In the World of the Canyon

Only discord can come of the attempt to share solitude.

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.

One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.

In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.

One returns from solitude laden with the gifts of circumstance.

~Wendell Berry

In any life, there are times and circumstances that lend themselves more readily than others to existential thoughts, to contemplations about such things as meaning and purpose, to the ever-inconvenient examination of one’s beliefs about the things that make a life worth living, and to the considerably-more-inconvenient accounting of how one’s own life measures up to these beliefs. I always consider it fortuitous when such times and circumstances converge with being present in some favorite place, because such convergence helps make at least some of the answers, self-evident.

There are few categories in which I can name perennial favorites. Places (or rather, kinds of places), happens to be one such category. And of these favorite places, desert canyons top the list.

Unlike such distinctions as desert, mountain, river, or ocean; the word, canyon, doesn’t describe a thing; it describes the absence of things—the space between the walls. While other things, alive or inanimate, may exist within a canyon, neither their presence nor absence are innate qualities of a canyon—take away every last one of these things, and the canyon will still be a canyon. Much like the occupants of a house, things within a canyon, while not part of the canyon, collaborate to shape the experiences one may have in that canyon; and in that, no two canyons are alike.

***

There are few times in the desert when everything feels, “just right”—comfortable weather, lack of biting bugs, no danger of flash floods, etc. In this desert, early spring is usually one of these few idyllic times; and today is one such idyllic day.

I have been walking with Millie the dog for a little more than an hour now, in the general direction of a favorite canyon. An unusual yet familiar small rock stops me in my tracks: an unmistakable shard of the fossilized bone of a sauropod dinosaur, common in these parts in the Jurassic period. The rock’s texture and color—a conspicuously purplish blue (or is it bluish purple?)—would have made it a desirable find for a jewel maker, but it is unlikely that such a person has ever been, or likely ever will be, out here, far from any trail. More interesting to me is another rock not too far away—a piece of petrified wood from a vast forest that filled these parts in the Triassic period. The fossils in themselves are fascinating, but not nearly as fascinating as the fact that, when this dinosaur was alive, this wood has already been fossilized for tens of millions of years.

I mention these finds not as anecdotes, but to make a point about the canyon I am about to enter—a deep tributary of a desert river, with walls hundreds of feet tall. One would need some understanding of the geology of this place to derive the conclusion about the timescales of the fossils, but not necessarily for the timescale of the canyon. To a creature whose lifespan is less than minuscule in comparison, geologic time is at best an interesting topic of contemplation to a layperson or empirical data to a scientist, but when speaking in terms of thousands, or millions, or billions of years, finer distinctions are hard to perceive. Any timespan longer than perhaps a few decades or centuries, perceptually is regarded as the same thing: a long time.

In a canyon, when one stands before an enormous layer-cake of rock, one may not just contemplate, but see and touch the progression of geologic time: the very pebbles that lined the bottom of a river a couple of hundred million years ago; the now-dry mud left as that river receded, giving way to a vast sand desert; the sand, now compressed into porous rock, that was part of that desert; and so on.

We regard places sculped by eons of natural processes as “timeless,” not because they are without the dimension of time, but because the timescales involved are so vast in comparison with the blink of time of conscious existence we each get, that on a human scale they are meaningless in any practical sense. But a canyon, where one can see and touch geologic time, sometimes billions of years deep, is perhaps more fittingly described as timeful.

***

The vast open plateau before us gives no hint of the depths and hidden worlds of the canyons cut into it, the nearest as close as just a quarter mile away. A few more minutes of walking, and suddenly the land drops. Almost without warning, we find ourselves looking down an enormous cliff into a gash in the land stretching into the horizon. A thin trickle of water below is lined with giant, gnarled, cottonwood trees. We stop for a water break and a quick snack before beginning our descent into the cool, fragrant, world of the canyon.

It is still early enough in the season that the only green plants in abundance are soft grasses, some growing at the bases of shrubs and trees, some lining hillsides built up in the naves of curves in the canyon. In just two or three weeks, the great trees will begin to bud, and abundant life will awaken, or migrate from some faraway places. For now, the only sound is the soft gurgle of water flowing over tocks, echoing quietly off the big walls. An hour passes rapt in utter fascination, without realizing it, and then another, and another, until finally hunger makes me realize it’s lunchtime.

Sitting on the sandy bottom of a large alcove, I unwrap the sandwich I made before leaving, and give Millie a favorite dog treat (and then three more). This might make for a good nap spot, but we still have a ways to go. We continue walking downstream toward yet taller and narrower passages. As I listen to the soft music of the creek, I realize that a favorite tune has been playing in my mind for the past few minutes.

Researcher Sherry Turkle, in one of her talks, made this poignant statement: “We do not err as a society when we innovate, but when we ignore what we disrupt or diminish while innovating.” The memory of these words unleashes a train of thought. It may seem that modern technology is out of place in a setting such as this, saturated in golden light and breathing the scents of wet earth and riparian flora, but I don’t think this is universally true. Certainly, one has to be picky about the kinds of technology that would complement, rather than disrupt, such an experience—for me, and for any other living being within earshot.

Here, many miles from any bastion of humanity, I can put on my headphones and bring something of the experience of the world’s greatest concert halls to this wild and natural temple. The experience is, of course, much different than that of an actual concert hall. Rather than fidget in a chair and mutter about people coughing, I can enjoy music and songs in solitude, in an immense natural cathedral.

I was never content to limit my appreciation of art to sterile spaces, stuffy concert halls, or snooty galas. Appreciation of art, for me, is a private matter, most compelling when practiced in solitude, better yet among impressive scenery in harmony with the effects of the art. In that, the world of the canyon is especially versatile, lending itself well to anything from symphonies, through jazz, rock ballads, Native American flute, and many others.

I listen to a couple of favorite tunes, then turn the gadget off. All things in measure.

Thoughts about other technologies are of a less desirable nature. I’m of the generation that brought about the internet; and by an accident of fate, I happened to be working in the field as the human world transitioned (in large part, literally) into virtual domains. I can attest first hand that such things as online commerce, and what we today consider as social media, do not at all accord with the rosy prophecies of a free, equitable, and collaborative world so many hoped these technologies would bring about.

For all the convenience and prosperity brought on by the internet, among its most tragic consequences is that so many spend so much of their time in human-made virtual worlds. In thinking about my experience right now, in contrast with that of millions mindlessly entertained, influenced, and marketed to through gadgets and screens, I wonder how many will regret—or even know to regret—not dedicating some significant portion of their lives to the raw sensations of the world for which we were shaped in the course of billions of years of evolution.

What lives will such people have to look back on in what Thoreau characterized as their, “most elevated and critical hour”? What will prove to be the cost, if only in the accounting of one’s own life, of dedicating so many of one’s living moments to inane interactions within such virtual worlds? What will be the implications, if only in terms of regret, of choosing preoccupation with tweets and status updates and hashtags, over private, intimate, mindful times in the real world? Perhaps a generational attitude, or perhaps just a personal quirk, but to me such preoccupations are antithetical to anything I consider living; it is to turn away those sensory, visceral, multidimensional aspects of life—in a sense, life itself, at least biologically speaking—for experiences that at least to me are of much lesser quality: for sensory deprivation and a simplified, virtual existence.

Would a person born into the internet age, reaching at some later point in life for some meaningful memory, recall the time a post “went viral”? The excitement of having an image on the first page of some website? Can such things truly measure up to surveying the view from a mountain top, being bathed in the glow of reflected light in the depth of a canyon, listening to the gurgle of a desert stream, breathing the scent of water and earth and flowers, listening to the songs of wrens in the high cliffs, staring into a night sky free of light pollution, lost in thought; or just watching a beloved dog splashing mirthfully in a canyon pool?

***

The experience of the canyon consists of many more dimensions than I can name, if only for the fact that many are so nuanced as to have no names, nor much relevance in other contexts. Most of these dimensions fall into the categories of visceral sensations—sights, sounds, scents, textures. Others are of a more subjective nature, emerging out of collaborations of outer sensations and inner states—moods, emotions, thoughts, ideas, perceptions, preoccupations, creativity. Among these collaborations are the indescribable feelings of remoteness and solitude—among the most pleasurable experiences in life for those familiar and comfortable with them, and among the greatest sources of anxiety and worry for those who are not. I am fortunate to be among the former, to a point where lack of such things as solitude and remoteness are among my own greatest sources of anxiety and worry.

***

Across the canyon, a large varnished wall is covered in dozens of petroglyphs. Most are of bighorn sheep, some more faded than others, indicating they were carved in the course of many years, if not generations, perhaps even cultures. Holding in mind the story set in the layers in the canyon wall, spanning hundreds of millions of years, I find it worthwhile to remind myself that human beings are very—very—recent arrivals here. Few of the oldest human-made artifacts found in this area were left by small packs of hunter-gatherers, and date back a little more than ten thousand years. Most others are much more recent than that. It was just three or four hundred years ago that Neolithic people still lived in this very canyon.

A friend once asked if I can feel the presence of ancient people in such places—some nonmaterial remnants of lives and thoughts of other human beings. I do not. In fact, if any remnants of human life were perceptible here, other than abandoned structures, potsherds, sculpted stone tools, and rock art; odds are I would stay away. I am here, after all, for solitude and detachment from the petty concerns of humanity; and these people—although different in their lifestyle, culture, mythology, and technology—were still every bit as human as any person I might bump into walking down a city street, and likely had their petty affairs, haves and have-nots, rulers and servants, sages and criminals, friends and enemies, scholars and mystics, just as we do.

I used to wonder what the lives of these ancient people were like: what their daily chores were; what their beliefs and rituals were; what their food tasted like; what it was like to grow up in such a place and have it be your only known world. Without noticing it at first, such thoughts soon took on a slightly different flavor. I realized that what I’m really trying to imagine is what it would have been like to be a person of my sort—a recluse, an introvert, a rational thinker—living among such tribes, in times when solitude involved existential risk and was likely considered dangerous and ill-advised; when one had to spend a substantial portion of their time securing enough food to avoid starvation; when one had to act according to the traditions of the tribe, if only because banishment was akin to death. Of course, this is all speculation, and I am a pessimist by nature. I do find consolation in the fact that, despite life being more precarious in those days, these people still found it important to invest much time and considerable effort in creating art, although I also can’t say for sure that their ideas about art and its purpose, were anything like to mine.

The sun will set in about two hours. Time to set up camp; and an inviting large alcove beckons a short walk away.

What Lies Ahead
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2 thoughts on “In the World of the Canyon

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  1. Guy, this is as lyrical and beautiful a piece as you have ever written. I’m sure anyone who has followed you for some time knows the story of your discovery of “Desert Solitaire” by Edward Abbey. This could well have been written by him. And I hope you take that as a high compliment.

  2. A beautiful piece, Guy. I grew up in western North Carolina in the era before cell phones, internet, etc. I miss it. To remember when being out of contact with other humans was part of our normal existence makes today’s obsession with “staying in touch” and disseminating the minutia of people’s lives incomprehensible. How many will ever know what the wing beat of a golden eagle sounds like, or the smell of a deep Appalachian cove forest after a summer thunderstorm. As my days of deep penetration are behind me, solitude is fleeting, allowed only briefly and primarily by the fact that tourists and the like hate to miss breakfast. Saddest of all is that only a tiny portion of “my” mountains is beyond the reach of human abuse. Most of the wild places I knew as a boy are gone.

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