Grand Canyon – Magnitude And Scale

AT first we cannot see things here at the Canyon for their vastness. The mind keeps groping for a scale of proportion—something whereby we can mentally measure. Standards of comparison break down and common experience helps us not at all. The size of Crater Lake in Oregon or Mt. Shasta in California is gathered somewhat from walking around it, but the more one walks about the Can-yon the vaster it becomes. Distance seems boundless.

The two-foot rule has to be abandoned, and even the scale of miles seems to serve us but indifferently. We are told that the Canyon is a mile deep, that it is twelve or more miles across, that it is two hundred and twenty miles from the Marble Canyon to the Grand Wash; but how much does that mean to us? By the same token, Spencer Terrace and Fiske Butte make up a mere two-mile promontory that reaches out from the foot of Mt. Huethawali toward the River; but those two miles lead over a flat stone floor, hard as iron, and with the indication of many thousand feet of similar solid rock beneath it. The distance in miles means nothing, but the tread upon that bare rock, the feel of the foot, brings home an unforgettable impression of the solidity and substance of the earth’s surface. No; figures do not help us. A painter who could not do a sum in vulgar fractions would comprehend the Canyon more readily than a mathematician.

We go back to comparisons with other scenes of huge proportions. We multiply the Yellowstone or the Yosemite and countersink the Himalayas, seeking a resemblance to the Great Gorge, but the imagination does not respond. The abrupt end of the Muir Glacier in Alaska offers faint suggestion of sheer descent, and the wall of the Catskills facing the Hudson indicates what the Canyon may be-come thousands of years hence; but the likenesses are strained and feeble. There are cliff walls in the Rockies more rugged than these, more gray and forbidding in color, more massive in sheer power; but again they evoke no imagery, sustain no analogy. The wonders of the world are brought forth in vain. There is no similarity. The Can-yon is unique—in a category by itself.

Then spring up the grotesqueries of the multitude. Some one talks about the Washington Monument and how small it would look among these buttes; another puts a Brooklyn Bridge across the Inner Gorge; and perhaps a third arrives at a scale of size by throwing Niagara into the Can-yon and then feigning to look for it with an opera-glass. But again the mind does not rise to these exaggerated parallels. In fact it is rather deadened by them, as by the thousands of years it would take that railway-train to reach the nearest fixed star. It arrives at things in a more elementary way and is finally impressed by commoner facts, such, for instance, as the sage-brush on the Battle-ship (Plate 1) below you not being sage-brush but trees (pinyons) fifteen feet high, or the great length j? of time it takes an eagle to cross a side-canyon and finally swing up and alight on a pinnacle of rock.

Next in order is the architectural parallel—something that seems to meet with favorable reception in almost every quarter. It is usually associated with mythological allusion, and out of the two is squeezed a pseudo-poetry, a hybrid romance. It seems that years ago, when this country was young and defenseless, some people more or less in authority broke in on the Canyon and exhausted the pantheon of gods in giving names to the buttes and promontories; and now every one who talks or writes about the Canyon from necessity uses architectural term and mythological name to point his meaning. The result is that these enormous Can-yon forms are dwarfed to the building plan of a Buddhist temple and the great goddess Nature is put out of countenance by the blinking little divinities of India and Egypt.

The inadequacy, not to say absurdity, of such a parallel becomes apparent when it is realized that some of these buttes stand five thousand feet from base to summit and that no “temple,” past or present, measures up one-tenth of that height. The association does not enlarge but rather belittles the Canyon. For when one writes

” The robin’s breast Was colored like the sunset west”

the comparison appeals to the imagination and makes of the robin’s breast something wonderfully brilliant. But if one puts it the other way around and writes

” The sunset west Was colored like the robin’s breast”

the comparison of the greater to the less makes a very small and weak affair of the sunset west. Just so here in this stupendous slash in the earth’s crust. The buttes and isolated points that have been looming heavenward in majestic isolation for thousands of years before the coming of the Pale Face, are not made more grand or comprehensible by likening them by name to the squat temples of Buddha or Shiva or Zoroaster.

And where, by the way, are the temples of Zoroaster? And what eye has seen a “tower” of Set or of Ra? There were pylons in Egyptian architecture but no towers, and the Fire-Worshippers may have had temples, but to-day the place thereof knows them no more. And in any event what have these dead-and-gone gods, what have such operatic divinities as Wotan and Brunhilde to do with this Western wonder? The “temples” of the gods and beside them the “castles” of Guinevere and the Queen of Sheba ! What a lugging in by the ears of questionable characters !

Why, if it were necessary to put a brand on the Canyon walls and buttes, were they not named for the Indians, as “Coconino Plateau” or “Pima Point,” or after the Spaniards, as “Tovar Butte,” or with just plain descriptive titles, such as “Grand View” or “Cedar Mountain” ? But evidently the parlor-car poet was abroad in the land and in con-sequence the mock-heroic and the absurd have been put upon the map. A series of numbers would have been less agonizing and quite as poetic.

Poetry and the Canyon ! How very far removed they are from one another ! In the Harz Mountains or along the Rhine the legend clings about every rock and pool and river, and seems very fitting, quite in keeping with the gentle face that Nature there displays. But what legend is there about the Canyon, barring the devil lore of the Indians, that has ever obtained ? If you suppose it known and settled by humanity for a thousand years, you still cannot imagine it a place for fairies or poets or lovers. What impression could a Venus, a Lorelei, or an Isolde make here? In this great depth they would appear as the mere butterflies of minstrelsy.

Should one, however, go back and conjure up the enormous Genii of the Arabian Nights new possibilities would immediately arise. Such gigantic forms and fantastic characters would be appropriate to the Canyon. You can imagine the Genie pent up in the Bottle, dragged ashore from the rushing waters of the Colorado, and when freed from the Bottle expanding in an enormous cloudlike form that would fill not only the Inner Gorge but the whole Canyon. With such a creation you find the spectacular meeting the spectacular. Both the Canyon and the Genie are abnormal, colossal, stupendous; they complement each other in scale and go together quite perfectly.

But mere man, whether romantic or otherwise, is no more here than a fly on St. Peter’s dome—something too infinitesimal to be reckoned with. Ile is not to the Canyon born and has less footing in it than the coyote whelped in the wind-worn pockets under the Rim or the jack-rabbit that is bred on its lower terraces. And we, if we would understand the Canyon, must largely eliminate the human element of it. It is insignificant. We can get on without it.

With no adequate scale of proportion for form, we are perhaps even worse off when it comes to color. For the spread of it here outruns all our experience. The cleft of the Yellowstone is a colored ditch in the forest and the Garden of the Gods a front-lawn display compared with it. The Can-yon has all their variety and many times their quality. At sunset, with the western sky aflame, the whole violet arch of the upper space seems to fling down its brilliancy on this Plateau Country, turning forest, desert, and Canyon into a wide ring of splendor. From butte to butte, from Point Sub-lime to Cape Final, the great depth glows as though inlaid with patines of precious metal and studded with half-hidden jewels. The Coconino walls turn golden, the Red walls are salmon-hued, the Tonto platforms Nile-green, the Unkar beds vermilion-red, the Inner Canyon heliotrope-purple.

These hues run along cliff and butte and point and platform in unending sequence. There seems no limit to their volume. Over on the Painted Desert (Plate 33) and along the Rim of the Marble Canyon the sun-shafts and the sky reflection repeat the tale in tones of opal and iridescent fire.

Even the San Francisco Mountains, far away to the southeast, respond with an alpen glow from their snowy summits. There never was such another story of color.

To compare this display to the sea at sunset is not to gain in size, for the horizon ring there is not so great as here; and it is not to gain in color, since the local hue of the sea is blue-green and the Canyon in its rock strata has a thousand local hues to rival it. The sea does not help us to comprehension, and, as a matter of fact, no one ever thinks of it at the Canyon. Nor do we gain any greater under-standing by calling the depth “a blue abyss” or “a color dream.” The phrases merely point to our helplessness in expression. We can do little more than stare at it and wonder.

The wonder is that with this immense gamut of tones there is no false note, no discord. How does it happen ? Every stratum in the Canyon. has a distinct local note and brings in a separate tale with the blare of a thousand bugles blown. Waves of scarlet and gold seem set in motion by the rising and the setting sun, the light-shot clouds overhead fling down reflections of topaz and amethyst, the cobalt sky and the blue-green forest are the reverberating backgrounds. How does it happen that these great areas of apparently opposed hues come together and fuse in a perfect harmony?

Is it, perhaps, the atmosphere that strains the notes and causes the blend? That atmosphere is colored, too, and within an hour’s time may pass from saffron to rose, or from violet to purple. As the air changes, the hues of the walls and buttes change to correspond. Dramatic and even theatrical as is this display, it is always in such perfect harmony and upon such a huge scale that the senses become more or less intoxicated and people grow ecstatic. They exclaim, or tears come to their eyes, or they choke up with emotion—sufficient proof, perhaps, of the fact that they are in the presence of stupendous beauty.

Form and color are not the only immensities that one meets at the Canyon. You are up from the sea seven thousand feet, but the sky is no nearer to you. Look at it a moment and how very deep it seems. You may know its depth by the quality of the blue. It is much darker than down at sea-level, and is, in fact, faintly tinged with violet. How the arch seems to lift into infinite space! Have you ever seen so high a sky? And how low down the horizon rim! Standing on the point of Grand View it swings around you in a perfect circle. You are the centre of the circle and on a level with its lowermost edge. From this point you can easily see Navaho Mountain a hundred miles away to the northeast over the Painted Desert. That is only one-half the circle. Looking down to the southwest you can see, on the edge of the horizon, mountain ranges that are another hundred miles away. That is the other half of the circle. One keeps on insisting that everything at the Canyon is on a scale quite outside of normal experience.

And yet with all this colossal scale the forms and colors are rightly proportioned each in itself and in relation to the others. At first you may be absorbed by the great depth of the Canyon. You keep gazing down into the abyss and marvelling over the tremendous trench that Nature has dug. But the depth of the trench is exactly right in relation to its width and length. If you narrowed its breadth, you would feel a lack of proper balance. The pro-portions of the Inner Gorge to the Tonto platforms and the platforms to the upper walls would be lost; the Canyon would appear as a mere crack in the earth’s crust. Just so with the colors. The warm colors—the reds, golds, and yellows—seem to pre-dominate, but they are rightly tempered and harmonized by the cool colors-the greens and blues. Once more there is unity of effect.

And, finally, the combination of all these constituent parts—form, color, air, and sky—is again quite` perfect. Each element, vast in itself, goes out and meets the other elements and blends with them into a complete whole. The great size and the great blend give us what we call the sublime.

Well, it might be thought that out of these huge elements would come a hum, a hymn,

“The stretched metre of an antique song”

that was once sacred to Orpheus. But no. A silence reigns everywhere. The sun comes up over the Painted Desert through a haze of spectrum colors but there is no sound, and it goes down over the Uinkaret Mountains in all the glory of crimson and purple, but the silence is not broken. In the early morning you may hear at certain places the respiration of the River, or the sough of the pinyons along the Rim, or the jangle of the jays in the pines, but they are only momentary happenings. There may be flying shadows of clouds moving across the Canyon, or misty rain falling into its depths, but these are silent things that creep in and out with an imperceptible footfall. The huge taluses under the upright walls indicate that blocks of limestone and sandstone are continually falling—being pried off the face of the walls by frost and heat. They keep gathering upon the slopes below, but you seldom, if ever, see them fall, and quite as seldom hear them. In the Alps one wakens in the summer nights with the slide and roar of avalanches, but at the Canyon one feels no shock, is conscious of no sound. The stillness seems like that of stellar space.

And out of the silence perhaps one gathers the feeling of repose. It is in contrast with a feeling that there is more or less of chaos and destruction going on here. Nature at the Canyon is tearing down rather than building up. But in her economy death is just as much a part of the Plan as life. For her own purposes she broods and rears and elevates, and equally for her own purposes she levels, she sweeps away, she destroys. Neither working of the Plan disturbs her poise or ruffles her composure for a moment. Everything is done with calmness. A day or a thousand years-what matters it to her ! In the fulness of time everything comes to pass as appointed. Therefore is there peace, and with it repose and silence—the silence that suggests eternity.

What a land of mystery ! It is still, hushed, practically dead. The violet-purple air hangs over it like a royal pall, the white sun cuts it out in strange lights and shades as it does the surface of the dead moon, the flushed colors that go with decay and disintegration are everywhere. Yet here the Great Goddess presides, standing beside the grave as be-side the cradle. And we can only wonder, because we do not entirely understand—because the mind cannot rise to so vast a conception. Long association with this Plateau Country may better comprehension :

“The mind Expanded by the genius of the spot May grow colossal.”

But there will always be a wonder.