John Wesley Powell + Grand Canyon National Park

Contributed by Zachary Czuprynski

Somewhere within the Arlington National Cemetery, a moldering gravestone reads “Soldier. Explorer. Scientist.” This engraving humbly marks the tomb of John Wesley Powell, who developed one of the most extensive résumés of his lifetime. Short and striking with a resemblance of Socrates, ignoring the tobacco-stained beard, Powell hailed from Mount Morris, New York where he was born in 1834. Early in life, Powell established his fondness for the beauty of nature and went on a series of rowing adventures along the Mississippi, Ohio, and Illinois Rivers. He was also an intense student of botany, geology, Latin, Greek, and even began teaching at age 18, with half of his pupils being older than himself. However, when the Civil War began, he answered his call of duty with the Union Army and worked his way up the ranks to become Major John Powell while fighting to abolish slavery. This experience would leave Powell without his right arm and cause him nerve pain for the remainder of his life.

Despite his severe injury, John continued his passion as a naturalist after the Civil War; roaming, observing, and collecting. In 1869, he set off a remarkable expedition to explore the tortuous waters of the Colorado River with four boats and ten followers. He and his crew roared through turbulent rapids bounded by colossal rock formations. They climbed cliff after cliff, measuring, surveying, and writing.

Powell describes the Grand Canyon as a world of form:

The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail. The elements that unite to make the Grand Canyon the most sublime spectacle in nature are multifarious and exceedingly diverse.

A world of color:

Besides the elements of form there are elements of color, for here the colors of the heavens are rivaled by the colors of the rocks. The rainbow is not more replete with hues.

A world of music:

But form and color do not exhaust all the divine qualities of the Grand Canyon. It is the land of music. The river thunders in perpetual roar, swelling in floods of music when the storm Gods play upon the rocks, and fading away in soft and low murmurs when the infinite blue of heaven is unveiled. With the melody of the great tide rising and falling, swelling and vanishing forever, other melodies are heard in the gorges of the lateral canyons, while the waters plunge in the rapids among the rocks or leap in great cataracts. Thus the Grand Canyon is a land of song. Mountains of music swell in the rivers, hills of music billow in the creeks and meadows of music murmur in the rills that ripples over the rocks. Altogether it is a symphony of multitudinous melodies. All this is the music of waters. The adamant foundations of the Earth have been wrought into a sublime harp, upon which the clouds of the heavens play with mighty tempests or with gentle showers.

The expedition ended with only three beaten boats and six starving, ragged men. However, Powell also brought back the first maps of the Colorado River and established the foundations of geomorphology –the study of physical surface features on Earth and their relation to geological structures. Another decade of work commenced on the study area thanks to the interest Powell generated, and the expedition of 1869 is now considered one of the great western surveys of the time.

Upon his return, John was considered one of the world’s most powerful scientists. He used his title to heavily engage in politics and address his concerns for the rate of western colonization. John argued gradual settlement and dividing regions by land use rather than political boundaries. Of course, he was met with plenty of backlash; however, he continued to fight Washington until he was allowed a series of four surveys, which would unite into the United States Geological Survey in 1879.

Solder. Explorer. Scientist. These three words describe the legacy of a man who was coarse, stern-faced, and rugged on the outside, but his heart was so much more, fragile and pure, like the first flowers of spring. John relentlessly worked on improving communications with American Indian tribes and tried to develop a better understanding of their language, their beliefs, their culture. He compiled his own dictionary of Ute vocabulary, traded buckskins for cultural artifacts, and smoked pipe with the Indian warriors. He served as an Indian Commissioner to make sure the federal government upheld its treaty obligations to the tribes. Powell was an idealist, and wished to end the bloodshed between the American Indian and the “white man”. He believed this could be done through science-based ethnology as a way to minimize the miscommunications between the two parties. Out of all the piled accomplishments within his lifetime, John  considered his greatest work to be the sympathetic study of the American Indians. As historian Preston E. James writes, “No part of Powell’s life is more spectacular than his heroic efforts to preserve the public domain from pillage for private gain.”

The fight is never over. Private siege is always seeking to penetrate the Grand Canyon, conservation interests, and indigenous necessities. Just beyond the boundary of the canyon lies the Native American Havasupai group. Further development could lead to scarce water resources for the tribe in an already arid region. The climatic extremities exacerbated by anthropogenically-induced climate change pose a serious threat to this group and other indigenous people in the west. Future droughts may be magnitudes worse than today, potentially terminating a community who came before us. It is important we unite to protect these public domains that are cherished by both the “white man” and these lands’ original inhabitants. Powell has said, “The climate is not changed with dance, libation or prayer.” We need to take action. Write. March. Chant. Stir your community to make an effective difference as a group. Together we can save America’s ancestors and the beautiful lands of form, color, and music.

Photo courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park

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