How Grand Was My Canyon

Glendale scribe dishes the dirt on world's biggest hole

As Pyne writes:
The Canyon's cliffs were no mirror for modernism, as they had been a palette for Romantic art and a slate for natural science. No Nobel laureate began a career on rim or river. No major artist shattered old genres or announced an avant-garde manifesto among its sunset-blasted buttes. No book foamed up from its rapids to demand a place in the modernist canon.

Worse still, as the intellectuals deserted the canyon, the hoi polloi flooded in, driving to the rim, piling out of their cars and taking snapshots to prove they had been there. As Pyne puts it, the park and the canyon seemed to have turned into a museum piece.

Pyne's argument notwithstanding, we never escaped the nagging feeling that we should do something with it. In the first half of this century, federal Bureau of Reclamation officials closed off the west end of the canyon with Hoover Dam and Lake Mead (a topic Pyne doesn't get into). In the 1950s, they toyed with the idea of flooding parts of the canyon in the name of progress and electrical power. And indeed, they eventually closed off the east end as well, with Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell. That only happened because Glen Canyon, though every bit as lovely as the Grand Canyon, did not have a place in American culture. With the Grand Canyon at the mercy of the giant hydroelectric dams at either end, the Bureau of Reclamation continues to run water through it like a giant flushing toilet, to borrow a phrase from Bruce Babbitt, for the sake of the power industry, killing virtually everything in it.

"What did biology ever have to do with the Grand Canyon?" Pyne asks with tongue in cheek. Then, as an answer of sorts, he points out that recasting the canyon in our environmental age requires the long journey down from the rim to the river. And that remains a mystical journey. Anyone can drive a car to the rim and look over--quite a few people fall in each year doing so. But to see the river up close requires at least a strenuous two-day hike.

It's a longer shot still to run the length of the canyon on a raft. Today's motorized rafts are to John Wesley Powell's wooden boats what land rover SUVs are to Model Ts. But it still takes a week's time and a couple thousand dollars per person to make the trip.

But the intellectuals came back. Pyne writes:
The Grand Canyon became, for postwar environmentalism, both talisman and oracle. It would again inspire as well as inform. Between a white-water Grand and a dam-chocked Glen, intellectual energy sparked, like an electrical arc leaping between oppositely charged diodes. Edward Abbey set his novel of ecotage, The Monkey Wrench Gang (1974), exactly within that force field.

How the Canyon Became Grand is not an easy read. In an appendix, Pyne has superimposed a time line onto a map of the Grand Canyon, which is apt in ways he never meant it to be.

The book reads like a raft trip. It flows quickly, and since Pyne originally presumed his readers would be current on canyon lore and legend, he barrels through it. As on the raft trip, the side canyons go whizzing past, the guide yaps about Vishnu schist and John Wesley Powell while the tourists are hanging on too tightly to remember the names of the rapids. Because, if they don't pay close attention, they could fall off and be swept downstream.

Pyne himself jokes that the book is "a whitewater history, a lot of spray and shouting and then it's over."

How the Canyon Became Grand could easily have been spun out into a very long book. Pyne says, half-facetiously, that he wanted to prove he could write a short book.

Though he wrote a critically acclaimed book on Antarctica, he is best known as a world expert on the history of wildfire and how it has shaped landscapes and environments whether lit by lightning or indigenous populations or slash-and-burn farmers. The forests of northern Arizona, for example, were thinned into meadows by Native American burnings for several centuries and then allowed to thicken into their current tinderbox conditions by the last century of grazing and fire suppression.

Pyne won a MacArthur genius grant for that work, but he drove other historians batty. In an age where historians ponder the gender and ethnic implications of everything, here was a historian who talked suspiciously like a biologist. He has served as a fire consultant to the National Park Service and helped write the fire plans for Yellowstone National Park.

During his summers as an undergraduate and graduate student, he worked as a firefighter for the National Park Service on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and lingered there after earning his Ph.D. until he found a professorship. His most accessible book, Fire on the Rim, chronicles those days. That canyon book he claims was from the heart, the current one from the head.

He didn't set out to write an armchair read nor an intensive history.
"There are hundreds of Grand Canyon books," he says. "What am I contributing that's different? Well, I have an organizing scheme, another way of looking at the canyon asking a different kind of question.

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