions we have. Tenaya Lake should be renamed Pywiack (as Chief Tenaya himself pleaded). El Capitan should be called To-to-kon oo-lah. Bridalveil Fall should be renamed Pohono. Half Dome, called Rock of Ages by the first Euro-Americans to see it, should be renamed Tis-sa-ack or at least Rock of Ages.

Strangely, people seem more upset about a luxury hotel name than they do about the name of the valley itself, a name given it in 1851 when Lafayette Bunnell decided to name it so when he came to that valley to eject its residents. If I were going to be bothered by a place name in Yosemite, it would be the name Yosemite itself which Bunnell intended to honor Tenaya’s tribe, but which to me sings of conquest and the destruction of indigenous culture.

But somehow, I have met few people who are up in arms, incensed and emotional about those name changes. Even the people I know from the local tribes, whose lands were taken, whose culture was all but destroyed, don’t seem as emotional about losing their ancient names as people get about a changing the names of a twentieth-century hotel and a twentieth-century tent city. Perhaps they have had so much stolen from them, it’s hard to keep track of all they’ve lost and they would rather have their land and property returned instead of their place names.

I couldn’t care less what they call the luxury hotel in Yosemite Valley, or the collection of tent cabins, or any other artifact of industrial tourism in Yosemite.

I understand that some people might be outraged by the fact that there is a hotel, that there is a tent city, that there are two swimming pools, a paved road and a pizzeria there at all. Their existence might be offensive to some. But their names?

I understand that some people might be sad that the traditional Ahwahneechee names have mostly been erased. But how did names applied by white invaders, corporations and developers become sacrosanct?

People often think that as a historian, I should be upset that the names were changed. But, as a historian, few things trouble me less than the fact that an iconic monument of industrial tourism has changed from one name to another. If not for the confusion it would cause, I would be happy to see it renamed annually.

Shooting Stars are a more complicated one, since not all botanists agree that we even should move the plants of genus Dodecatheon to genus Primula (PDF). And of course, most people don’t care. But in some of the circles, people are genuinely, passionately saddened by this. For them, Shooting Stars will always be Dodecatheon, as they always were.

To be fair, nobody living remembers the time before when Dodecatheon was a genus. It appears in Linnaeus’ Species plantarum in 1753 (vol 1, pp. 144–45). But to the historians mind, “since 1753” and “always” are very different lengths of time.

Still, over 250 years is a good run for a name. But for most of the millions of years that there have been Primula on this planet (or any other), they have been called neither Primula nor Dodecatheon and yet, somehow, they survived, their beauty unimpaired, co-evolving with bumble bees and learning or developing buzz pollination without need of a name. I’m pretty sure that Primula maedia (or Dodecatheon meadia if it makes you feel better) doesn’t much care what we call it.

And in the end, in all these cases, I don’t care much what we call them either, nor do I care about thousands other things that have been renamed. As long as you stay in my hotel.

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

— Juliet, in Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>