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THE GREAT ABYSS
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
The shock is aggravated by the fact that you have no inkling whatsoever of its existence until fifteen feet from its edge. And the first time you stumble onto the edge of the Grand Canyon is likely one time you will not forget. The sight is simply astonishing; the array of walls and canyons, the hair of river far below, the colors, the varying rays of sunlight as they play upon the shades, columns, and corners of the place, all falling away from your perch as far as the eye can see, reduces most to muted awe.
One of the small pleasures of travel is reading a book about the place visited. Hence, I have read, for instance, The Great Deluge while working in New Orleans, Ordeal by Hunger while in Reno and exploring nearby Donner Pass, and here, visiting the Great Abyss, I am well into Down the Great Unknown, by Edward Dolnick. The book chronicles the first running of the Colorado River by a one-armed, former Civil War officer named John Wesley Powell. In 1869, accompanied by fellow Union veterans, Powell endured tragedy and triumph in his remarkable, courageous journey down the uncharted, raging waterway that sculpted the great canyonlands of the southwest. Dolnick has words that express better than I the abyss I stumbled upon, beginning with these, from page 198:
"Powell was face-to-face here with the great intellectual challenge posed by the seven hundred miles of canyon he had passed through and by the side canyons and caverns along the way. The challenge was to accept the dizzying lesson the rock landscape proclaimed - in the immensity of time, water prevails over stone and shapes it as it pleases. It is no great feat to mouth the words, but believing them is another matter. To try to grasp the unfathomable stretches of time required for a trickling stream to carve a cathedral-sized cavern is to risk a kind of intellectual vertigo. Geologists today call this time-induced dizziness rock-shock.
"The shock was all the more profound in an era when it was still commonly believed that the earth was a mere six thousand years old. But for Powell, the rebellious son of a minister who believed in the Bible's literal truth, the notion of limitless time was a liberation rather than a consternation. It would become a central theme of his intellectual life and the great lesson he was to draw from the Grand Canyon."
Walkways along the canyon edge are well constructed, and fenced where perilously close to the edge. The drop here is several thousand feet; we overhear on a car radio that someone has managed to drive off the cliffs earlier in the week. Where cities now experience "suicide by policeman," here, apparently, is "suicide by Thelma and Louise." It is disconcerting to see men, women, and, worst of all, children over the fence and straddling the edge, posing for photographs. I cannot even look at some, the danger so close, the smiles so wide. Strolling along, I come to a fenced area, complete with warning sign, and almost gasp when I see a cameraman filming another individual perched on a crumble of rock twenty feet out and surrounded by air. The cameraman is claiming the sound may not have worked, and the shot must be redone. A family stands by dutifully; I approach and ask why the man is out on the ledge.
"That's our father," a girl tells me. "He's a minister from Atlanta, he's filming this Sunday's sermon."
Down the Great Unknown, page 217:
"The great, dizzying discovery of the nineteenth century was that time stretched backward farther than the human mind could grasp...The earth's age could not be measured in thousands of years, the geologists declared, but in millions, or tens of millions, or hundreds of millions. The notion left Victorians clutching their heads in bewilderment and dismay."
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy... My family attended the United Church of Norwood, Massachusetts, which, along with the Congregational Church, is directly descendant of Puritan religion. I was a choir boy and accolyte, but one of my very first memories of Sunday School was of aged, lean, leaning anger and finger waving as we were drilled in the books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy... how indispensibly important it was to remember all the books, in order, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy... I recall minutia, my father's impatience with late arrivals and crying babies during the sermon, the unearthly voice of minister Leon Hatch who, I thought in my earliest days, was actually God, glances at watches when the sermon ran over past 11 o'clock, and finally our Sunday morning routine of lying in bed absolutely still, my oldest brother admonishing any sound whatsoever that might awake our parents, waiting eagerly until the clock attained 9:45, which signaled that it was too late to rise and dress in time for the 10 o'clock services...Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy...
Down the Great Unknown, page 218:
My mother's parents were born in the 1890's and possessed the last vestiges of Victorian manner. Interested, educated, and severe, my grandmother was a child poet and historian, my grandfather a violinist in the Wellesley Orchestra. But they carried with them also the ancient prejudices. When my teenaged mother came home with a Catholic boyfriend, her parents immediately pulled her from predominantly Irish-Catholic Norwood High School, and enrolled her in predominantly Protestant Westwood High School. When my mother first brought home my father, her first words through the door were, "This is Jack, he's Protestant!"
Ancient prejudices die slowly. As a fourteen-year-old I was prevented from playing hockey on the local Catholic Youth Organization hockey team. A few years later, after discussing religion with a born-again co-worker, I was informed, "You're children would be better off dead than growing up with you." But prejudices, however hydra-headed and however slowly, do eventually die. My mother would live to see her three sons all marry Irish Catholic girls, and her only daughter marry a Jew.
Down the Great Unknown, page 219:
Benjamin Franklin once said, "It's great to be rational creatures because it allows us to rationalize anything we want." It speaks volumes here in the library of the Gods, where I marvel that two men can stand side-by-side, and yet be seperated by such a great abyss. "Nowhere on earth is God's handiwork as impressive and obvious as here at the Grand Canyon," he assures me, waving an arm out over our chasm. I nudge a rock at my feet. Stooping, I pick it up, and show it to the minister. I wish to communicate with him as clearly as he always has with me.
"It's my library card," I say, and walk away.