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.
Dutton wrote of one Canyon overlook that the scene should be described “in blank verse and painted on canvas,” and for him, Pyne says, “River and Canyon worked against each other like chisel and marble, brush and canvas. Nature was artist as well as engineer.” In short:
The Tertiary History is, above all, a geologic saga, an earth epic…. The Grand Canyon symbolized earth history as nowhere else on the planet, dramatized the temporal ether that suffused every event, and elucidated the principles by which such a universe might be comprehended. An era that invented geology, that was in fact obsessed with the larger questions that the discovery of earth and time had exhumed like dinosaur bones found in the Grand Canyon an eloquent emblem of that mystery and in the Tertiary History an epic retelling of the story. The Tertiary History of the Grand Cañon District created the view from the rim. Together with Powell’s river-defining Exploration, it made the Canyon truly Grand.
In logic, perhaps, Pyne’s book might have ended on this high note; but having previously invented the notion of a third age of exploration in The Ice, his book about Antarctica, Pyne carries on into the twentieth century, when the evolutionary cosmology invented by American geologists, which had been “often leveraged from a fulcrum of the Grand Canyon,” became moribund. “Its informing question, the age of the earth, was close to solution…. The Canyon became more museum than laboratory.” Plate tectonics emerged as the central subject of geological inquiry, and the Canyon was swiftly degraded into no more than a tourist attraction.
“Tourists,” Pyne tells us, “came to see what they were told to see,” and the Canyon remained “a supreme spectacle, though of what was less certain…. The Canyon was known everywhere for being known. It was fast shedding its cultural vitality, surrendering spectacle for celebrity.” But beginning in 1957, a growing environmentalist movement did something to rescue it from this degradation when a literary refugee from Manhattan, Joseph Wood Krutch, hailed the Canyon as a preserve of wilderness. “If we do not preserve it,” Krutch wrote, “then we shall have diminished by just that much the unique privilege of being an American.”
Preserving wilderness in order to defend the privilege of being an American is a thin sort of rhetoric for revalidating the intellectual significance of the Canyon. But it was all the environmentalist lobby could command when official plans for building dams in the Canyon’s defiles came up for action in the 1960s. Nonetheless, in 1968, when Congress rejected the dam proposals, the energetic posse of writers, filmmakers, and political propagandists who swung into action behind their vision of the Colorado as “an emblem of a wild and free flowing river and the Canyon as a timeless symbol of untrammeled nature” prevailed.
As a result, Pyne claims, “the Canyon had reconnected with educated elites…. For all its popular, sometimes mindless permutations, the cult of wilderness had real ideas behind it, and thanks to the controversy the Canyon became a repository for them.” He concludes,
The importance of the Canyon will likely outlive the parochial American idea of wilderness, designation as a world heritage site, and mass tourism. A place that can hold a score of Yosemite Valleys and in which Niagara Falls would vanish behind a butte, that could absorb the shock of American expansionism and democratic politics, that could transcend a century of intellectual inquiry, from Charles Darwin to Jacques Derrida, has not exhausted its capacity to refract whatever light nature or humanity casts toward it, provided a suitable overlook exists from which to view it.
Pyne discusses the succession of visual artists—F.W. von Egloffstein, Balduin Möllhausen, F.G. Weitsch, Thomas Moran, Timothy O’Sullivan, William Holmes, and Gunnar Widforss—whose paintings, drawings, and photographs supplemented literary interpretations of the Grand Canyon’s meaning. But especially in the absence of adequate reproductions, Pyne’s words are blunt instruments for analyzing visual art; and perhaps because color was critical for visual images of the Canyon, the black and white photographic reproductions in Pyne’s book do not conform very convincingly with his enthusiastic appraisals of what these artists accomplished.
Pyne also argues briefly but provocatively that, with its cosmic reach, his Third Great Age of Discovery, by transforming geology, reduced the Grand Canyon to a “mud crack in the solar system” testifying to “a science as antiquated as trilobites.” But Pyne’s central argument is geological and cultural; and his surprising claim that Dutton’s Tertiary History ought to rank as an influential work of literature is the center of his book.
I am prepared to believe that Dutton was, as Pyne says, “a congenital polymath.” He was a Yale man, Civil War veteran, professional army officer, agnostic, littérateur, chess player, scientist, and conversationalist. And I can even believe that, like Edward Gibbon,
he composed most of his manuscripts in his head, then wrote them down or dictated them in marathon sessions during which he stalked back and forth across a room, alternately speaking and puffing on an omnipresent cigar. In one such session he dictated eleven thousand words, of which two minor corrections were made in later revisions. No doubt this procedure accounts for the exceptional grace and conversational tone of his writings.
After looking through Dutton’s Tertiary History with some care, I agree that much of it is indeed conversational in tone, being accounts of his journeys to and fro across the regions north of the Grand Canyon and rhapsodical descriptions of the rock formations he encountered. “Exceptional grace,” however, is a matter of judgment; and I found Dutton’s invocations of the Canyon’s sublimity more overwrought than graceful. He apologizes in his preface for abandoning “the severe ascetic style which has become conventional in scientific monographs” but claims that for the Grand Canyon flights of imagination are necessary “to exalt the mind sufficiently to comprehend the sublimity of the subjects.” When, after several chapters describing lesser wonders, he arrives at the Canyon’s rim and makes his way to a spot he christened Point Sublime for an overview, Dutton begins by saying that the inexperienced observer “will be simply bewildered.” Sublimity becomes apparent only when the beholder adds to his awareness of its vast proportions
some notion of its intricate plan, the nobility of its architecture, its colossal buttes, its wealth of ornamentation, the splendor of its colors, and its wonderful atmosphere. All of these attributes combine with infinite complexity to produce a whole which at first bewilders and at length overpowers.
Comparison of eroded rocks with oversized Hindu temples was Dutton’s preferred way of giving human scale to the Canyon landscape. One such protuberance he named Shiva’s Temple and describes it as “the grandest of all the buttes…. It stands in the midst of a great throng of cloister-like buttes, with the same noble profiles and strong lineaments as those immediately before us, with a plexus of awful chasms between them.” Yet plate 34, portraying another rocky peak, which Dutton christened Vishnu’s Temple, deflates the comparison. Resemblance to an Indian temple is too faint to be plausible; and, in general, the architectural comparisons that Dutton regularly resorts to when describing eroded rocks seem to me thoroughly inept.
It is true that Dutton’s book offered a clear and comprehensible account of how the Grand Canyon came into existence. The book’s first sentence reads: “This work is chiefly devoted to a description of the methods and results of EROSION on a grand scale.” And so indeed it is, arguing that after long ages during which deposits accumulated in shallow seas, two distinct episodes of uplift provoked the erosion of many thousands of feet of soft sedimentary rock, and gave the Grand Canyon its basic shape: an upper canyon some six to twelve miles wide with a narrower, more recently eroded chasm at the bottom.
Dutton’s juxtaposition of extended geological discourse with aesthetic appraisals of landscape poses difficulties for the reader. For anyone but a geologist, the litany of technical terms—Carboniferous platform, upper Aubrey cliffs, Permian remnants, and the like—is difficult to understand; and Dutton never explains their temporal succession, affirming on the book’s last page that “there is no mystery more inscrutable than the duration of geological time.”
Who, then, actually read the Tertiary History? Pyne does not say, and if, as I suspect, it was in fact effectually buried among other reports of the US Geological Survey, hidden by subsequently deposited strata of official prose, is it plausible to claim, as Pyne does, that Dutton’s book “made the Canyon truly Grand?”
My best answer is a noncommittal Yes and No. Yes, in the sense that Dutton’s geological account made the display of earth’s long geological past on the Canyon walls more intelligible. Others eventually learned to share the sense of sublimity he attributed to the view from the rim by listening to local guides as well as by reading promotional literature disseminated by the Santa Fe Railroad in its successful effort to build up the tourist trade. No, however, in the sense that the message as disseminated shed almost all of its geological burden, and did not derive directly from Dutton’s text.
Pyne, it seems to me, has disinterred a vivacious ghost, attributing to it rather more than he should. Similarly, Pyne’s equation of Powell’s adventures in descending the Canyon with the Lewis and Clark expedition in shaping American national consciousness surely claims too much for his heroes and for the significance of the Colorado and its gorge. Long familiarity with and admiration for the Grand Canyon perhaps skews his judgment.
There are other surprising quirks in his book. For example, even though the canonical interpretation of the Grand Canyon was shaped by nineteenth-century geologists, Pyne refers to but does not bother to explain what they did. He alludes to the fact that American geologists formed a distinctive school in the mid-nineteenth century, emphasizing fluvial erosion far more than European geologists were doing. I gather that the Americans did so largely on the basis of the dramatic landscapes of the American West. European geologists explained the discovery of seashells in the Alps as the result of marine transgression and coastal uplift. But other processes were more evident in the American West, such as the power of flowing water to wear down even the hardest layers of uplifted rock—and nowhere more dramatically than in the Grand Canyon. Pyne, in short, tends to assume that his readers know a good deal about the history of geology. This makes reading his book both tantalizing and stimulating—demanding more background knowledge than I suspect most readers will have, and in some matters only hinting at what I wanted (or even needed) to know.
For a historian, Pyne commands an amazingly wide-ranging knowledge of earth sciences. (He has also written seven books about fire.) His familiarity with European and American intellectual and art history is also impressive; and his account linking the interpretations of the Grand Canyon with changing climates of opinion in the Western world across the past five hundred years is a convincing tour de force. So is his central argument that literary and artistic works shaped elite interpretations of the Canyon in the nineteenth century and provided the basis for their popularization in the twentieth.
Yet I find the flamboyant excesses of Pyne’s own literary voice disquieting. His poetic imagination is remarkable, spewing forth metaphors and similes as incontinently as sculpture oozes from the exterior of a Hindu temple (to revert to Dutton’s favorite comparison). Some of Pyne’s similes and metaphors are apt and powerful, as passages quoted above demonstrate. But some are inept and distracting. For example, the third sentence of the book’s first page reads as follows: “The mesa trails west like a pennant flapping in the winds of geologic time.” For me, at least, this was all but meaningless at first blush. When I paused to puzzle it out, a far-fetched parallel came to mind between a flapping pennant and the view of the Canyon at times of day when shadows highlight the irregularity of the exposed rock faces. It required further reflection for me to imagine how, across geological time, the actual contours of the canyon’s walls recede and might conceivably undulate like a banner in the breeze.
But do they really? After all, as agents of erosion, “winds of geologic time” are almost as powerful as water and ice. But that they suffice to treat a rock face like a waving pennant seems to me untrue, simply because a pennant remains intact and attached to a rope or mast whereas vertical rock faces recede, crumble, and tumble down, slowly transforming vertical cliffs into talus slopes and eventually into horizontal peneplains. In short, Pyne’s resort to poetic license can mislead rather than enlighten his readers.
Consider, for another instance, the following sentence:
The era’s geopolitical sagas—the pursuit of a Passage to India, the rivalry between France and Britain over the South Seas, the westward Course of Empire across North America, Britain and Russia’s Great Game in Central Asia, Europe’s unseemly Scramble for Africa—all were boulders rolled over imperial cliffs that scattered before them rockslides of exploring expeditions, sojourners, savants, and adventurers, a tumbling scree of the curious and the obsessed that constantly reshaped the topography of thought and the cultural contours of Western civilization.
What are the “imperial cliffs” over which so much cultural baggage fell? As far as I can see, they never existed, so Pyne’s rhetoric degenerates into empty verbal acrobatics.
Such passages brought another short book about the American West to my mind: Norman Maclean’s pellucid classic, A River Runs Through It. Maclean wrote about a different river and his book resembles Pyne’s in paying some preliminary attention to geologic history. But the stylistic contrast is immense, for Maclean did not waste a word from beginning to end. Perhaps his primary themes—sibling rivalry and the art of trout fishing—lend themselves to clarity and simplicity of expression better than the convoluted grandeur of the Colorado gorge and the variety of its reputation over the centuries. One might even argue that the chaotic immensity of the Grand Canyon invites (or even requires) the inflated rhetoric that Pyne resorts to. But I doubt it.
Still, despite its rhetorical excesses, Pyne has written a genuinely mind-enlarging work. I wish I had read it in advance of my own visit to the Grand Canyon, years ago, when I did exactly what Pyne says practically all tourists do, i.e., saw simply and solely what I was told to see. All I really remember is how my family and I descended to the river’s edge along a carefully marked and railed-in path, and, after sleeping in a National Park Service cabin at the bottom, scrambled laboriously back to the rim through a cold rain that turned to snow as we reached the top. Not rocks and views but unexpected chill, and pride in even this minor muscular triumph over gravity, is what the Grand Canyon meant to us. We remained wholly ignorant of the varied historic meanings and past importance of the views from the rim and river that Pyne displays so convincingly in his provocative, learned, and (only occasionally) irritating book.
November 5, 1998