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Appreciating Vastness

While mountain biking the other day we saw something strange ahead of us, as we headed downhill to the main dry wash -- the same one where I witnessed my first "flash flood," a couple posts ago.

And once again I was fluttering my eyelashes at the abrupt onset of a small "slot canyon" in plain ol' dirt. In the past I've tried to explain this fascination on the grounds (ahem) of it being easier to make a big impact on a human observer when processes take place on a human scale, regarding years and size. In contrast, the working out of geology and topography over millions of years can leave the human observer indifferent and unimpressed. In a sense, we need to anthropomorphize geology and physical geography in order to make them interesting.

Then I crawled down into the "slot canyon," and photographed the vertical walls.

It was easy to imagine this two-foot-high slot as being more dramatic than all the famous photo icons in the Moab area; these latter are universally praised as being 'breathtakingly beautiful', when in fact, they are merely freakishly large. And red, but so what?

I was delighted to find my own gem -- one that was not known to mass tourists; and if you showed it to them, they would not appreciate it. If you really backed the mass-tourist into a corner, and asked him if real beauty is perceived by the eyeballs or by the imagination, he would grudgingly admit that it was the imagination that really mattered. And then he would squirm away and pursue activities, choose destinations, and spend his hard earned money in a way that completely contradicts what he just admitted! I leave the explanation as an exercise to the reader.

Soon we were down into the dry wash where I had had my mighty adventure with the Alluvial Entity. Today the dry wash was dry and boring. How could it be the same place of a few days ago?
Some sick fascination pulled me into the dry wash. I started pushing the mountain bike "upstream," from whence the Alluvial Entity had come. Not only was it unride-able, but it was tedious and obnoxious just to push the bike through all that loose sand. But push I did, for about an hour. It was worth every miserable second of it. But first I must digress for a couple paragraphs before finally explaining what was so great about this miserable walk through the loose sand.
Once upon a time I was an aspiring sea kayaker. I signed up for a guided tour in Lac Superieur, offered by a Canadian sea kayaker. I imagined it as a chance to get in touch with my Viking roots, by raiding towns along the shoreline, burning monasteries, and then ravishing and carrying off the beautiful maidens of those villages. It was also supposed to be a small group expedition. But the business was just getting started, and I was the only customer. Rather than cancel the voyage, we decided to make the best of it.

The worst of it was that damn little dog the Canadian guide brought along. She hated me, and we all had to sleep in the same tent! At that point in my life I disliked dogs in general.

Still, it was a good time, sleeping on the sand-less cobble beaches, finding a surprisingly warm bay to take a bath in, eating the good food made by the guide, and sinking into the trough of head-high waves, where nothing could be seen around you, but water.

At one point the guide and I looked out onto Lac Superieur. He gave a little speech about the vastness of it all. I could tell he wanted me to appreciate it, as he did. But I couldn't, despite the uniqueness of North America's Inland Seas, and despite the 1000 foot depth of the lake. But I wanted to appreciate it. The memory of that failure has stayed with me for over twenty years, now.
Now we can return to the present: walking in that disgustingly loose sand. Why was I doing this?  Although I had seen the flash flood where the sandy creek bed was only 20-30 feet wide, most of it was wide enough for a four lane highway. 
The exasperation just kept getting worse. Finally I had to imagine knocking over a common bucket of water onto the dry sand. How big a puddle would it make? (Three feet, maybe.) How many seconds would it take for the water to sink in? (Ten seconds, tops.) How many times would it sink in before water ran off, on the top?

Now imagine how many buckets it would take to produce that 2-3 inch deep "wall" of water that had come at me? A person can look at an ocean, and feel nothing! And then that same person can look at a puny little flood and experience the exasperation of loose sand for an hour, and then, finally, it all sinks in.


Allison said…
How tall are those canyon walls?
XXXXX said…
I'm not sure most people would readily agree with you that true beauty is defined by the imagination rather than the eyeballs. It would be an interesting survey. It seems to me that if beauty isn't appreciated by the eyeballs, it's pretty hard to conjure it up in the imagination. Have you ever had the experience of meeting a very nice person of the opposite gender who is not physically attractive to you and, try as you might, you just can't fall in love? You certainly can appreciate this person and seek them out as a friend, but that's it.

Of course, I suppose you're talking about things that really can't be seen like that. Things that must be experienced. A big body of water coming at you as a flood is a completely different experience from standing on the shore and looking at the ocean. Your kayaking instructor knew the sea intimately and respected it. You lacked that experience and no one can convey it through words. It takes doing.
Same thing with the dogs. It took doing, having one, to change your mind.
I suppose walking up the wash gave you the actual experience of the vastness of it and what it took to create the flash flood. Yes, I suppose I get it now. I could appreciate the force of water coming through a slot canyon many feet high without going through any sort of similar experience as you did but I think my experience is that I don't like actually being in large bodies of water in general, having fallen in a lake and struggled with getting my breath many years ago.
It's a good thing that we are capable of personification. It is what makes us able to identify with things outside of ourselves. Thank goodness evolution gave us that somehow. Without it we would totally be beasts, no need to imagine any beyond ourselves.
I think what George may be referring to is empathy, rather than personification, as I can be in empathy with something that I don't necessarily make into an offshoot of my own humanity. And falling in love often has more to do with pheromes and such than physical appearance - we've all met handsome people with ungainly partners. It's what they call "clicking" with someone.

Boonie, I see beauty in desolate and wild places like that, and that's why I love the Morrison. There's a peace there that seems lacking in other places, and of course, that's probably just my own perceptions, but I think it has something to do with solitude and knowing I'm rarely going to see another human. It's a kind of freedom. Another great place is anywhere in the Mancos, especially south of Green RIver. People look at it and say it's ugly, but you start exploring and it has all kinds of cool stuff. You can wander forever and be alone, lost in the land and your own thoughts. And I also think you would love Yellow Cat country.
edlfrey said…
I think I am one of those that partially agrees with you that true beauty is defined by the imagination rather than the eyeballs. The cliche "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" has a literal meaning : 'the perception of beauty is subjective'. Imagination, also called the faculty of imagining, is the ability to form new images and sensations that are not perceived through sight.
Therefor, beauty can not be defined by the imagination since the images were perceived through sight but then again all sight is subjective. Two people can 'see' the same image but will describe what they have seen differently. That is why 'eye witness' testimony can be so different and unreliable.
"I suppose walking up the wash gave you the actual experience of the vastness of it and what it took to create the flash flood." Bingo, you got it, although you put it clearer than I did.

"personification" is probably a better term than the clumsy "anthropomorphism."

I'm glad you "see beauty in desolate and wild places." Perhaps a great deal of experience is needed outdoors in order to do that. Experience puts people in a mood to dismiss kindergarten-level nature appreciation.
Dadgummit, Ed, you're getting too theoretical. I was looking at it economically: that is, I was discounting optical vision as a "commodity," and looking for something of greater 'marginal utility.'
Jim and Gayle said…
We like almost all the landscape of the west, that is, if you exclude masses of people. That said, I believe I have finally figured out your deficiency. You are missing the scenic beauty appreciation gene. You need to get that evaluated. I am almost certain you can get permanent disability for that.

Just imagine how much more convenient life will be with the sticker for your van.

Little Toot 2 said…
If you ever take a walk up (or down) the Park Avenue Trail at Arches National Park in Moab and you look real close you will find a miniature version of every type of large scale terrain the Park is famous for. Tiny arches, 1"-2" high fins and slots a couple of inches deep. I took photos there and when I showed people they all thought they were the large scale real thing. When I explained the minuteness of them they were all surprised. Probably the best hike I had in Moab in the 5 weeks we were there.
Sounds like you have re-invented the Hollywood "miniatures" industry, which they used for doing special effects in the movies, before CGI computer graphics.

I think you felt as I did that you were "creating" value by appreciating these little guys, as opposed to gawking at the giant freaks that 2.7 million tourists did, that year.