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Grandeur And The Life It Represents
By Jim Kirwan
Standing on the New Mexico side of the Grand Canyon it is easy to lose yourself in the majesty and the wonder of all that has gone before.
"Nothing prepares you for the visual thrill of sailing over the rim, from a state of flatland predictability suddenly into one of limitless depth, change, and color. All at once we are down in the jungles of rock, plunging toward sheer crevices, skimming limestone jags by only a few yards, then swooping down even further to trace the winding path of the Colorado River, rocketing up toward a large butte, wing left, wing right, as we twist along the winding alleyways of rock, part of a spectacle both dainty and massive. Who could measure it, when we are the only subject of certain size moving through the mazes? Off one wing tip, a knob of limestone curves into arrowhead edges and disappears at the base of a half-shattered tree, whose open roots catch the sunlight in a cage of iridescence.
When we land we begin to explore the Grand Canyon on foot from lookouts and trails along the rim. Sitting alone on a plinth jutting far out into the emptiness, I listen to the monumental silence and find my mind wondering over the notion of wonder. The Canyon is, in part, a touchstone to other wonders, revealing the uncanny work of erosion, a great builder of landscapes. Five geologic eras are here piled one on top of the other like Berber rugs, the evolution of life viewable in a fossil record. Gigantic as the Canyon is (217 miles long), it is the world in miniature: seven environments (from Sonoran to Arctic Circle), desert barrenness to spring lushness. It is certainly the grandest American cliché, explored by many but an enigma nonetheless. No response to it seems robust enough.
In a world governed by proportion-in which the eye frames a moment, digests it, frames another-scale is lost; visual scale, mental scale, emotional scale. If your lips form a silent wow at the sight of Niagara Falls, what is suitable here, where your heart explores some of its oldest dwellings? How can you explain an emptiness so vast and intricate, an emptiness so rare on this planet? Not the sprawling, flat, oddly clean emptiness of a desert or arctic region, but an emptiness with depth. There are no yardsticks, unless one is lucky enough to catch sight of a dark speck moving across the Canyon floor, which is a mule and rider. But that is part of the puzzle of this labyrinth, a maze both of direction and of proportion, a maze in three dimensions." (1)
Today the world finds itself taken over by those who would appease the Barbarians at our gates. This they actually believe will placate the bloodlust these creatures practice, against everyone that still has anything of value left to sacrifice; so that those who are being held hostage by their OWNERS, might actually survive if they just continue to pay the ransom that has now become everything they own: just to be allowed to stay alive.
In this process these cowards have stood an ancient axiom upon its ceremonial head. In today's world it is 'DEFEAT' that now "has a thousand fathers" and the isolated and nearly forgotten 'VICTORY' that has become the orphan. But just look at the long-term price we've paid for this cowardly failure to confront our enemies!
The blood and slaughter that our forefathers brought with them as they crossed this continent for gold and for Empire has faded from the contemporary memory-yet the amount of the life of all forms that they senselessly slaughtered hangs about us still. The poisonings, the infections the murders and the slaughter of Buffalo along with the 60 million people that had built their lives around the existence of that magnificent animal in their almost immeasurable herds, remains as part of the mute testimony to our lust for control over lives and lands that were never ours in the first place. Standing on the rim of this canyon far from the tourist-designated platforms, one can still get lost in the wonder and majesty of so much life that we have yet to discover.
"The Cardenas expedition of 1540 discovered the Canyon for the Caucasian world but felt no need to name it. For three hundred years it
was too overwhelming to report except in whole phrases and sentences. And then in the 1850s and 1860s, "Big Canon" and "Grand Canon of Colorado" came into use, as if it were one of anything. For it is not one, but thousands of canyons, thousands of gorges and buttes, interflowing, mute, radiant, changing, all with a single river between them, as if joined by a common thought.
In the canyon's long soliloquy of rock, parrots of light move about the grottoes, and real swifts loop and dart, white chevrons on each flank. The silence is broken only by the sounds of air whistling through the gorges, and insect or bird song. Now and then one hears the sound of a furnace whumping on: a bird taking flight.
There is no way to catalog the endless dialects and languages and body types of the tourists encountered at the rim. With binoculars as various as they are, visitors search the canyon for trails, mules, signs of other people. The need to humanize the marvel is obsessive, obvious and universal. With glass lenses extending real eyes, canyon visitors become part of the evolution on show. If we cannot go backward in time, we can at least creep into it, above desert floors and above red-rock mesas and ponderosa pine, then suddenly slip over the rim of dreams and down through the layers of geological time.
What is grandeur that the word should form so rapidly in the mind when one first sees the Grand Canyon? Why do we attach that concept to this spectacle? Is it merely the puniness of humans compared with the gigantic structures of rock? The moon, the biggest rock most of us know, has been domesticated in literature and song, but the canyon has resisted great literature. Like the universe and the workings of nature, there is no way to summarize it. The ultimate model of a labyrinth, it is gargantuan and cryptic, full of blind alleys and cul-de-sac. We are compulsive architects; to see engineering as complete, colossal, and inimitable as this-still far beyond our abilities-is humbling indeed. As John Muir said in 1896, upon first viewing the canyon, "Man sees the finest marbles for sculptures; Nature takes cinders, ashes, sediments and makes all divine in fineness of beauty-turrets, towers, pyramids, battlemented castles, rising in glowing beauty from the depths of this canyon of canyons noiselessly hewn from the smooth mass of the featureless plateau."
Most of all the canyon is so vastly uninvolved with us, with mercy or pity. Even the criminal mind is more explicable than this-a quiddity
we cannot enter, a consciousness that does not include us. We pass through much of our world as voyeurs, and yet we are driven, from sheer loneliness I suppose, to attribute consciousness to all sorts of unconscious things-dolls, cars, computers. We still call one another totemic names by way of endearment: We would like to keep the world as animate as it was for our ancestors. But that is difficult when facing a vision as rigidly dead as the Grand Canyon. It is beautiful , instructive and calming, but it cannot be anything other than it is: the absolute, intractable "other" that human beings face from birth to death.
In between consciousness and the Grand Canyon, matter has fits and whims; lymph, feathers, Astro Turf, brass. Cactus strikes me as a very odd predicament for matter to get into. But perhaps it is no stranger than the comb of an iris, or the flowers that present their sex organs to the world, or the milky sap that oozes from inedible plants. There is something about the poignant senselessness of all that rock, that reminds us, as nothing else could do so dramatically, what a bit of luck we are, what a natural wonder." (1)
But the Canyon reminds us of other things as well. For against this Grandeur it is hard to credit man and his technologies with much of anything worth knowing: Because after all is said and done our current 'technology' is beside the point because all-life actually revolves around the vitality of this planet and the life that is still trying to live here. The proof of this lies in the fact of how little we know about the Universe above and beyond us or the oceans' depths or even the wilderness that is this Grand Canyon. This willful ignorance stems from a willingness to fail to explore, to fail to Question the deepest secrets of life. Instead too many have settled for a fistful-of-dollars that we say are valuable in a world where our paper has no depth of meaning; and our so-called values simply vanish in those convenient fogs that enshroud most of human-enterprise.
It is against this world of difference, of wonder and of naked beauty that we must come to measure what we do or do not do; as part of why any of us are still here at all.
"Today on the Hopi mesa close to the Grand Canyon, in rituals older than memory, men still dress as kachinas-garish, expressionist recreations of the essences in their world. There is a kachinas of meteors, and one of maize, and one of water vapor. In the winter months the kachinas dwell on the twelve-thousand foot slopes of Humphrey's Peak, and in the growing season they come down to move among men. The Hopi have traditionally traveled down into the canyon to perform some of their rituals, and there is a spot on the bank of the Little Colorado where they believe humans may have first entered the world.
Indeed, the whole area around the Grand Canyon is full of lore and natural wonders. The volcanic field just north of Flagstaff is the largest in the United States, and flying over it you can see where the black paws of lava stopped cold. At Lowell Observatory, in Flagstaff, Pluto was first sighted. In half a dozen other observatories, astronomers cast their gaze upward while, close by, a million tourists cast theirs down into the canyon. There would be no canyon as we perceive it-subtle, mazy, unrepeating-without the intricate habits of light. For the canyons trap light, rehearses all the ways a thing can be lit: the picadors of light jabbing the horned spray of the Colorado River; like caramel syrup pouring over the dusky buttes; the light almost fluorescent in the hot green leaves of seedlings. In places the canyon is so steep that sunlight only enters it, briefly, at noon; the rest is darkness.
It is hard to assimilate such a mix of intensities; it is too close to the experience of being alive. Instead, we order it with names that are cozy, trendy or ancient. Available, viewable, definable, reducible to strata of limestone and fossil, they are mysterious crevices still unknowable, still overwhelming, still ample and unearthly, still the earth at its earthiest.
The Douglas fir crop out, under, around, between through every place one looks; they survive the rock. The cottonwoods, growing over a hundred feet tall, can use more than fifty gallons of water each day. There are a thousand kinds of flower and species of squirrel and bird indigenous to the canyon (some nearly extinct). And endless otters, skunks, beavers, ring-tailed cats, deer, porcupines, shrews, chipmunks, rats, and wild burros. In the low common desert of the inner canyon depths, only the prickly-pear cactus survives well the high temperatures and the rare precipitation. It is not erosion on a large scale that has formed the canyon but small, daily acts of erosion by tiny plants and streams, reminding us that the merest trickle over limestone can achieve. From rim to floor, the canyon reveals the last two billion years of biological and geological history and thus typifies the process of evolution and decay.
But mainly there is the steep persuasion of something devastatingly fixed, something durable in a world too quick to behold, a world of fast, slippery perceptions where it can sometimes seem that there is nothing to cling to. By contrast the canyon is solid and forever; going nowhere, it will wait for you to formulate your thoughts. The part of us that yearns for the supernaturalism we sprang from yearns for this august view of nature.
At nightfall, when we reboard the plane for our flight back to Phoenix, there is no canyon anywhere, just starry blackness above and Moorish blackness below. Like a hallucination, the canyon has vanished, completely hidden now by the absence of light. Hidden as it was from human eyes for millennia, it makes you wonder what other secrets lie in the shade of our perception. Bobbing through the usual turbulence over the desert, we pick our way home from one cluster of town lights to another, aware from this height of the patterns of human habitation. Seven skirts of light around a mountain reveal how people settled in waves. Except for the lights running parallel along the ridges, people seem desperate to clump and bunch, swarming all over each other in towns while most of the land lies empty. The thick, dark rush of the desert below, in which there is not one human light for miles, drugs me. Looking up drowsily after a spell, I'm startled to see the horizon glittering like Oz: Phoenix and its suburbs. That, or one long, sprawling marquee." (1)
1) The Grandeur of the Grand Canyon by Diane Ackerman 1992
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