Zora Hurston (“There Eyes Were Watching God”) is credited with coining the phrase, “You got to go there to know there.” While I have found her axiom to be generally true, it is paradoxically true and untrue regarding Grand Canyon. Although, in order to experience “The Canyon,” one must “go there,” it is humanly impossible to “know there.” It is simply too vast, too deep, too long, too old and too mysterious for the human brain to comprehend. In fact many hikers, who hike to the bottom and back up, emerge blissfully bewildered by their experience.
It is quite likely that the one person who experienced this dilemma the most acutely was John Wesley Powell. Powell belongs to an elite pantheon of explorers who accomplished something that had never been done. Even though he was missing one arm, he successfully led an expedition down a river that was considered unnavigable. Native Americans warned him that he and his crew would be swallowed into the center of the earth. After the three-month odyssey, Powell expressed the futility of trying to capture the spirit of Grand Canyon:
“The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.”
He arrived at this conclusion after what many seasoned explorers predicted would be a disastrous expedition ending in death and destruction. He and his crew faced odds and challenges that would have made lesser men quail in defeat. The untamed Colorado River meandered 224 miles through a 5000-foot-deep chasm that offered few or no pathways of escape. The combination of roaring water and huge granite boulders produced “standing waves,” some of which approached 35 feet tall. The only way to survive these waves was to tether their specially designed boats and laboriously “rope” them around the potentially lethal obstacles.
They were frequently cold and wet, much of their food had spoiled, there were several near-drownings and they lost one boat. Understandably, Powell’s men were stressed to the breaking point, prompting three of them to agree to abandon the expedition and take their chances of escaping back to civilization.
Powell handled the little mutiny with compassion and dignity. For all he knew they might be right which led to his musing:
“We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls ride over the river, we know not. Ah, well! we may conjecture many things.”
In profound irony, the next day presented an easily navigable rapid, the last threat to the expedition. The three men were never seen or heard from again.
On a much smaller scale, I identified with the stress that Powell experienced. The Biodesign Class intentionally took high school students in into the uncharted educational wilderness and challenged them to explore their God-given-gifts of soul and spirit. Their discoveries ranged from miraculous, magnificent, even sublime, to stressful, painful and terrifying enough to cause about 3% of them to flee in fear.
Sometimes it is aggravating when IT “reads” my posts and sends me links and ads that “they” think I will like (or buy). However, this was not the case when, after I posted the blog involving Darwin, Mozart and Sunny Choi. Quite mysteriously, a YouTube video of Yeol Eum Son’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto #21 popped up. I sat mesmerized by what I was seeing.
As if Ms. Son’s stunning performance were not enough evidence of her virtuosity, she frequently closed her eyes and silently commanded her fingers to find 1000s of notes “in the dark.” The concerto was 32 minutes long, which required her to commit perhaps as many as 30,000 notes to memory. From my highly limited musical ability, I could not detect a single error.
The fact that it is highly unlikely that 99.99% of the world population will ever be able to do what she can do lends credence to the reason why many biological and behavioral scientists call her “gifted.” However, if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, perhaps the ability to discern spiritual gifts is as well.
A well-known British biologist has spent much of his career (and made millions of dollars) railing that there is no evidence for the existence of God. Poor chap. I wonder if he has ever hiked to the top of Yosemite’s Half Dome or to the bottom of Grand Canyon; walked through the Louvre in Paris, visited St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, listened to Handel’s “Messiah,” Mozart’s “Requiem,” or Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony.”
Paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, people have been endowed by their Creator with the spiritual gift of “free will.” It may be the greatest human irony that some of them have chosen to use that gift in an attempt to deny their Creator’s existence.
“This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist.” Charles Darwin
Fifteen Biodesign Classes were blessed with the privilege of walking across the “Silver Bridge,” which connects Grand Canyon’s South Rim to Phantom Ranch. They enjoyed watching the Colorado River flow beneath the grated deck they were walking on. The same cannot be said about mules. Mules refuse to cross the bridge because the flowing river below spooks them. People may scoff at their behavior until they realize that they are just as prone to be spooked by spiritual wisdom or events that eclipse their limited mental capacity.
“They distrust, it would seem, all shapes and thoughts but their own.” Loren Eiseley.
Grand Canyon is a wonderfully real and symbolic enigma for man. In addition to its mind-boggling immensity, breathtaking beauty and infinite array of kaleidoscopic colors, it is the greatest page of biological history on planet Earth. There is nothing on Earth that it can be compared to. Simply put, it is too big for people to wrap their minds around.
While watching the water flow beneath their feet, students often struggled in vain to comprehend the fact that the water has been flowing for 1.8 bil’li-yon years (Carl Sagan intonation). Walking along the bottom of Grand Canyon was typically an intensely humbling experience, which often left students with a wonderful hodgepodge of feelings of awe, trepidation and delight. But mostly they expressed an overarching feeling of gratitude for the privilege of being alive at that moment in time. Loren Eiseley expressed a similar emotional awakening on one of his trips into canyon country: “It was a great day to be alive!”
They looked and pondered, looked some more and pondered, but there was no resolution. Little wonder Carl Sandberg wrote; “There goes God with an army of banners” and follows with “who is God and why? Who am I and why?”
As for the mules; their behavior is heavily influenced by instinct, which does not allow for coping with moving water 50 feet below their hooves. Humans however, have been endowed with the gift of “free will,” which includes freedom of thought. However, this freedom also allows for egoism, arrogance and the foolish misassumption that man is smarter that the Creator that fashioned him.
Even though I am not a Biblical scholar, I don’t think it is possible to find single Old Testament reference to God as having a sense of humor. Michelangelo’s dour image of God, painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, reflects the pre-renaissance pessimism common at that time, however, I fear that countless millions of people still consider his image as “spiritually correct.” Is it possible that they fail to appreciate that his image was merely designed to accommodate the mental capacity of the unlearned? As a deeply spiritual man, Michelangelo knew that it was humanly impossible to “paint the face of God.” And this is what he may have in common with cartoonist Gary Larson.
However, if God lacks a sense of humor, this begs the question as to where humor came from.
Darwin’s theory of an ever-evolving, “dog-eat-dog world,” dripping in blood, offers few clues. While there are numerous examples of young mammals that seem to enjoy playful, even comical behavior, most zoologists claim that pre-human mammals (and all birds) lack the cerebral cortex tissue necessary to experience humor.
Fast forward to human evolution: there are many legends and stories that indicate that many Native Americans appreciated the importance of humor. Along with healers and medicine men, many tribes appointed “delight makers” who displayed all the talents of medieval court jesters.
The Greeks formalized the role of humor by illuminating the yin-yang relationship of tragedy and comedy (which often included humor).
Circus clown, Emmett Kelly, elevated the art of clowning to unprecedented heights with his creation of “Weary Willie.” And western rodeo shows demonstrated that “rodeo clowns” could employ their skills by distracting angry bulls from attacking fallen riders.
In 1973, Stephen Sondheim wrote the score, “Send In The Clowns,” which was featured in the musical, A Little Night Music.
About the same time, Gary Larson began entertaining the world with his brilliant cartoon strip titled, “The Far Side.”
So how could this possibly have any relevance to Grand Canyon? Of course I am biased, but I think that Larson’s cartoon featuring a panoramic view of Grand Canyon, just may be one of its most profound (albeit silent) descriptions. The single frame shows a wide-angle view from the rim of The Canyon. A couple is sitting in small car, presumably enjoying the view. There is nothing humorous about the frame until you look at the lower right corner. The scene is being lifted up into folds of canvas curtain, revealing a broom, sweeping out dust from behind.
In a single, extraordinarily clever frame, Larson identified an almost universal response to visitors who reach the rim of the Grand Canyon. It is so vast that there are no experiential reference frames to compare it with. The simple truth is that it is a miracle that defies human comprehension: thus the segue to Michelangelo’s “Face of God.”
If ever there was the perfect place to apply Zora Hurston’s adage “You got to go there to know there,” (Their Eyes Were Watching God) Grand Canyon is that place. Hopefully, avoiding the elitist label, the immensity and magnitude of Grand Canyon cannot be fully appreciated from the rim. One has to “hike there to know there!” Of course, the longer the hike the better, however a walk down to the Colorado River, and at least one night at Phantom Ranch and hike back up will be likely an adventure that most will consider as the greatest hike in their life.
Larson is a genius who combines all the attributes of a Native American “delight maker,” Greek humorist, medieval court jester, contemporary satirist and clown extraordinaire. His Grand Canyon cartoon reveals the futility of trying to describe one of the world’s greatest natural mysteries.
Scientists, sages and naturalists have written endless accounts of Grand Canyon, but I find it pleasing to combine Larson’s image of Grand Canyon and poet Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Last Chrysanthemum:”
I talk as if the thing were born
With sense to work its mind;
Yet it is but one mask of many worn
By the Great Face behind.
Even though St. Helena is a relatively small town (where everyone knows everyone else’s business) I suspect that only Tom Burke’s family, a few friends and colleagues knew that, before he became a teacher, he seriously considered entering a Catholic seminary in order to become a priest. Obviously, his children and the nearly 1000 ex-students are grateful for his career reconsideration. However, he did not entirely cast his passion for the sacred aside. He excelled at teaching science, which included the mysteries and wonders of Mother Nature. Tom and John Muir were kindred spirits. In the introduction to “The Wilderness World of John Muir,” Edwin Teal wrote this about Muir:
“Yet he was intensely religious. The forests and mountains formed his temple. His approach to all nature was worshipful. He saw everything evolving yet everything the direct handiwork of God. There was a spiritual and religious exaltation in his experiences with nature.”
For those who knew and loved Tom, there is a striking similarity between Muir’s approach to Nature and his approach to working with students. He regarded each one as a special creation of God and treated him/her accordingly. This was rarely easy and poignantly described in Pierre Lecomte du Nouy’s classic book, “Human Destiny.”
“When a child begins to speak and to think, one must not be afraid to make his brain and his memory work. The quality of a child’s memory is surprising and is rapidly lost. The coordinating power between his ears and organs of speech is prodigious and rarely persists beyond the age of ten. A child can, without difficulty, learn to speak two or three languages fluently, without an accent, but this becomes almost impossible when he is over ten years old, and at that time requires a great deal of work and effort which, at that age, arouses a contrary reaction, a protestation, thus handicapping the result.”
Tom taught the fifth grade, which has been compared to trying to herd 25 hyperactive kittens in one direction. I am sure there were many moments when even Job’s patience would have been tried, but Tom handled these with a rare combination of patience and understanding.
Tom joined the Biodesign Class of ’85 on their trip to Grand Canyon. He was almost “monk-like” regarding his attire and was satisfied taking his old army boots along. Unfortunately, the soles were worn smooth and the upper 3 miles of the South Kaibab Trail were covered with three feet of ice and snow. The scene might have been funny except he scared us half to death; “step-slip-down on his butt! step-slip-down on his butt.” Several times he skidded to the trail’s edge, only to look down several thousand feet into the great abyss. It was the longest three miles that many of us had ever ‘hiked.”
Tom was genuinely scared, but he handled his fear with dignity, humor and grace. In fact, I think that would be a wonderful epitaph for him: Tom Burke handled life with dignity, humor and grace.
Mr. Burke had a huge impact on many of his students. Whether they learned important curricular or co-curricular lessons was left up to them, but I know that some of them went on to become teachers with the hopes of following in his foot prints.
It is intriguing to note that, even though Teddy Roosevelt traveled the world seeking adventure, one of his greatest experiences occurred in 1903 when he camped with John Muir near Yosemite’s Glacier Point. He was inspired and encouraged by Muir to initiate the American Antiquities Act which led to creating 18 National Monuments preserving over 230,000,000 acres. Together, they formed the foundation of what became the US National Park Service. It is also interesting to note that, regardless of visiting Grand Canyon several times, he overlooked what could have been a life-changing experience of hiking to the bottom of Grand Canyon.
On several occasions, Biodesign students suggested that if conflicting world leaders would only spend one night on top of Yosemite’s Half Dome, world peace would be achievable. Perhaps the same can be said about the same leaders peacefully walking to the bottom of Grand Canyon. About half way down the South Kaibab Trail there is a band of gray sandstone, which is less than ½ an inch thick. The geological guidebook suggests that the band took 10,000 years to form. Walking along the Colorado River, amidst Vishnu Schist (1.8 billion years old), makes the entire human history seem like a fleeting and not too important page of the history of our planet. Somehow, it is comforting to know, that after humans have ceased to live on this precious planet, the Grand Canyon will continue to keep time in million-year seconds. Who knows, maybe in another billion years other visitors will take the same trail down to the Colorado. Meanwhile, I had the awesome privilege of making that trek with 15 high school biology classes. It was a sacred trust to see Grand Canyon through their eyes.
Warning: Henry Van Dyke’s epic poem, “THE GRAND CANYON,” is “soul food” and beyond the “fast-food” attention span. However, it just might be the most important poem you will ever read.Van Dyke plumbs the depth of Grand Canyon and the depth of the human soul. He challenges believers and non-believers to set aside their baggage of religious and scientific bias, pettiness, myths and shallow thinking and become one with Grand Canyon. Van Dyke concedes that, like the words infinity and eternity, Grand Canyon cannot be defined yet, as a poet, he cannot contain himself. There are one-liners galore that will convict, cajole, console, compel, comfort and inspire. Nothing will compare with hiking Grand Canyon, however, Van Dyke’s poem offers a hint of the mystery of transcending the human body and briefly becoming “at one” with the universe.
What makes the lingering Night so cling to thee?
Thou vast, profound, primeval hiding-place
Of ancient secrets,–gray and ghostly gulf
Cleft in the green of this high forest land,
And crowded in the dark with giant forms!
Art thou a grave, a prison, or a shrine?
A stillness deeper than the dearth of sound
Broods over thee: a living silence breathes
Perpetual incense from thy dim abyss.
The morning-stars that sang above the bower
Of Eden, passing over thee, are dumb
With trembling bright amazement; and the Dawn
Steals through the glimmering pines with naked feet,
Her hand upon her lips, to look on thee!
She peers into thy depths with silent prayer
For light, more light, to part thy purple veil.
O Earth, swift-rolling Earth, reveal, reveal,–
Turn to the East, and show upon thy breast
The mightiest marvel in the realm of Time!
‘Tis done,–the morning miracle of light,–
The resurrection of the world of hues
That die with dark, and daily rise again
With every rising of the splendid Sun!
Be still, my heart! Now Nature holds her breath
To see the solar flood of radiance leap
Across the chasm, and crown the western rim
Of alabaster with a far-away
Rampart of pearl, and flowing down by walls
Of changeful opal, deepen into gold
Of topaz, rosy gold of tourmaline,
Crimson of garnet, green and gray of jade,
Purple of amethyst, and ruby red,
Beryl, and sard, and royal porphyry;
Until the cataract of colour breaks
Upon the blackness of the granite floor.
How far below! And all between is cleft
And carved into a hundred curving miles
Of unimagined architecture! Tombs,
Temples, and colonnades are neighboured there
By fortresses that Titans might defend,
And amphitheatres where Gods might strive.
Cathedrals, buttressed with unnumbered tiers
Of ruddy rock, lift to the sapphire sky
A single spire of marble pure as snow;
And huge aerial palaces arise
Like mountains built of unconsuming flame.
Along the weathered walls, or standing deep
In riven valleys where no foot may tread,
Are lonely pillars, and tall monuments
Of perished aeons and forgotten things.
My sight is baffled by the wide array
Of countless forms: my vision reels and swims
Above them, like a bird in whirling winds.
Yet no confusion fills the awful chasm;
But spacious order and a sense of peace
Brood over all. For every shape that looms
Majestic in the throng, is set apart
From all the others by its far-flung shade,
Blue, blue, as if a mountain-lake were there.
How still it is! Dear God, I hardly dare
To breathe, for fear the fathomless abyss
Will draw me down into eternal sleep.
What force has formed this masterpiece of awe?
What hands have wrought these wonders in the waste?
O river, gleaming in the narrow rift
Of gloom that cleaves the valley’s nether deep,–
Fierce Colorado, prisoned by thy toil,
And blindly toiling still to reach the sea,–
Thy waters, gathered from the snows and springs
Amid the Utah hills, have carved this road
Of glory to the Californian Gulf.
But now, O sunken stream, thy splendour lost,
‘Twixt iron walls thou rollest turbid waves,
Too far away to make their fury heard!
At sight of thee, thou sullen labouring slave
Of gravitation,–yellow torrent poured
From distant mountains by no will of thine,
Through thrice a hundred centuries of slow
Fallings and liftings of the crust of Earth,–
At sight of thee my spirit sinks and fails.
Art thou alone the Maker? Is the blind
Unconscious power that drew thee dumbly down
To cut this gash across the layered globe,
The sole creative cause of all I see?
Are force and matter all? The rest a dream?
Then is thy gorge a canyon of despair,
A prison for the soul of man, a grave
Of all his dearest daring hopes! The world
Wherein we live and move is meaningless,
No spirit here to answer to our own!
The stars without a guide: The chance-born Earth
Adrift in space, no Captain on the ship:
Nothing in all the universe to prove
Eternal wisdom and eternal love!
And man, the latest accident of Time,–
Who thinks he loves, and longs to understand,
Who vainly suffers, and in vain is brave,
Who dupes his heart with immortality,–
Man is a living lie,–a bitter jest
Upon himself,–a conscious grain of sand
Lost in a desert of unconsciousness,
Thirsting for God and mocked by his own thirst.
Spirit of Beauty, mother of delight,
Thou fairest offspring of Omnipotence
Inhabiting this lofty lone abode,
Speak to my heart again and set me free
From all these doubts that darken earth and heaven!
Who sent thee forth into the wilderness
To bless and comfort all who see thy face?
Who clad thee in this more than royal robe
Of rainbows? Who designed these jewelled thrones
For thee, and wrought these glittering palaces?
Who gave thee power upon the soul of man
To lift him up through wonder into joy?
God! let the radiant cliffs bear witness, God!
Let all the shining pillars signal, God!
He only, on the mystic loom of light.
Hath woven webs of loveliness to clothe
His most majestic works: and He alone
Hath delicately wrought the cactus-flower
To star the desert floor with rosy bloom.
O Beauty, handiwork of the Most High,
Where’er thou art He tells his Love to man,
And lo, the day breaks, and the shadows flee!
Now, far beyond all language and all art
In thy wild splendour, Canyon marvellous,
The secret of thy stillness lies unveiled
In wordless worship! This is holy ground;
Thou art no grave, no prison, but a shrine.
Garden of Temples filled with Silent Praise,
If God were blind thy Beauty could not be!
Going for a nighttime walk at Phantom Ranch can be an awesome, bewildering, surreal experience. Typically, the stars are absolutely dazzling and walking among rocks that are 1.8 billion years old can make you feel like you are standing in the past and looking at, God-only-knows-what; the past?—present?—future? The vortex swirling around Polaris (the North Star) creates a peephole into infinity and eternity,both words that are scientifically enigmatic. Little wonder St. Augustine (354 AD) questioned the meaning of the word time. The 6,000-year-old Anasazi ruins (near Phantom Ranch) are a haunting reminder that the gift of life is precious and fleeting. More importantly, they remind us that civilizations rise and fall and the Earth, and all of her inhabitants, will end in the Cosmic recycling process. Hikers who hike from the Colorado River, up to either rim of the Grand Canyon, often arrive physically exhausted, spiritually energized, but mentally bewildered with few words that can describe their adventure.
“And now the scenery is on a grand scale. The walls of the canyon, 2,500 feet high, are of marble, of many beautiful colors, often below the waves, and sometimes far up the sides, where showers have washed the sands over the cliffs.”
“The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons,” is an amazing account of the courage, wisdom and tenacity of Major John Wesley Powell and his dedicated crew of “mountain men” converted to boatmen. They were the first known persons to successfully navigate, what Native Americans called, “The River of no Return.” With only one arm, he led an exploration that was more exciting than an Indiana Jones adventure, because real is always more terrifying than fiction. The party launched four boats on May 24, 1869, heading for the Colorado River that had yet to be tamed by Hoover Dam. Powell’s daily journal described unfathomable hardships including “roping” around 30’ stationary waves.
June 9. Barely two weeks into the voyage, they lost the “No Name” in what they named, “Disaster Falls.”
June 16. “The Maid Of The Canyon” was lost, but recovered undamaged.
June 18. While climbing up one of the cliffs of the canyon, Powell got stuck in a treacherous spot where he could not go up or down without the probability of falling to his death. Fortunately, G.Y. Bradley was able to maneuver above him, remove his pants and lower them down for Powell to use as a rope. Terrifying moments like these are events that can either end in triumph or tragedy.
July 5. Frank Goodman informs Powell that he can’t take any more stress and will leave the party and seek the Uinta Indian tribe and hopefully return home.
July 12. “Kitty Clyde’s Sister” capsizes. G.Y. Bradley was caught underneath and was dragged underwater the length of the rapids. Miraculously, he survived.
August 13. 75 days into the ordeal, the crew is tired, bruised and bedraggled; the meager rations they have left are moldy or rotten. They have no clue about how far they must voyage and yet Powell writes an astounding entry into his journal.
“We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not. Ah, well! We may conjecture many things. The men talk as cheerfully as ever; jests are bandied about freely this morning; but to me the cheer is somber and the jests are ghastly.”
August 27. “After supper Captain Howland asks to have a talk with me. We walk up the little creek a short distance, and I soon find that his object is to remonstrate against my determination to proceed. He thinks that we had better abandon the river here. Talking with him, I learn that he, his brother and William Dunn have determined to go no farther in the boats. So we return to camp. Nothing is said to the other men…All night long I pace up and down a little path, on a few yards of sand beach, along the river.”
August 28. “At last daylight comes and we have breakfast without a word being said about the future. The meal is as solemn as a funeral. After breakfast I ask the three men if they still think it best to leave us. The elder Howland thinks it is and Dunn agrees with him. The younger Howland tries to persuade them to go on with the party; failing which, he decides to go with his brother.” [After provisions and equipment are divvied up] “For the last time they entreat us to not go on, and tell us that it is madness to set out in this place; that we can never get safely through it; and, further, that the river turns again to the south into the granite, and a few such miles of such rapids and falls will exhaust our entire stock of rations, and it will be too late to climb out. Some tears are shed; it is rather a solemn parting;each party thinks the other is taking the dangerous course.”
Powell and the remaining five crew members shove off. The rapids looked worse than they actually were and after one minute the boats were delivered from danger. It was their last ordeal to face.
August 29. Over the next two days, there were several lesser falls and rapids to manage, but on August 30, they meet Mr. Asa and his two sons who had been watching for wreckage to drift by. The expedition had been given up for lost. Both Howlands and Dunn were never seen or heard from again and were believed killed by hostile Indians. Tragically, mysteriously, ironically they labored for 96 days, only to abandon the expedition one day before success.
I never experienced anything close to what Powell and his men experienced. However, there are many real, symbolic and metaphorical similarities to his adventure and the Biodesign program. Both involved wilderness experiences with uncharted territory. Although our physical challenges were not as great, there were moments when the mental and spiritual challenges were intense. On several occasions, parents and school officials expressed anger, fear and doubt that I was leading students into dangerous (perhaps illegal) territory. There were horrifying moments on nearly every trip when I felt the panic that Powell must have felt. Instead of restful sleep, I spent many nights mentally pacing up and down the “sandy beach” questioning if I were on the right path. It was not uncommon for me to bolt upright in my bed or sleeping bag, with beads of cold sweat on my brow. I discovered early on that it was the price that had to be paid and the rewards were often nearly as great as those that Powell and his men experienced navigating Grand Canyon.
Like Captain Howland, I probably would have abandoned the Biodesign Program several times, however, the students (and my wife) kept encouraging me to press on.Eventually, the 24-year expedition included 15 trips to the bottom of Grand Canyon and communion with the spirit of John Wesley Powell.