How the Canyon Became Grand

  • FIVE OF A KIND: The Grand Canyon from on high

    Mark Klett photo
  • Cover of the book, "How the Canyon Became Grand"


Stephen Pyne, who is best known as an historian of fire, has written an audacious book which shows how, for a few wonderful decades in the 19th century, the Grand Canyon stood near the center of the intellectual development of the Western world. During those years, the Canyon was, all in one, the Hubble Telescope, a high-energy particle accelerator and the Louvre.

It attracted intellectuals, scientists, soldiers and adventurers from everywhere. They peered into it, explored its rims and side canyons, drove a steamship up the Colorado River and floated down it.

Some went at the canyon as just another Western adventure, like hunting buffalo. Others shrouded the place in the mists of romanticism. And nationalists transformed the canyon into America's answer to Europe's man-built world of churches and castles and cities.

But it was the scientists who dominated, and when they were done, Pyne tells us in How the Canyon Became Grand, the earth's age had gone, incredibly, from a few thousand years to a few billion years. Just as Copernicus and Galileo and their successors had pushed us out of the physical center of the universe, these 19th-century thinkers pushed us out of a cozy temporal world whose timeline could be deduced from a decoding of the Bible.

Biologically, we went from the dominant species on earth, surrounded by our Noah's ark companions, to simply another layer in an immensely long line of predecessors. At the beginning of this era, the earth was a calm, unchanging place. When it was over, we understood that the earth was acted upon by immense forces, over immense periods of time. Where the canyon plunged, for example, there had once been two mountain ranges. Now only their roots remain.

Not all responsibility for these changes lies with the canyon. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, for example, formulated their theory of evolution without ever having seen it. But Pyne argues in this beautifully written intellectual history that the canyon, because of its vast scale, its beauty, and the stories embedded in its walls, presented the Enlightenment with a puzzle it could not ignore.

But before that puzzle could be solved, the canyon had to be seen as a work of nature rather than as a freak of nature, and this required a collaboration between artists, writers, photographers and scientists. Once that job of seeing was done, the change in world view followed.

As many Western historians have told us, this was not a happy or admirable time in the West. But for a moment, thanks to the physical grandeur of the canyon and the intellectual force of those it attracted, the West had a glimpse of what Wallace Stegner may have meant when he wrote of a "society to match the scenery."

Stegner, of course, wrote compellingly of this time in Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West. He described how Powell and his contemporaries started out as the fabled blind men, trying to understand the elephant under their hands. By the time they were done, they not only grasped the fluvial processes and uplift that had carved the canyon, but they had created that glory of 19th-century science: the geology associated with Powell, Clarence Edward Dutton, Grove Karl Gilbert, Clarence King and others.

Powell's work in the canyon carried him beyond the scientific and onto the national political stage, and in Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, Stegner followed the one-armed soldier and scientist to Washington, D.C. There, in the late 19th century, Powell tried to thwart the Western boomers and railroad builders, with their lies about the Plains as a potential garden. Ultimately, Powell failed, and the land and hundreds of thousands of homesteaders suffered. Stegner's father was among those taken in by the boomers.

Stegner leaves the Southwest with Powell, but Pyne stays with the canyon through its dullest and most depressing years: the first half of the 20th century. Scientific elites had moved on to relativity and quantum physics, and geology had become the preserve of practical men seeking minerals and of academics combating the European theory of continental drift.

Pyne, who came to know the canyon as a firefighter on the North Rim in the 1970s, writes:

"Even as the public crowded canyon overlooks, intellectuals were walking away. The new high culture of modernism had little use for the High Plateaus. Modernism busied itself with other projects, above all itself. It preferred to search its own depths, not those of the river-excavated Kaibab and Uinkaret plateaus. Scenes and values that had previously joined elite to folk were worn away, a Great Denudation within American culture. Modernism cut through their once-common ground until intellectuals and the public were as distant and incommensurable as the two rims. A commercial popular culture rushed in to fill the void."

And so the canyon fell into the welcoming hands of industrial tourism. The Southern Pacific Railroad built a spur to the South Rim and commissioned artists and publicists to sell the place. No longer did people come to search out its meaning; all they had to do was absorb the pap.

It got worse after World War II. Below the rim, in the gorge, the Bureau of Reclamation was planning its assault on the Colorado River - dams above and below the park boundaries and a tunnel through the Kaibab Plateau to divert the river. On the rim, the National Park Service, with its Mission 66 project, was accommodating every tourist hauling a tin can on wheels.

Then, in the 1950s, came the canyon's rejuvenation by Stegner and Joseph Wood Krutch. Stegner, of course, was never a modernist, but Krutch, the former Columbia University English professor, had started his intellectual life as a purveyor of despair in The Modern Temper.

Then, thanks perhaps to his 1948 biography of Henry David Thoreau, Pyne writes, Krutch became "an apostate from modernism." He began to write natural history books, culminating in 1957 with Grand Canyon: Today and All Its Yesterdays.

Pyne does not put Krutch's book in the same class as Stegner's Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, but those two books between them told America that its history and beauty were at stake. The battle was joined in the late 1950s, when it seemed too late. The machine that was turning the West's rivers into slackwater reservoirs was at the height of its power. But it turned out that the dam-builders' golden, post-World War II moment had passed before they could build their dams in the inner gorge. The cultural elite, Pyne writes, had triumphantly returned to the canyon, this time not as scientists, but as carriers of the idea of wilderness, and they routed the engineers and other practical men.

"For all its popular, sometimes mindless permutations, the cult of wilderness had real ideas behind it, and thanks to the dam controversy, the Canyon became a repository for them ... Like a broken bone, the fracture between the Canyon and intellectual culture knit together, stronger than ever. The Grand Canyon became, for postwar environmentalism, both talisman and oracle. It would again inspire as well as inform," Pyne says.

Pyne is too optimistic, of course, or much more of southern Utah and the Northern Rockies would be in parks or wilderness. But he is painting with a very broad brush over a relatively long period, and as President Bill Clinton's creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument shows, the wilderness stroke may not yet be complete.

Despite Clinton's action, the West is dominated by elected officials who are sworn enemies of a protected and respected landscape. They are aided by the boomers and promoters whom Powell had fought, and who are again in charge.

Pyne's book shows that possession is not everything. If ownership mattered, the American West would be Spanish. The first Spanish explorers saw the canyon in 1540, and they occupied the Southwest for centuries. But, Pyne writes, while the Spaniards were brave and resourceful, they could not fathom the canyon or the American West. They were after souls and gold, not necessarily in that order, rather than an understanding of the region.

Today we are in another struggle for the West. On one side stand those who enshrine private property rights and economic growth. On the other are those who seek a giant, protected public commons.

Pyne tells us that while it won't be a clean victory, the strongest and clearest ideas will eventually win. The victory, if it comes, will be sparked by the cultural elite - by artists and scientists - and the canyon will be at the center of that victory:

"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."

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

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