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Friday, March 26, 2010

The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon (excerpt)

O Beauty, handiwork of the Most High,
Where'er thou art He tells his Love to man,
And lo, the day breaks, and the shadows flee!

Now, far beyond all language and all art
In thy wild splendour, Canyon marvellous,
The secret of thy stillness lies unveiled
In wordless worship! This is holy ground;
Thou art no grave, no prison, but a shrine.
Garden of Temples filled with Silent Praise,
If God were blind thy Beauty could not be!

(Henry Van Dyke, February 24-26, 1913)

Grandeur. Grandeur may be defined as "vastness; greatness; splendor; magnificence; stateliness; sublimity; dignity; and elevation of thought or expression." As I marveled at the sight of the Grand Canyon, this word, used frequently to describe other wonders of the natural environment, took possession of me last week with a unique connotation.  Nothing, absolutely nothing I have seen in my life remotely compared to the natural power, beauty, and grandeur I experienced in Arizona at the Grand Canyon. I felt as if God had let me partake of a creation so unfathomable that words, images, or even human emotions could not comprehend.

The immensity of the Grand Canyon's physical dimensions and its tremendous diversity are well documented. The 277 mile long chasm formed by the Colorado River is 18 miles wide in places, has an average depth of about one mile, and occupies and area of 1,900 square miles. The Grand Canyon hosts five of the seven life zones and three of the four desert types in North America. If a person were to travel from Mexico to Canada, he/she would see the same five life zones represented in the Grand Canyon. Also it contains approximately 70 species of mammals, 250 species of birds, 25 types of reptiles and five species of amphibians. 

Even now, erosion continues to alter its contours while the specific geologic processes and timing that formed the Grand Canyon are the subject of debate by geologists. Recent evidence suggests the Colorado River established its course through the canyon at least 17 million years ago, and nearly two billion years of the Earth's geological history have been exposed as the Colorado River and its tributaries cut their channels through layer after layer of rock while the Colorado Plateau was uplifted.


About 10,000 years ago, paleo-hunters chased big game in the Southwest, but left few signs of their passage. In time, they were followed by hunter-gatherers of the Desert Archaic culture who inhabited the Grand Canyon region until about 1000 B.C.

Then, in 700-800 AD Anazazi Indians lived in the eastern part of the Grand Canyon. A group called the Cohonina were in the western part of the canyon. These peoples seemed to leave around 1150 AD because of climatic changes, probably a drought. 

Before European immigration, the area was inhabited by Native Americans (Havasupai, Hualapai, Southern Paiute, Navajo, and Hopi) who built settlements within the canyon and its many caves. The Pueblo people considered the Grand Canyon ("Ongtupqa" in Hopi language) a holy site and made pilgrimages to it. 

The first European known to have viewed the Grand Canyon was Garcia Lopez de Cardenas from Spain, who arrived in 1540. That year Hopi guides led a group of 13 Spanish soldiers under de Cardenas to find the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola for his superior officer, the conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. Finding no gold, the Spaniards soon left the area.

The Paiutes call the plateau that the canyon cuts through Kaibab, or "Mountain Lying Down." The multicolored rocks, the steep and embayed rims, and the isolated towers, mesas, "temples," and other eroded rock forms catch the contrast of sun and shadow and glow with changing hues of great beauty. Breathtaking is a totally real feeling at the Grand Canyon overlooks.

I found it impossible to escape the reverence of time, nature, history, and human introspection as I walked along the paths at the south rim of the canyon. Amid the typical tourist photo hubbub and the usual glut of playful sightseeing (everyday consumption of national treasures) I felt overpowering awe. Before me lay beauty and mass no earthly creation I had ever seen, natural or man-made, came remotely close to matching. The canyon was built by a Creator with a patient hand in the course of endless time.

During my view, I was merely taking my own turn in space and time to marvel at a wonder experienced by so many before me. The Grand Canyon seemed to "lock the moment" of my journey into its sun-baked rock layers of limestone, sandstone, and shale. Nature whispered to me, "Now, you see." 

I had seen. And, I believe Nature was providing me a window into the immense, seemingly boundless limits of her kingdom. Reminding me of my rightful place among all her creations, Nature had just given me a stern warning against tempting fate yet she had also provided me breathtaking grounds for righteous exaltation -- a canyon of grandeur.

I can honestly say I left the Grand Canyon with many intense emotions and many thought-provoking questions. Dumbfounded as a tiny insect in the middle of a great forest, I slowly realized reality was hand-in-hand with spirituality in this incredible formation. I began to believe that any human with eyes could understand a connection both to the building blocks of the planet and to the formation of the human being in such an environment. 

Honestly, I questioned how humans were even necessary to the profound existence of planet Earth. The natural perfection of the canyon has reigned supreme despite the exploration of their scurrying little bodies and the contemplations of their calculating, simple minds.

I found myself considering formation of the chasm much more comfortably with a primitive mindset. The real story of the canyon lay in its mysteries and man's misunderstandings. Caring less about the volumes of research and countless explorations of the place, I decided to place all my memories of the canyon in that primal memory bank and in my stirring soul. I found myself in a place where art and imagination became foremost.

Anyway, no factual geological explanation or 21st century science clarified the understanding of the amazement my eyes and soul had captured. Eyes can see but cannot accurately gauge. The soul can feel but cannot completely comprehend.

I Think

I preferred to keep my Grand Canyon experience within the reference frame of early Native Americans. It seemed to belong there. And, there it will stay in my mind mixed with a sense of incomprehension and holiness, forever rooted in this deep womb of the Earth. This is a place the body leaves but not the heart. It takes and it gives to each who visits.

The Grand Canyon was holy. Of this, I was sure. Prayers, dances, poems, songs, legends -- all seemed to be appropriate expressions of emotion here. I laughed aloud as the cameras clicked in the hands of the tourists. No photo or film could possibly do justice to the experience of the grandeur. I became overwhelmed by what I could and could not understand here, and I wept. Maybe my tears were an offering for the creation I had experienced; maybe they were a tribute to the other countless souls struck by their own impressions of the canyon; or maybe they were merely proof of my total lack of control on Earth and my comfort with the incomprehension of the natural world.  

Sunrise, Grand Canyon  
(excerpt by John Barton, 2001)
... the canyon
floor a mile from where I objectively

stand taking photos I will later develop of 
the ripe, trans

formative light on these surreal
buttes to show you on the surface

how beautiful and diverse
and unimportant our time together

or with anyone else
really is--

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