Her excitement was contagious. “We got the permit. We’ll go again in June!”
“Again?” I asked, “You’ve rafted the Grand Canyon before?”
“Oh yeah. This will be our fifth trip. It’s so incredible!”
Never having rafted the Grand Canyon, I nonetheless found her description appropriate, but I felt a nagging sense of disapproval. For something so, well, grand, wasn’t she being a little selfish claiming one of the limited permits when she had already been before? No doubt it was exhilarating and literally wonderful, but I was uncomfortable with her apparent greed to get more of something when others went without.
I have traveled the canyon through the descriptions of the Archdruid (Encounters with the Archdruid, John McPhee), John Wesley Powell (Across the Hundredth Meridian, Wallace Stegner), and many others. The beauty, the dangers and the overwhelming nature of the canyon resonates throughout these tales. Various photos and movies have revealed the intensity of the sights and the complexity of the place.
I have visited the South Rim, hiked smaller but similar areas nearby, and heard the stories of other travelers. It seems a strange and magical place, unchanging, but never the same. It is truly marvelous and the drive to see and experience it once again is understandable.
But for every wild and wonderful place I have been, I have too often felt the degradation caused by human intrusion, even mine. Most of the time the impact is minor and erased over time. Sometimes it lingers or is supplanted by additional depredation such that the impact becomes essentially permanent. Thus the need to limit permits to raft the Grand Canyon and camp in wilderness areas. Private cars are excluded from Denali National Park and boat traffic is controlled in manatee waters in Florida. We humans are messy, destructive and generally irresponsible.
In Italy, we entered an old fantastic cathedral, and crept stealthily by the wall to view the stained glass windows without disturbing the ever-present old women worshiping by the altar. Suddenly, the rear door banged open. “Hot damn!” the loud Texas accent rang out, “They ain’t got nuttin’ lak this in Dallas!” We shrank against the wall and hastily beat a retreat.
But, as humans, we also care and want to protect our treasures. We donate piles of money and loads of effort to preserve nature, our history and our culture. A sign on the iron fence surrounding a small park in Sausilito read, “This park is for your enjoyment. Please keep out.”
As tempting as it might be, we have no right to prohibit all human interaction with wildness. “Not man apart,” extracted from a Robinson Jeffers poem, became the byword of the environmental movement in the late ’60’s to bridge the perceived gap between man and nature. The realization that people cared the most about what they knew or could touch and see contributed to the sentiment. It was necessary to connect people and nature in order to preserve it. We became obsessed with saving “cute” or “majestic” animals and photogenic places. By extension, hopefully, we would ultimately learn to care about the less popular or less redeeming creatures and places.
We’ve done a pretty good job of that, and today newer technology is increasing the vicarious wilderness experience even more. It may lack the full measure of sensations that an actual trip to the Amazon offers, but most of us can relate to the experience through similar, probably less rigorous activities; we care about the Amazon. I personally do not need to raft the Grand Canyon to value its preservation because I have seen the (lesser) majesty of other places and accept the greater scale. Having looked into the eyes of a tiger at the zoo, I need not go to the Indian jungle to value the tiger’s existence.
As with all things worth preserving, does our interest and need to experience the rare and beautiful make it less likely to survive? How much light in a gallery does it take to degrade the colors in a classic painting? How much moisture from human breath can an ancient text be exposed to before the acid in the paper rots it all away? How many footprints can we put in the wilderness before it is no longer wild?
Our very presence has an impact. Our gathering of the experience has an impact.
John James Audubon showed the birds of America to the world for them to learn and enjoy. He did so by shooting, then drawing, his specimens. For centuries, naturalists have captured and killed in the name of science, to shine the light of knowledge on the unknown. Today, being more conscious of our impact on what we study, we capture with journal and film in less destructive ways. But the mere presence of the scientist changes things. Apes become less afraid of humans when joined by the humans studying them. Panda rescue staff dress as pandas, so that the real ones won’t get too acclimated to humans and ignore their own kind. Spelunkers irrevocably change the climate of a cave by their presence, their germs and their breath.
What amount of change is irrelevant? How much impact is acceptable and how much is too much? One of the arguments for oil field development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was the trivial amount of land that would be used for roads and drilling. But, how big does the turd in the punchbowl have to be for the punch to be undrinkable?
Our social and governmental processes try to identify and define where these limits fall. It’s a messy process and almost always imprecise. The final decision is always contested and the decision maker maligned. Compromises can be achieved, but seldom make anyone happy.
So, my friend rafted the Grand Canyon one more time. Most likely, someone else lost their chance. Does her rafting of the canyon now achieve greater support for preserving wild and scenic nature? Does it provide greater perspective on man’s place in the earth or the universe? Does it really matter?
Maybe I’ll just ask her.