THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
The Grand Canyon is so iconic, and so familiar from photographs, that we all know what it looks like even if we've never actually been there. However, no images can prepare the visitor for the sheer enormity of it: 277 miles in length, 18 miles at its widest, and more than a mile deep. It is astonishing to realize that there is no vantage point from which one can see more than a tiny fraction of the canyon at one time. It is also a revelation that all of the gorgeous layers of rock that give the Grand Canyon its distinctive, multicolored appearance lie underneath the entire Colorado Plateau, for hundreds of miles in every direction: thousands of accumulated feet of sandstone, limestone, granite and schist formed over the course of nearly two billion years, from the lava of ancient volcanos and the sediment laid down during the advance and retreat of as many as 20 oceans. Only the cutting force of the Colorado River over the last few million years, a mere blip in geologic time, differentiates the canyon itself from the far more vast pine forests of the plateau that one passes through on the approach to the south rim.
We consider the Grand Canyon an inseparable part of the great American outdoors, but in what way exactly does the United States own it? It is self-evidently within our territory, but that is little more than the random fallout of history. When the nation acquired the varied territories that encompass the spectacular natural wonders of the West, hardly anyone even knew what was there. The mountain ranges, rivers, canyons, rock formations, forests, deserts and plains that we have long associated with America, and consider part of our distinctly American identity, mostly were formed eons before Homo sapiens even existed, let alone before European conquerers set foot upon the North American continent. It goes without saying that if Spain and France had never ceded their holdings in the West, or if the native peoples had managed to hold back the tide of American expansion, some other nation entirely might now be thinking of the Grand Canyon as part of its matchless dominion.
Giving names to places — Bryce and Zion, Yellowstone and Joshua Tree, the Rockies and Sierras — confers upon them the mere illusion of possession. All one has to do is walk among these vast landscapes to realize the insignificance of nations and peoples. In theory, we could do whatever we wanted with these treasures (world's largest landfill, for example). But spending time in such places makes it plain that, however much damage we may do to the landscape — and we are clearly doing our level best to destroy it — we will never be anything more than mere transients in the long-term story of the planet. All of human history would barely register among the Grand Canyon's innumerable strata of stone, every few inches of which represents a span of time greater than the entire life of our species. We "own" this land no more than a fish owns the ocean.
There is nothing uniquely American about harboring the feeling that the land is our inheritance. Every country and its people feels connected in spiritual and mystical ways to their particular natural environment. Even those of an entirely rational and secular cast of mind nonetheless think of the hills, valleys, and coastlines of their country, and all the flora and fauna that inhabit them, as uniquely their own. There must be an innately human need to feel rooted in one's place of birth. How else can we explain the nostalgia that overwhelms the expatriate, or the longing for return that grips displaced peoples, sometimes for so many centuries that all recollection of the distant homeland is purely imaginary? We spring from the land and are forever attached to it in our dreams, wherever that land happens to be, and whatever it happens to look like.
Reason has never been an effective antidote for folly, and this is evidenced in the two giant dams that bracket the Grand Canyon. At the far western edge is Hoover Dam (originally Boulder Dam), built in the early 1930s. For its time, and despite any debate about its environmental logic, it was a remarkable feat of engineering and construction. It is so complex that it is difficult to imagine how any one person could have conceived of the entire project. Perhaps no one did; from design to completion, it was, of course, the work of many thousands of people. Digging four nearly mile-long diversion tunnels, to create a dry riverbed on which concrete could be poured, alone took two years. Many new systems and machines had to be invented just for this project. The dam created Lake Mead, which filled to capacity a few years after construction was complete in 1935, reached its peak again in 1983, and, thanks to a decades-long drought, has been getting steadily emptier ever since. Today it sits at only 40 percent of capacity. Despite a heavy snowfall last winter in the mountain ranges whose runoff feeds the Colorado River, there will be little measurable impact on the lake's water level. Its high water mark, starkly delineated by stone washed white by the inundation of decades past, is 200 feet above the current level of the lake. This season's precipitation will barely make a dent in that deficit.
The situation is much the same 300 miles to the east, where the Glen Canyon Dam spans the breach between the cliffs. It was finished in 1963 and formed Lake Powell, which is 180 miles long and has more coastline than the entire Pacific coast of the continental United States. Its water level has also been declining with the change in climate, making a mockery of the grand vision of its creators. The Colorado River and its dams do make life possible in much of the Southwest, by controlling floods and providing both hydroelectric power and water for everything from drinking to washing cars to growing crops, though without much heed to the long-term impact. The challenges of sustaining this system are manifold and well-known: a population that is several times bigger than it was a century ago; thirsty crops that consume 80 percent of the river's water, some of which, like rice and alfalfa, are ridiculously water-intensive for such a dry climate; a pricing structure that discourages water conservation, since no one pays the true cost of providing it; and an allocation system, based on water use from the early 20th century, which bears little resemblance to today's reality. Politics prevents the states and municipalities that drain the Colorado from changing the original agreements; no governor would be able to face his or her constituents after agreeing to accept a smaller share of available water. And so the absurdity continues: for a generation now, the mighty Colorado has failed to reach the sea, ending in a trickle far from its outlet in the Gulf of California. A water calamity grows ever closer. If the lakes go dry, and the turbines stop turning, what then?
At one time, Americans may have had confidence that the nation's might and ingenuity would eventually solve these problems. No longer. Has any project on the scale of Glen Canyon Dam even been imagined in the last half century? Yes, we sent men to the Moon and built many large buildings, bridges and water projects in the intervening years (even while we have let others deteriorate shamelessly), but nothing comparable to the great dams of the West has even been attempted in decades. There is an argument to be made that these dams have caused more harm than good over the long run, and a movement to disassemble some of them and return rivers to their natural state has taken hold in some places. These are blunt instruments with which to confront colossal forces: build a dam, remove a dam. The failure of the vision of earlier builders has rendered us hopelessly skeptical. If someone came along now with a new, bold, complicated and expensive plan to fix the West's chronic water shortage, would anyone believe it? Could it get a fair hearing? Would the government fund it? The answers are only too obvious. Collective action no longer holds much currency. Our imaginations have shrunk and our spirits have slowly evaporated along with the levels of Lake Mead and Lake Powell. All we have left are the old systems upon which we once staked a future that is now fast receding in the rear-view mirror. We seem helpless to do little more than protect our little patch of territory, each of us fighting for what little is left of the fertile ground we once thought as limitless as the Western sky.
The Grand Canyon looks much the same today as it did when the first Homo sapiens set eyes on it thousands of years ago. From a human perspective, the erosion of the canyon walls is so agonizingly slow, and its breadth so immense, that it would take tens or perhaps even hundreds of thousands of years before we would notice much of a difference. Bryce Canyon is a different story altogether: visitors who were here only a few decades ago say that there is a discernible amount of disintegration. The variable effects of plate tectonics have left Bryce at a higher elevation than the Grand Canyon, which means colder temperatures and more frozen precipitation. Even with the bright late April sunshine, there was still quite a bit of snow lingering in the shadows. The canyon's unusual vertical formations, called "hoodoos" and which resemble human figures frozen in stone, are literally falling apart year by year. Great ridges of sand bridge the gaps among the jagged battalions, evidence of hoodoos that have long since been reduced to their original composition. Sand once compressed into sandstone by the pressure of sea water and even more layers of rock are turning back into mere sand once again. In a few hundred or a few thousand more years there may be little of Bryce Canyon left but a giant amphitheater of red-tinted dust.
Those who are inclined to believe that nature is too large and powerful to yield much to the effects of human activity might do well to ponder the surprisingly rapid disappearance of Bryce Canyon. We tend to think of the surface of the Earth as timeless and immutable — the position of the continents, their mountains and rivers — even as we know that it is constantly changing. This is one of the insights that is driven home by visiting the great natural monuments in person: what we see today is an infinitesimal snapshot of the planet's unending development. When the rocks from which these canyons were formed were first laid down, North America wasn't even remotely where it is today, nor was it even a separate continent. Our brief span of life condemns us to a very narrow view of our world. However much we learn about geology, our minds are just not made to experience time on so epic a scale. Understanding how the Earth came to this moment, and where it might go in the future, must always be an abstract and intellectual exercise. We have difficulty feeling the advance of our own individual age until much time has elapsed. We are utterly incapable of feeling the age of the planet.
Our effect on the ecosystem, though negligible in the scheme of the universe, is enormously consequential for ourselves and other living creatures. How we mistreat the planet will not kill it, but may very well kill us. The Earth will revolve around the Sun for several billion more years, and the ecosystem will probably change radically again and again, long after the ugly scar of humanity has been covered a thousand times over. But to argue that we are too puny to have lasting effects on the life of the planet is pointless. The lesson of Bryce Canyon is that even unerring nature is far more dynamic than we can imagine. The natural forces of creation and destruction are indifferent to human endeavor. Every single thing people have built can, and mostly will, be undone in just a few generations. The struggle to stay rooted in place is ceaseless. The playwright Maxwell Anderson wrote:
…when the race is gone, or looks aside
only a little while, the white stone darkens,
the wounds close, and the roofs fall, and the walls
give way to rains. Nothing is made by men
but makes, in the end, good ruins.
But nature, by far, makes the more glorious ones.
May 12, 2019
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