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Of Time and the River

We tend to think of the things of man and the things of nature as separate. The way we categorize say waterfalls, mountains, and birds as existing in a realm apart from furniture, paintings, and clothing could supply a generation’s worth of doctoral dissertations. One place where “natural” and “cultural” come together in an institutional embrace is the National Park System (NPS). The NPS has intertwined duties to steward both the natural and the cultural resources in our protected areas. Salmon are nature but have a central cultural role for indigenous peoples. The remnants of ancient settlements were built by humans but have become features of landscape.

I was thinking about the beauty and example of this responsibility while Kim Besom, curator of the museum at Grand Canyon, gave me a tour of some of its treasures. Grand Canyon is a gigantic empty space, no? No. Things have come in and out of it, people, animals, artifacts. The museum at Grand Canyon isn’t a place of display as you might expect, but a series of rooms with oddball things in it. Including dung from prehistoric giant sloths. These sloths were about 8 feet tall at the shoulder. (The remains of giant ground sloths in L.A.’s La Brea tar pits are 10-12 feet tall.) Why save the dung? We can see what they ate in it. It helps us build a bit of a story around what their world looked like, how they lived.

Besom showed me some prime bones from her “Quaternary collection.” The Quaternary is a geological epoch that includes the Pleistocene from which the sloth slunk forth and the Holocene, to which we now belong — though some have called for a renaming of our era to Anthropocene, to reflect the impact Homo sapiens is currently having on even the geological cycle. It would appear we are breaking the back of time itself.

Among Besom’s other treasures are the long-fanged top of a jaw thought to be a mountain lion until Jim Mead, from nearby Northern Arizona University, suggested it is probably from the now extinct American cheetah. Besom showed me trays of beautiful “split twig figures” that are 3-5,000 years old. For many years these were the earliest evidence of humans at Grand Canyon. They look like well-made childrens’ toys, but some of them have drops of dung (again!) inside them, indicating their use in hunting rituals. “They hardly look their age,” Besom remarked with fondness. More recently evidence of Clovis and Folsom spear points have been added to her collection – some of these peoples evidently roamed these lands more than 10,000 years ago. The Clovis are credited with hunting many of the giant Pleistocene animals to extinction.

“We look at this pottery like it was no big deal for early people to make it,” Besom told me, showing me gorgeous bowls (“this one is for the fancy dinner parties”). “But it was a very big deal. People had to travel to get the good clay. They had to travel sometimes 100 miles to gather wood to fire it when they had deforested the area close to their settlement.” While there is no doubt Native American peoples have had a much more salubrious relationship with the things of nature than Anglos have, there is plenty of evidence that tribes exhausted resources just like Europeans-Americans did/do.

Closer to the present day, but still tucked well behind the scrim of history, are Besom’s artifacts related to John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War general who famously first mapped the Colorado Plateau. Powell’s watch from his second trip down the Colorado River sits handsome and large on a temperature-controlled shelf. “People have called to ask what time it is stopped on,” Besom told me. “I have to remind them that he didn’t die the minute the watch stopped.” She also has a piece of burnt wood that is apparently a piece of one of Powell’s boats, the only extant remnant of the arks that carried him down the Colorado River. By the way, he strapped himself to a rocking chair on his boat. Well, why not. Even the oldest thing in Besom’s collection barely registers on the time-scale evidenced by Grand Canyon itself. Powell had his moment in history – and evidently knew how to enjoy the ride.

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