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Tucson Weekly Propaganda Of Place

Hell Hole Or Holy Shrine--It's Still The Same Canyon.

By Gregory McNamee

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998: 

How the Canyon Became Grand, by Stephen J. Pyne (Viking Press). Cloth, $24.95.

STEPHEN PYNE, A Phoenix-based environmental historian whose intellectual passions include subjects as broad-ranging as polar exploration (The Ice) and the place of fire in human history (Vestal Fire, Fire in America), holds the Grand Canyon in his heart as others do religion. He's fought fires on its north and south rims, traveled on foot and muleback into its depths, floated its length down the Colorado River, poked into its most hidden recesses. And he's spent years looking into its history, and especially into what he deems an "intellectual miracle": how the remote Canyon, long viewed as an impediment to travel and thus to economic progress, became a celebrated symbol of the American--and, now that the Canyon is part of the United Nations' roster of so-called heritage sites, the world's--wild lands.

In his new book, How the Canyon Became Grand, Pyne explores this transformation, his sometimes labored prose packed with oddments of historical data. In the years following the United States' conquest of the Southwest from Mexico, the Canyon was a known feature of the landscape, but one to be feared. "Popular instincts," Pyne writes, "argued that river-dashed gorges were hazards, not adventures," and the American explorers who first came to its walls were inclined to describe it in hellish terms. One of them, Lt. Joseph Ives, remarked in a report to Congress in 1858, "The region is, of course, altogether valueless.... Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality."

But when in 1869 a one-armed veteran of the Civil War, Maj. John Wesley Powell, floated down the length of the Colorado River to survey its reaches, he brought to the Canyon a poetic, even romantic sensibility, calling one stretch of salty water "Bright Angel Creek," another "Elves Chasm." In a typically celebratory vein, Powell wrote, "The elements that unite to make the Grand Canyon the most sublime spectacle in nature are multifarious and exceedingly diverse.... The rainbow is not more replete with hues." Through Powell and his companions, especially the geologist Clarence Dutton, the harsh landscape of the Grand Canyon would come to be regarded as "the coliseums, temples, and statuary of an inspired nature," a place of divine presence. (It's thanks largely to Dutton that so many of the Canyon's features are named after figures in world religion and mythology.) Of the Canyon's imposing landforms, Dutton insisted, "If any of these stupendous creations had been planted upon the plains of central Europe, it would have influenced modern art as profoundly as Fujiyama has influenced the decorative art of Japan." And he admitted freely that the Canyon so defied the imagination that "the fundamental requirement of scientific method--accuracy of statement--is imperiled."

And so, as Pyne details, accuracy of statement gave way in some instances to unnecessary hyperbole as a generation of 19th-century American intellectuals labored to make the Grand Canyon a part of all Americans' conception of their newly reunited nation. "The Canyon claims standing," he remarks, "not because of its size or antiquity, but, as Dutton had insisted, by virtue of its ever-evolving ensemble and the ideas continually made available by which to interpret it." Those ideas--and those of succeeding generations of Canyon lovers, men and women like Theodore Roosevelt, Wallace Stegner, Joseph Wood Krutch, Edward Abbey, and Ann Zwinger--would come to influence the national discussion on all public lands, not merely the national parks.

As such, Pyne suggests, the Grand Canyon became a laboratory for the environmental movement as a whole, influential far beyond the borders of the arid Southwest--in short, as Pyne calls it, "a planetary monument." It is in its guise as a world treasure that the Canyon now pulls in millions of visitors a year, where a century ago tourists numbered in the hardy hundreds. This adds a new element to the discussion, one that Pyne only touches on: how to limit visitation to what is, after all, an exceedingly fragile environment.

For readers with an interest in environmental and intellectual history, Pyne's book is full of revelations on how well-placed propaganda can transform a place, in the popular imagination, from an infernal eyesore to a defining symbol. And for Canyon buffs, who are already well served by a huge library, it makes a useful reference.


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