HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

May 14, 2007
From Liberty Street

Natural Wonder

John Turner


Having visited Zion Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, and Arches National Parks within a few days, the question arose, which was best? It was no sooner asked than seen to be ridiculous. These are all magnificent stretches of territory and to compare them is pointless.

Americans owe full gratitude to the men and women with the foresight to have established the National Park Service. There’s a silly prejudice in this country that government can do nothing right, but the wonderful parks that are available to all of us give the lie to that notion. Just a moment’s imagining what developers would have done with the land that is now preserved for all the people shows how benighted the anti-government prejudice is.

I suspect that if there were ever an effort to apply so-called libertarian principles to the national lands and allow them to be managed in accordance with the market -- that greatest of false gods -- you would hear a howl rise up across the land that would leave every Congressman and Senator shaking. We know they are not a brave species and often we regret it, but there are benefits from their timorousness and the preservation of the parks will continue to be one of them.

I had been to Bryce and Zion before and so, in a sense, was prepared for their grandeur. But Canyonlands and Arches were new wonders for me, and they more than fulfilled all expectations. There’s an insurmountable difficulty in writing about the sublime. Nothing can be said that approaches the reality of it. Nor can the endless thousands of photographs bejeweling hundreds of books and travel guides capture the experience of it. Nothing but the thing itself, standing in its own surroundings can begin to tell you what it is. And even when you’re in its presence, it’s hard to grasp its meaning.

Geologic history is frightening because it teaches that nothing is permanent -- nothing. The massive cliffs of Canyonlands, which appear invulnerable to any force will eventually fade into nothingness and be replaced by something none of us can imagine. The very land beneath our feet may become something no human could endure. The rivers which we like to say have been flowing since time immemorial will go away.

Everything shifts and transmogrifies. It’s not a comforting truth and so we make up stories to deny it, but no matter how many we contrive nor how much faith we say we have in them, nature keeps right on doing itself over with a complete lack of nostalgia for anything that went before.

Inescapable evidence for the pervasiveness of change are the great arches in the park of that name. One of them, the “Delicate Arch”, which is the symbol of Utah, perches high up on a slanting rock surface, with no other formation around it to remind one how it got there. And the graceful structure itself is thin at certain points along its curve, telling the thousands who clamber up a long difficult trail to be able to see it, that it might not be there if they were to return to the spot a few years hence. It is perfectly palpable and perfectly vulnerable at the same time.  I don’t know if the Park Service sees itself as one of our instructors in impermanence, but whether it does or not, it functions well in the role.

Knowledge of irresistible change coupled with overwhelming beauty can be a source of desperation.  But, paradoxically, it inspires also by testifying to the essence of the moment. The present moment, modified by memory, is all we’ve got and so we need to make of it all we can.

I edged myself out on the sloping surface that leads from the end of the trail over to the base of Delicate Arch and stopped about halfway to take a picture.  While I was focusing my camera a stiff breeze whipped by and I felt just for an instant that I was going to topple forward. If I had, the slope was steep enough that I would have kept going and slipped over a precipice thirty feet down. And had I done that, I wouldn’t be here right now in a motel room punching the keys on my happy little black Apple computer. But, instead, I caught myself and took the picture.  The incident, not noticed by anyone but myself, was in its way a metaphor for life. Most of time we right ourselves to keep on going. But, then, a time might come when we don’t. Being out in the great parks makes you think of things like that. Perhaps that’s the greatest service they do us. It’s good, now and then, to be reminded to be afraid.


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