The Grand Canyon was trivial until imagination was ignited ON BOOKS

August 23, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

In size and impact - more physical even than visual - the Grand Canyon defies description. Everybody who has stood at its rim or floated the waters of the Colorado River, which carved it, knows forever its immensity. No one else can; it must be witnessed.

It was one of the earliest natural wonders of North America to be visited by Europeans, apparently first by Spanish conquistadors 1540, 60 years before the discovery of Niagara Falls. But - extraordinarily - it took more than three centuries for it to begin to be appreciated.

Now comes a lovely book that tells the story as none has done before: A narrative of the evolving relationship between a unique physical phenomenon and human perception. It is "How the Grand Canyon Became Grand: A Short History," by Stephen J. Pyne (Viking, 187 pages, $23.95).

Pyne's book is first focused on the geological unraveling of the canyon's mysteries and dramas. But that work is richly informed by his erudite understanding, and clear explanations, of the interweaving of culture - both popular and arcane - with the role of the canyon. He makes grandly understandable how art - especially art - and politics and commerce were vital in bringing forth the modern appreciation and preservation of the Grand Canyon.

How could anybody not see its magnificence?

Well, for centuries, it was looked upon as trivial. In 1851, Joseph Ives, a product of both Yale and West Point and a serious explorer as well as a scholar, wrote an important report on the region.

In it, he concluded: "The region is, of course, altogether valueless. It can be approached only from the south, and after entering it there is nothing to do but leave. Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality. It seems intended by nature that the Colorado River, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed."

Purple prose

But what a difference 30 years can make! In 1882, Clarence Dutton, also a scholar and an eloquent if purple-prosed writer, published "Tertiary History of the Grand Canyon District," which, more than any other document, ignited popular imaginations and interests in the site.

In notable contrast to Ives' dismissal, Dutton wrote: "Those who have long and carefully studied the Grand Canyon of the Colorado do not hesitate for a moment to pronounce it ... the most sublime of all earthly spectacles."

By the 1920s and 30s, there was virtually worldwide recognition of the supremacy of the Grand Canyon as a natural wonder. J.B. Priestley, seldom if ever accused of hyperbole, wrote in a famous essay that "If I were an American, I should make my remembrance of it the final test of men, art, and policies. I should ask myself: Is this good enough to exist in the same country as the Canyon? How would I feel about this man, this kind of art, these political measures, if I were near that Rim?"

Pyne traces, intricately but never tediously, the main 19th century expeditions that went to or included the Grand Canyon. They were steeped in naturalist romanticism and, to no small degree, in self-promotion. The personalities were diverse - U.S. military officers, German petty nobility, gentleman scientists, artists of the mid-1800s.

Their stories are engaging. But, more, the interweaving of their visions, ambitions and recording or revealing roles form a kinetic tapestry of exploration in perhaps its most romantic time.

Pyne has written 11 previous books, including the five-volume "Cycle of Fire." He is a professor of history at Arizona State University and has long served as a volunteer firefighter on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. He writes grandly. There is a lushness of language that strikes me as delightful, sharp spikes of perfectly matched words and facts sliding into fresh ideas.

Scientific exploration and discovery are the underlying drama of the book, and of the Grand Canyon's most important intellectual and historic role: the revelation of the evolution of time and earth.

Geologic time

DTC As Pyne puts it, "Between the late eighteenth century and the mid-twentieth, the known age of the earth increased a millionfold, from less than 6,000 years to more than 4.6 billion. The determination of the exact scale of geologic time and how to organize its unfathomable domain remained the particular province of geology."

By 1893, Pyne reports, the canyon had "become an exemplar of geology, an epitome of historicism, a talisman of landscape art, and an icon of American nationalism." Two-thirds of the way through the narrative, at the last decade of the 19th century, Pyne is able to report that, "The Canyon became to geology what the Louvre was to art or St. Peter's Square to architecture."

Lots of other exploration and discovery - and romanticization of the wilds - was going on in the same periods. But it would be almost impossible to exaggerate the role of the Grand Canyon in the development of America's National Park Service and other institutions that have preserved and served such splendid masses of American wilderness.

The drama of the canyon has never ceased. Attempts to flood or otherwise deface it continued into the 1960s and beyond. Pyne leaves no doubt that new challenges, new discoveries, new significances - scientific, aesthetic, poetic - will continue to evolve.

I can imagine no one more brilliantly equipped to chart that evolution. For anyone seriously interested in the intercourse of nature and human culture, in the interplay of the earth and the mind, this book is obligatory.

Pub Date: 8/23/98

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