Revisiting the Grand Canyon

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Science  28 Oct 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5748, pp. 619
DOI: 10.1126/science.310.5748.619c

It was with wistfulness that I read John Schmidt's review of James Powell's book Grand Canyon (“The grand question,” 16 Sept., p. 1818). I was a teenager in the late 1960s when my family took an epic car trip around the United States, visiting the Grand Canyon and many other national parks. As a budding naturalist, I was eager to hear the words of park rangers and avidly read interpretive material. I made lists of plants and animals and soaked up information about habitats, succession, geological change, and evolution. In a fit of nostalgia, I recently repeated the epic with my wife and two children, driving from Washington State to Florida, hitting as many of the parks as we could. The only place I could find scientific content was in the less visited parks that had not been remodeled in a while. The Grand Canyon was the most chilling. The modern visitor center was architecturally magnificent but intellectually vacuous. With open spaces and giant images, it emphasized only the aesthetic experience. There was homage to John Wesley Powell, the man who carried out early explorations of the canyon and helped found the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Geographic Society. Yet the principles he so strongly promoted—rationalism and scientific curiosity as a means of appreciating the world and improving human welfare—were being relegated to obscurity. Schmidt notes that on viewing the canyon we ask, “How did this happen?” The current displays and signage at the Grand Canyon do their best to avoid any such question. As we left the park, we stopped to watch the sunrise at Desert View, a popular site. The most prominent sign at the overlook addressed only the visual beauty of the canyon and the religious significance of a distant mountain to Native Americans. One paragraph began, “The landscape seems consciously designed.”

Point Imperial, North Rim, Grand Canyon. CREDIT: H. SPICHTINGER/ZEFA/CORBIS

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