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Axis Mundi: Visiting the Grand Canyon.

July 24, 2008
Not a good shot, but some of the layers in the rock are visible.

Not a good shot, but some of the layers in the rock are visible.

Although this is coming on my third year of living in Arizona, the missus and I hadn’t managed to drive the three hours north to visit the Grand Canyon. This delay was not by design. Melissa and I have talked about it quite a bit, but other things tend to get in the way: living, working, bills. It’s this way with most working families: it’s difficult to pull away from the routines and difficult (particularly in this current economic environment) to save money. But with my daughter Stella visiting and my mom in town as well, I decided that now would be as good a time as any. Melissa is still out of town working, unfortunately; but I thought it would be good for Stella to see the Grand Canyon, and since her next visit won’t be until Christmas, I thought we should take advantage of the time and go.

The drive itself is beautiful. Traveling north into the mountain country on the I-17, the landscape gradually changes from arid desert to hilly and green. It’s hard to describe the difference in the shade of green between the East Valley and the hill country around Sedona and Flagstaff; the pine trees and thick grass and windy roads reminded me of driving in Kentucky. Northern Arizona is a entirely different place from the Sun Belt; the people there experience a full year of four seasons — not simply the excruciatingly hot, the uncomfortably hot, the sort of hot, and the bearably hot. I miss the balance that comes with living in a climate that has definite seasons: Autumn and Spring have always been my favorite times of the year. I don’t particularly miss snow, nor do I miss that special quality in a winter wind that cuts me to the bone; but forgive my tendency towards nostalgia for a moment, and keep in mind that, for all of us, the memory of a thing is nearly always better than the actual thing.

We left at a reasonable hour so that we were able to avoid most of the bad morning commuter traffic; we took my mom’s rental car, a Dodge Caliber (nice car, lousy gas mileage) and I drove. After the usual number of stops for gas, munchies, and bathroom breaks, we arrived at the Grand Canyon around 11:30 in the morning.

I’ve seen plenty of pictures of the Grand Canyon over the years; some in social studies or geography or geology textbooks; some more artistic photos. But a picture, no matter how artfully conceived or carried out, does the subject any justice. I ended up taking around 45 pictures myself — but all I had was my cell phone camera, and they are far from any appropriate representation. The vastness of the Grand Canyon is staggering; we were on the North Rim, and it was impossible to see all of it — in any direction, including down. There is a sense of more; that there is more to see, more to explore, and more that is worth exploring. What is visible is simply breathtaking. The rock formations are — well — beautiful. People who know me know I have had a fascination for rocks of all kinds, ranging from semi-precious stones and crystals, to the accidental glory found in a pile of gravel. Rocks record the history of the world — everything that’s ever happened in the geologic history, dating back nearly 4 billion years, can be found in the layers of some rocks. Against this kind of memory I always feel — well — humble. Memory is to the writer what a good kitchen is to a master chef — nothing we do means anything if the proper tools aren’t at hand; and a writer needs a long memory as much as he needs a talent for telling believable lies.

Looking over the North Rim, I was awe struck by the history. Keep in mind some certain facts: the Earth is approximately 5 billion years old, and except for a space of time some 4.6 million years ago, the geologic development of the Grand Canyon can be traced back nearly 17 million years, though more conservative estimates place it closer to 5 or 6 million years. The layers of sediment take on the color caused by warmer climates, floods, the various qualities of the Colorado River over the centuries and of the icebergs that cut the original mountain range that is now at the bottom of the Canyon. Erosion is a long process — water on rock takes a long time to have any effect — and in the end, both the water and the rock are changed forever. What remains is the evidence of the process; and of course, what is interesting about this is that, given enough time, even this seemingly eternal record will disappear by the same process that created it.

All natural processes tend towards balance; there’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the environment, and green house gas, and carbon footprints, and we’re starting to realize that we have a certain obligation to take care of the world we live in. But we should keep some things in mind: nature works towards balance, which means that it is always changing and adapting; and nature’s time line covers eons, not days, months, or years. On the other hand, civilization strives towards stasis — survival of the dominant culture at all costs. Enduring unchanged, generally comes at some cost, and for us the costs have been environmental. People, as a whole, don’t like change; civilizations don’t survive because of change — it’s quite the opposite. So, on a certain level, the things that are central to who and what we are as a civilization and a species are contrary to the laws of nature. Nature responds in kind, reacting and changing according to what we have done. And someday, all that will be left of this inevitable struggle is an etching in a rock somewhere that will, over the course of eons, disappear.

Taking in the Grand Canyon, I was struck nearly instantly with a sense of smallness. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the entire universe focuses on what we do. I’m reminded of my favorite Stephen Crane poem:

A man said to the universe:
"Sir I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."

We are a minuscule part of an infinitely larger process — a process with a time line that we can not really conceive because none of us who are currently alive will see this process in it’s entirety. Time is short, and no matter how healthy we are or how many new medical miracles are developed, the simple fact is that, someday, all that will be left of each of us is a scant geologic record. This makes it even more important that we spend our time wisely; that we not wait, or give into fear, complacency, or routine. I struggle with this myself, and I suspect that I’m not alone. Whether it’s trying to find time to visit the Grand Canyon or finding the fortitude to risk comfort for completeness, it’s always easier to procrastinate.

At some point, though, I think it’s important for each of us to stand at the edge and take in the history of the world — if for no other reason than to realize that the world is not going to stop and wait for us to make our mark.

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