Thursday, March 26, 2009

Environmental risktaking

I was talking to my friend Blair last night about people who make foolish mistakes and die in the Grand Canyon, and why they do. Her theory, which I like a lot, is that we are so mobile these days that we can go zipping around from environment to environment and have not a clue how to be in them. But we think we do, perhaps because we see them on TV or whatever.

A big theme of this blog is how I lived in New York City and felt totally comfortable and now I live in a small town on the edge of the country -- the bears have been spotted! they're coming out of hibernation! -- and often don't have a clue how to live here. So I've learned to drive the speed limit, say, and bring a map when I go hiking or snowshoeing, not matter how short or local a trip. And other things. I'm no longer surprised that everyone knows everyone else here.

But I don't have a clue how to be in the desert. "Drink lots of water" doesn't mean the same thing in New England as it does in Phoenix. Eighty or 90 or 100 degrees outside is different there because it's so dry and your sweat just evaporates. I could easily overexert myself because of that. Not only do I not know how to be at the Grand Canyon, I can't quite believe that I don't, maybe I don't want to believe it or accept it. So I can see how people might take stupid chances, like going around the railing to get a better picture. I don't, in part because I am such a rule-follower, and also because I can see enough of the place to realize it really is much bigger than I am. It does scare me. It takes my breath away.

[There's a great essay here (scroll down) that talks about how the first Europeans to get to the Grand Canyon couldn't see it because it was too far out of their realm of experience. It's a political essay by an illustrious socialist, but I don't want to get into that discussion here, although this essay is well-worth reading. But this opening is pertinent to what I'm talking about here:

The first European to look into the depths of the great gorge was the conquistador Garcia Lopez de Cardenas in 1540. He was horrified by the sight and quickly retreated from the South Rim. More than three centuries passed before Lieutenant Joseph Christmas Ives of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers led the second major expedition to the rim. Like Garcia Lopez, he recorded an "awe that was almost painful to behold." Ives's expedition included a well-known German artist, but his sketch of the Canyon was wildly distorted, almost hysterical.

Neither the conquistadors nor the Army engineers, in other words, could make sense of what they saw; they were simply overwhelmed by unexpected revelation. In a fundamental sense, they were blind because they lacked the concepts necessary to organize a coherent vision of an utterly new landscape.

Accurate portrayal of the Canyon only arrived a generation later when the Colorado River became the obsession of the one-armed Civil War hero John Wesley Powell and his celebrated teams of geologists and artists. They were like Victorian astronauts reconnoitering another planet. It took years of brilliant fieldwork to construct a conceptual framework for taking in the canyon. With "deep time" added as the critical dimension, it was finally possible for raw perception to be transformed into consistent vision."

From "Can Obama See the Grand Canyon?" by Mike Davis]

Blair says she sees people swimming off Long Island in seas that are way too rough for her, and realizes that they just don't know what they're doing because, presumably, they haven't grown up around the ocean. And yet she fesses up to tubing down a river in the Adirondacks where one of their party got caught in a submerged log and almost drowned. Her cousin said later, "oh yeah, underwater logs are the big concern on rivers." Who knew? If you were at a beach and the sea suddenly receded a half mile would you know that a tsunami was coming? You might now, if you remembered that famous photo. (This isn't quite the one I was thinking of, but it's close.)

Similarly, we went hiking in the Columbia River Gorge last summer up to a stunning 100-foot waterfall -- it was on our New Year's card this year -- that emptied into a churning bowl that dropped down through a very narrow opening into rapids at the other end. We climbed down a steep hill to get to an outcropping -- Dave's cousin said later that she never goes down there, which utterly surprised me -- and I still have nightmare flashes about Lily standing on the outcropping taking our picture and taking a step back to get a better angle. Dave and I leaped up and traded places with her. But if she had been in a slightly different position, slightly further back on the rock, she would have gone over. And I would have gone after her and we both would have drowned.

I mean, we never would have let her get that close. But knowing what I know now, that someone very familiar with that environment would not have gone down there, or let her kid go down there, in the first place, gives me pause. I think I need to be more aware, more vigilant about my surroundings, especially when they are new or alien or foreign.

To that end, meditation helps a lot. Keeps me in the present. Accepting that I don't know everything, and that I don't have to, as does understanding that seeing a photograph or two is not the same as being there. Because I feel confident walking around Brooklyn does not mean I have expertise at the Grand Canyon, or a towering waterfall. And finally, I am not weak or inadequate or a wuss for following directions or obeying suggestions, rules, laws.


  1. this is a really interesting entry and line of thinking. It's the main reason I'm nervous about Pakistan. I know where and where not to go in Bklyn, not so sure about Pakistan. I know that millions of people live in Pakistan safely and uneventfully, but they know what they're doing there. Our solution: stick closer to homes and be accompanied at all times by those who do know these subtle things.

  2. I figure when it doubt, leave my ego at home and trust the locals. Part of the problem with these folks who died at the GC is that they thought they knew better; they ignored the advice of professionals. You're going to have a fantastic time.


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