How Grand Was My Canyon

How does a mile-deep hole in the desert become a cultural icon, a mystic symbol and the world's biggest tourist attraction? That's what Arizona State University professor Stephen J. Pyne set out to explain in his new book, How the Canyon Became Grand.

"The simple view is that here's this wonderful marvel," Pyne says, "and it's just waiting to be discovered, and as soon as someone staggers to the rim, all is revealed. And of course it's nothing like that.

"It took a tremendous effort and it took a convergence of all kinds of things to come together at a particular time and a particular culture. And so we value the canyon in ways that we don't value other places that may be equally as large, equally as strange. It's acquired a meaning and a history."

Pyne meant the book--his 10th--to be a history of ideas, an interpretative essay centered on a narrow organizing theme: that the Grand Canyon is a cultural invention. The hole in the ground was always there, but it took 19th-century sensibilities to turn it into something grand.

And precisely because of that cultural baggage, Pyne's essay turned into a trade hardcover that has irked or intrigued critics on both coasts--while being virtually ignored here in the Grand Canyon State.

The first whites to see the canyon were horrified. Spanish explorers in the 18th century peered over the edge, and like so many New Yorkers who wander the world and measure the quality of a place in the quality of its delis, found themselves at a loss for words outside of their frame of reference. The river at the bottom of the canyon was wider than the Tajo River back home, with boulders taller than the tower of Seville.

And it was in their way. They weren't looking for wonders, they were looking for native peoples to convert to Catholicism and fornicate into submission, so they traveled upstream to Havasu Canyon to pester the Native Americans there for a while and then moved on.

Similarly, the early Mormon settlers were looking for places to proselytize and populate. They pronounced the Colorado River "too thin to plow and too thick to drink," and moved on as well.

The Big Canyon, as it was once called, was a worthless wasteland and an obstacle to travel.

"We have a hard time believing that people could go to the Grand Canyon and not see it as we see it," Pyne says.

It took a new aesthetic to give it worth--to "valorize" it, as Pyne puts it. Then, paraphrasing Wallace Stegner, he adds, "The problem with a lot of places that are interesting scenes is that they didn't have a poet. The Grand Canyon did."

He was referring to John Wesley Powell and Clarence Dutton, who not only led the early expeditions through the canyon, but who theorized on its origins and summed it all up in reports that were both scientific and rhapsodic.

They figured into what Pyne calls the Second Age of Discovery (the first being all those Europeans sailing the ocean blue since 1492), artists and photographers and scientists posing as explorers, all caught up in the drama of the century. Powell, whose name, ironically, has been affixed to one of the Colorado River's larger impoundments, is the most famous of the bunch. In those days, geology was a newly minted discipline, landscapes were mirrors of the tortured soul, and art and science were not yet considered to be mutually exclusive domains. The first depictions of the canyon were made in the late 1850s by a German artist accompanying one expedition, and his representations spoke more to the era's romantic preoccupations than to what the canyon actually looked like.

Nonetheless, it was a beginning to the romancing of the canyon (and indeed, each summer season brings more Germans to the canyon environs, sunbathing topless at Wahweap, terrorizing tour guides at Monument Valley and videotaping the supermarket meat counters in Flagstaff). The Romantic painters installed storm clouds in their canyon landscapes just as the explorers installed Sturm und Drang in the accounts of their voyages, all of which fed into an emerging nation's inferiority complex. It was as if Americans were saying to Europe, you may have your fancy museums and old churches, but our Niagara is bigger than your waterfalls, our Mississippi is longer than your rivers, our Rockies are higher than your Alps, and this here big canyon, well, you've got nothing like this. In fact, it's so big that, as Pyne writes, it is "a place that could hold a score of Yosemite Valleys and in which Niagara Falls would vanish behind a butte. . . ."

So when President Teddy Roosevelt rode a train to the rim in 1903 and pronounced the view among the "great sights every American should see," the canyon had officially been pronounced grand.

And consequently, it became old news.
Modernist art had no use for landscapes, and its artists moved to Carmel and Taos and New York. Geology moved on from fluvial mechanics to plate tectonics. Exploration moved to Antarctica, the ocean floor and outer space. Interestingly, Apollo 11 landed on the moon during the centennial of Powell's journey.

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.

"It's a long interpretive essay. It has an odd organizing conceit that allows me to get in, make my case and get out. But it leaves a hell of a lot of other questions unanswered."

He speaks in canyon metaphors as he describes the book's style--pools and rapids, rocks in the trail--but the book came out of academe. He first set upon the idea 25 years ago when he wrote a report in lieu of a master's thesis at the University of Texas. Years later, an archaeologist for the National Park Service asked to reprint it as a monograph, so Pyne diligently reworked it. Two years ago, an academic colleague asked to reprint it as a book, and Pyne again chose to rewrite it. When he finished, he felt he should offer it to his publisher, University of Washington Press, and it politely accepted it after more than a year's consideration. But Pyne wasn't sure it fit the publisher's catalogue, so he sent the manuscript to his agent.

He was astounded when his agent wrangled him a $50,000 advance from Viking Penguin; he'd gotten thousand-dollar advances for his earlier books.

And he was astounded at the national critical reaction, mixed as it was: The New York Times Book Review, New York Review of Books, L.A. Times and other papers on either coast spun long-winded reviews. Some reviewers loved it, others picked at the professorial prose; several wondered why Pyne hadn't included Indians.

"It isn't an Indian story," he protests. "Not every story in the West has to be an Indian story."

Which is not to say that there are no Native American myths surrounding the canyon. Pyne's point is that the Eurocentric intellectuals who shaped the impression of the Grand Canyon didn't borrow them, adapt them, perhaps even consider them. The current mystique is a European creation.

Here in Arizona, the Grand Canyon State, one of the local dailies published a short and polite review. How the Canyon Became Grand, a book about Arizona written by a native Arizonan, was not on the Arizona bookshelf at Borders Books & Music; an employee had to go fetch it, one presumes from the store's hoity-toity intellectual section.

The canyon's current mystery is the fight over Tusayan, the tiny gateway community to the park's main gate.

Adirondack resorts were nestled into the trees, because that's what the tourists were coming to see. Tusayan motels, on the other hand, open onto other motels, as Pyne calls it, "a strip mall with helicopters." You have to get in your car and drive to get to a tree. And consequently, you might as well be in a motel in Forest Park, Illinois, or Traverse City, Michigan, as on the rim of a natural wonder. Yet the entire state is in a tizzy about a planned resort that would actually be aesthetically pleasing but would be owned by outsiders.

Steve Pyne recently wrote an op-ed article about that debate, not for any local paper, but for the New York Times. The Arizona Republic later reprinted it, but the sequence of publication only seems to reconfirm his thesis: that our opinions of the Grand Canyon don't come from the place itself, but from the cultural impressions forced on it from outside.

Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address:


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