Retrospective: The Real Grand Canyon 

The year 2017 is just under way. If I can get away with being a bit of a smart aleck, that makes the canyon six million and ONE years old. A year for each visitor that came by in 2016. Sure, not necessarily exact, yet generally that statement is the truth. How do we know this?

Radiocarbon dating tells us. For the 1997 Utah Geological Survey, Mark Milligan explained: “Nuclear decay of radioactive isotopes is a process that behaves in a clock-like fashion and thus is a useful tool for determining the absolute age of rocks. Sediments less than 50,000 years old that contain organic material can be dated based on the radioactive decay of the isotope Carbon 14.” This process works efficiently and accurately.

To go back to my own less-than-scientific state of mind, it means my gut feeling (AND YOURS) is right. This chasm of compressed rocks is terribly ancient. Our perception, if we choose to accept it, tells us that time beyond comprehension passed here, that the limestone and sandstone and the fossils preserved in them are of a lineage that has more in common with the solar system than a human lifespan. Why does the Grand Canyon do this to me? It’s so big, so in your face, so relentlessly THERE. As a real landscape that is also incomprehensible, it asks me to ponder serious matters. Sorry about that, folks, can’t help myself.

We can choose not to accept the age of the Grand Canyon, to disbelieve our own senses and the accuracy of science. It is hard to know what to believe here in the 21st century, although I suspect that has always been true. Somebody surely accused Galileo and Newton of “fake news”. Let’s talk about truth as best we can understand it, with civility and compassion. The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said “We have an obligation to preserve the truth, goodness, and beauty in nature for those who come after us.” Emerson realized that nature is governed by laws and is therefore capable of being understood by the human mind; part of its beauty DEPENDS on its rationality – and that logic is reflected by our own brain. IF we choose to use it that way.

I just did a presentation on my time at the canyon; read from the blog and showed a bunch of my photographs. Listeners were sometimes still not sure what was fiction and what was non-fiction even when I told them. They liked the pics; when told that I had worked them over a bit, only one woman who was recently there knew what she was seeing – and not seeing.

“Image is everything.” That alarming quote, from a 1989 Canon commercial starring tennis pro Andre Agassi, illustrates the other side – our desire to define ourselves rather than letting the world define us. We all have several images of the self, competing in our brains. In one, I am pretty darned awesome; in another, I’m almost worthless. How about you? Usually, neither is the truth, and they depend on fleeting positive or negative emotions and not reality. Check out your photos of the Grand Canyon – don’t they need to be ‘Photoshopped’? Most look overexposed, not by any mistake on our part or that of the camera, but because of the relentless light and heat. Take off your sunglasses – that’s the way it really looks.

Now check out the prints for sale in the shops and Visitor Centers. Most of them are far too dramatic and vivid to be genuine, saturated with unreal colors. They have been OVER-Photoshopped. Is that what sells best? Is there a lesson here?

If you are like me, you prefer a carefully adjusted image somewhere in the middle, not reality and not obviously fake. I admit it, I want to make my visual world emotionally rewarding instead of accepting it for what it is. This, despite my subconscious as well as conscious recognition of the beauty in nature as it is, and acceptance of its ‘truth’ because of its value to me. I guess we like truth, depend on it, yet want to cover it with a Bandaid when it becomes uncomfortable to our psyche. We like unbiased Consumer Reports – and we also like our rose-colored glasses.

What does the Grand Canyon look like with rose-colored glasses? I hope I see it as it truly is – even if I mess with the photos later.

©George Jacobi 2017