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Vivacious Ghost

Virtually every schoolchild in the United States knows about the Grand Canyon by sixth grade or so; and as charts in the back of Stephen Pyne’s new book tell us, between three and five million tourists (most of them from the US) now visit the place annually to see for themselves, and more than twenty thousand raft through the canyon each year. So the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River is, indeed, an American icon, as Pyne calls it—a national symbol, but of what?

Visitors do not pause to ask. Pyne, who spent long, youthful summers as a firefighter on the canyon’s North Rim, had plenty of time to reflect on the question, and when in graduate school began to explore the way shifting ideas and attitudes among successive generations of observers imposed radically different meanings upon what was, on human time scales, an unchanging, if unusual, juxtaposition of colorful rocks and flowing water. Twenty-four years later, as he tells us in an afterword, he returned to the subject. How the Canyon Became Grand is the artfully wrought result.

The book is organized around the notion that across the past five hundred years exploration went through three successive phases: (1) the initial European venture overseas, between 1492 and 1800, when material gain and saving souls were the guiding expectations; (2) the nineteenth-century scientific effort (1800-1914) that used prevailing ideas to classify everything on the face of the earth and locate each item on an eternal grid of Newtonian time and space; and (3) the twentieth- century effort to explore earth and cosmos anew, with due respect for relativity—i.e., the interaction between observer and observed that allows us to create meaning by symbolic manipulation (mathematical and verbal, as well as visual), and relies on intuition, metaphors, and similes to call attention to the significant elements in an otherwise chaotic flow of sensory input.

Pyne’s short book is an elegant example of the contemporary vogue for this sort of relativity. Since, as Pyne convincingly argues, the eye of the beholder made the Canyon meaningful in different ways in successive ages, he divides the story into three parts: “Two New Worlds” deals with early European reports of the gorge; “Rim and River” describes the “Heroic Age” of exploration and discovery when the Canyon first became Grand; and “Canyon and Cosmos” records its vulgarization as a tourist attraction and national park (since 1919), and the environmentalist clamor of the 1960s that defeated plans for building two dams along the river’s course through the Canyon.

It is surprising to learn that Spanish explorers first visited the Grand Canyon in 1540—more than two generations before our familiar national history began at Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. And it is equally at odds with our received vision of the American past to be told that the “Colorado River was identified and mapped long before the St. Lawrence, the Columbia, the Hudson, or even the Mississippi.” But the “discovered Canyon quickly became the lost Canyon” because in Spanish eyes it was “an impenetrable tangle of cañones, mesas, and rapids, uninhabited, inaccessible, peripheral, not a presence so much as an absence, a place to be avoided.”


The Canyon remained hidden until geopolitics met geopoetry; that synthesis required almost another century. By then imperial contests had transferred the region from an old and defensive Spain to a new and aggressive United States. Those same years, however, had witnessed a no less astonishing evolution and redefinition of cultural values that focused art, science, literature, philosophy, and nationalism on the acquired landscapes. The more majestic the scene, the more celebrated it became; the more singular, the more valued. That suited precisely the remote and peculiar canyons of the Colorado.

Yet the first explorers from English-speaking America—fur trappers and Mormon settlers alike—agreed with their Spanish predecessors in finding nothing to admire in the narrow defiles through which the Colorado River ran on its way to the Gulf of California. “In the end the American adventurers resembled nothing so much as secular padres, Franciscans of the fur trade, pursuing pelts rather than souls and as eager as missionaries for paths, not barriers.” And for Mormon settlers, “the Colorado canyons were places…to avoid or to ford.”

After about 1850, however, Pyne convincingly argues, geopolitics and geopoetry converged, giving new meanings and value to the Colorado canyon and making it truly Grand. The confluence was both complex and abrupt.

So they came together: the Greater Enlightenment, the Second Age [of “scientific” exploration], the colonization of continental inte-riors, the unprecedented terrain of America’s Far West. The compound exploded Western civilization’s horizons of geography, history, and perception. Nowhere were its shock waves felt more powerfully than in the United States, a self-consciously new nation as eager for a past as for a future, for which nature often substituted for culture….

Natural history and national history proceeded in sync, a cultural fugue to Manifest Destiny…. The natural, the big, the distinctive—all challenged the artifice of ancient and aristocratic societies.

And the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, with an assortment of “cartographers, naturalists, and foreign eccentrics,” became the instrument “that allowed the rapids of the Colorado River to enter the mainstream of American ideas.”

In 1857-1858 an initial expedition, commanded by Lieutenant Joseph Ives, approached the Canyon from downstream, relying on a primitive paddle wheeler to seek the furthest point of navigation on the Colorado River. Ives did so when his ship “slammed into submerged rocks at the entry to Black Canyon,” but he then proceeded upriver on foot by following existing trails near the the rim and descending twice through tributary canyons to the river’s edge. Ives was accompanied by a naturalist and two German artists (one of them also a cartographer), since the expedition aimed at “a full-bore survey of natural history.”

Their drawings, paintings, and reports introduced the Canyon to the American (and German) public as never before. Yet hangovers of older attitudes remained. “The region is, of course, altogether valueless,” Ives wrote. “It can be approached only from the south, and after entering it there is nothing to do but leave. Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality.” The expedition’s naturalist, John Strong Newberry, was more prescient when he wrote: “Though valueless to the agriculturalist, dreaded and shunned by the emigrant, the miner, and even the adventurous trapper, the Colorado Plateau is to the geologist a paradise,” the Canyon itself presenting the “most splendid exposure of stratified rocks that there is in the world.”

The Civil War soon gave the US Army other tasks; and after the war, when exploration resumed, the Smithsonian Institution and the US Geological Survey rivaled and soon eclipsed the army as official sponsors of organized expeditions. According to Pyne, three men stand out among the crowd of official explorers of the post-Civil War years: John Wesley Powell, who headed expeditions that traveled the length of the Canyon in 1869 and again in 1871-1872, surviving the river rap-ids in specially modified rowboats; Grove Karl Gilbert, who, starting in 1871, through years of field study and survey “translated fluvial erosion into Newtonian mechanics” and defined the Canyon as “a gigantic flume engaged in the business of moving debris”; and, Clarence Dutton, an army officer detailed to the US Geological Survey for fifteen summers in order to study the Colorado Plateau and the river that runs through it.

Powell published a dramatic account of his adventures in 1875, entitled The Exploration of the Colorado River of the West. It made him famous. “His voyage became as much a saga of American discovery as Lewis and Clark ascending the Upper Missouri,” Pyne says. This seems an exaggeration; but Powell’s book had another importance, inasmuch as it introduced the American public to some of the greatest geological wonders of the Wild West, and challenged biblical chronology by arguing that flowing water, given sufficient time, sufficed to cut even so vast a canyon as that of the Colorado.

But his literary fame as heroic adventurer was, according to Pyne, what really mattered. “Without Homer the Trojan War would have disappeared amid the endless unrecorded conflicts of ancient history…. So it was with John Wesley Powell and the Canyon: the Colorado River and its gorges had found their poet laureate, and an American bard the saga he would sing for his career.” Powell’s career as a Washington bureaucrat turned him into Director of the US Geological Survey and also of the American Bureau of Ethnology—positions that allowed him to become the principal organizer of further scientific exploration of the American West.

Pyne cherishes a special admiration for the second member of his triumvirate: the careful and imaginative scientist Grove Karl Gilbert, “who cleaned up after the charismatic and often careless Powell” by connecting the new science of geology with the old science of physics. But since a biography of Gilbert is among Pyne’s early works, he contents himself here with summary judgments and tantalizingly elliptical references to Gilbert’s achievements, presumably because they commanded admiration only among professional geologists and contributed little to making the Canyon Grand in popular imagination. “But,” says Pyne, “the science of erosion in the Colorado Plateau was spectacularly his.”

Pyne views his third triumvir, Clarence Dutton, as the key figure who combined geology with poetry to create the image of the Grand Canyon that became canonical for the American public. He did so by publishing a lengthy treatise which appeared as part of the official Geological Survey report for 1881 under the forbidding title Tertiary History of the Grand Cañon District. In 1882 the Geological Survey reprinted it as a separate “distinguished monograph,” adorned with a new colored map, forty-two drawings, and twenty-three lithographs. Dutton’s Tertiary History was offered to the public in this handsome form, but Pyne says hardly anything about its reception, contenting himself with quoting one dismissive remark and two enthusiastic endorsements by fellow geologists.

Official reports have seldom been confused with great literature; yet Pyne affirms that Dutton’s report ought to be counted as a major landmark of American literary and intellectual culture. In his own words, by bringing together in his Tertiary History

an extraordinary ensemble of science, aesthetics, cartography, painting, photography, illustration, and ideas that had animated the intellectual and imperial expansion of America…Dutton created an aesthetics without popular substrate, without historical antecedents or cultural transitions, and he did it from the rim, without the narrative flow that the river intrinsically imposes…. Instead Dutton discovered the flow of geologic time, in eras of deposition and erosion, an equivalent of the river’s pools and rapids, and in the organization of time that preoccupied so much of the nineteenth century’s intellectual elite, he discovered an informing conceit for an epic history of the earth….

Consequently, for Dutton’s readers,

A Canyon panorama was not a confusion of lithic shapes and an empty sky. It told a story; it had a structure by which the mind could organize the eye; its geometric profligacy constituted in fact an aesthetic ensemble.

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