Canyons of the Mind

William Kent
July 1992

This piece was written after canoeing down a stretch of the Colorado below Moab with a group from San Diego, and then visiting Arches National Monument, Grand Canyon, and Oak Creek Canyon in July 1992.

Canyon country, like life and good art, is layered with meanings, filled with contrast and paradox. Canyon country relaxes the spirit, restoring mind and body to prehistoric rhythms of the earth. Then it strikes sparks.

The red Entrada sandstone holds canyons, mesas, towers, arches and bridges, as the night sky holds a myriad stars. But there is far more. Like the constellations, the sandstone presents to the mind's reality another of nature's Rorschach tests. You can see gargoyles and birds and famous profiles and cartoon characters and ships and cathedrals and furniture and anything else imaginable. Every thing is sculptured somewhere in canyon country. If you look long enough, the canyons can show you anything you wish.

And more than things. Canyon art holds ideas in its masses and lines, in its colors, tones and contrasts, in its sounds and silences, stillness and movements. In your heart you can feel peace, strength, stability, honor, grace, beauty, reverence, wonder, knowledge, things to cherish and protect, time and timelessness, roots, history, the Indian ethic. Linked to these, too, are their opposites: the American way of life, technology, our treachery to Native Americans, trashing the earth our environment, short-sightedness, narrow-mindedness, greed. Given time, the canyons induce meditations on all of these.

Most of all, canyon country is time, eternal and fleeting. We slowly stretch our minds to encompass a thousand years for laying down an inch of sandstone stratum grain by grain, and another thousand to wind-carve and rain-sculpt an inch of a mile-deep canyon. Then suddenly we glimpse a precariously perched boulder, ready to tumble at any instant, a very now hold-your-breath moment. Immediate, too, is the leap of a startled deer, the flap of a heron flushed from the cottonwoods, and the rain in my face right now.

The abstractions feel organic, evoking some familiar image tugging at the corner of the mind. The rows of rippling curves criss-crossed by cracks and crevices are naggingly familiar. It's very familiar. Where else have I seen such form and texture? Ah, it comes to me. The brain. It looks like a human brain. We are in the midst of intelligence; the deepest feeling here is wisdom. This aura is fitting and comforting, nurturing hope: the Earth is indeed sentient, patient, and wise. It knows more than we do; it remembers everything. Maybe it can survive us.

Canyon country is organic in another way, another image tugging for attention. Now I see clusters of vertical things, each in a familiar proportion, sometimes in large groups, sometimes standing off by themselves. Listen to that metaphor: standing by themselves. Canyon country feels like people. We are never alone here, always accompanied by great and small crowds of familiar figures. They are each individual, unique and special. Each is worth knowing and loving for itself, for its own personality and message, yet is lost in a great crowd. Canyon country is ourselves.

Each one of these figures is a gem unto itself, a gorgeous thing to contemplate. Yet, like a great museum or an All-Star team, the merely magnificent and simply splendid become mundane. What a shame. Each of these should be off by itself, to be encountered separately. Maybe we should encourage a certain kind of vandalism after all. We should each take one of these wonders home for our patios or fire escapes. Maybe that's the magic wand, the fairy dust. If each of us had a piece of this beautiful mystery to contemplate, this wisdom to inspire our daily acts, maybe we'd be kinder to each other and to our Mother Earth. Let's take this country to heart.

Canyon country is the American Earth, yet not Earth but alien and universal. The landscape is, after all, not the plains, mountains, forests and seas celebrated in our anthems. It is a moonscape (of the wrong color), or how we might imagine Mars. Science fiction films of alien universes could be made here, and probably have been. It broadens our horizons, reminding us that the universe is more than just the Earth.

Even the figures. On closer inspection they're not quite human. Though familiarly organic, they are alien life forms, some less humanoid than others. Every creature that has ever been featured in a sci-fi flic or described in a science fiction story can be found here - and a lot more nobody's dreamed of yet. They might be creatures of the farthest stars and planets. Every thing in the universe is sculptured somewhere in canyon country

Canyon country brings a range of perspectives. It spans eons and instants. It is inherently American, it is a manifestation of the whole Earth itself, and it mirrors the whole of the universe.

So what are we to think of Earth and People?

July is a bad time to experience the solitary grandeur, the grand solitude, of canyon country. It gets worse every year. Scenic trails become ant trails, parking lots overflow, motors idle to air condition empty tour buses, and video cameras spool miles of tape every minute.

Part of it must be due to the increasing affluence of the American upper middle class. Part of it is also due to the weak American dollar - German seems to be the native tongue on the tourist circuit. Part of it, though, must also be an ironic backlash of the environmental movement itself. Now that we've raised our consciousness, we all want to experience what we've learned to care about. Of course that's right, and we're all entitled to it. But things were best when most people ignored and avoided the wilderness. Now we just might love it to death.

What is the right use of canyon country? How can people love it and leave it alone? How can people, so many of them, commune privately and directly with nature? Good people tour the canyons, hiking, floating, motoring among the red walls. They care for the earth and the water, and that is good. But they also bring their society and their technology. They don't always hear the silence, and the wind rustling, and the call of the wren and the cicada. They don't feel the strength of simplicity, the Indian way of bearing the heat, eating simply, traveling light. Things change. The way of people living with the Earth is changing. It is good that people care, but something is lost.

The adventurous few can still escape tourists, trash, and technology by hiking off the beaten track. But how can many people love a beautiful place? We start by grading the trails into access paths, installing bathrooms and picnic tables. To make more places accessible, we gravel the roads, then pave them. Pretty soon we need gas stations and cafes, motels and gift shops. After a while the tour buses come, and the golf and tennis resorts. So now we need clothing stores, proper restaurants for brunch and dinner, and grocery stores, liquor stores, drug stores. Condos sprout, followed by the malls and outlet stores. Realtors revel. If it's all done right it may still be beautiful, but it's not the place we first loved.

In Oak Creek Canyon a swift icy stream tumbles over river rock in dark green shadows of oak and pine, nestled in a steep red cleft of sun-broiled sandstone. Sedona is a tasteful upscale village sprawling in the gorgeous red rock at the mouth of this canyon. In Sedona you can enjoy a swell brunch, play tennis or golf, worship at a stylish church, shop for million-dollar real estate and thousand-dollar Indian pottery and necklaces, or take a scenic tour in a hot pink jeep.

What is the proper use of the wilderness? I have to watch myself on the slippery slope of being critical, hypercritical, hypocritical. I'm not the one to cast the first stone. I live half-way down a certain spectrum. At one end is the perhaps mythical American Indian surviving barefoot and bare-handed in the wilderness. At the other end is the native American couch potato experiencing the great outdoors via old John Wayne movies. In between come the John Muir types subsisting on a bit in their pockets; backpackers with high-tech pack frames and tents and stoves and freeze-dried foods and water filters and boots and wicking underwear; large parties of decent non-polluting people carrying luxuries by mule or raft; cross-country and downhill skiers; fishermen in waders and in cabin cruisers; hunters with bows and hunters with high-powered rifles; and those who make their presence felt in the great outdoors behind or on top of big noisy gasoline engines. We are all kinds, and I'm in the middle.

My sin is to have gotten too old - no, too lazy - to backpack much any more. My preferred style of "interacting" with the wilderness is by jeep. (Where I draw the line is a stubborn refusal to turn on the air conditioning.) So, I too am part of the evolution. Unless I confess myself a hypocrite, I must recognize some good in this evolving style of interaction. The good, I hope, is that more people are involved, more people care.

Let us hope enough people have really learned to care after the fad passes, when Southwestern decor is no longer featured in the Sunday supplement, when it's no longer chic to be seen at the mall in hiking boots and down vest, when 4WD is no longer de rigeur for the family sedan. Let's not let it all fall into the hands of the spiritually disabled who know only how to count profits and crowds.

Bill Kent is a computer scientist with Hewlett-Packard Laboratories in Palo Alto, California, and is author of the book Data and Reality. This piece was written after canoeing down a stretch of the Colorado below Moab and visiting Arches National Monument, Grand Canyon, and Oak Creek Canyon in July 1992. Bill also spent two weeks hiking in the Grand Canyon in 1970.