Grand Canyon - Some Thoughts on Death

December 23, 2016 Posted by: George Jacobi
Scenic view from the Abyss, an overlook that is tucked in a bay, at the top of a drainage. There is snow on the sheer east-facing cliffs on the left. On the right the yellow glow of sunset lights up the canyon walls.
I won’t blame you, readers, if you choose not to stick your nose in here. As the recorded female voice on the Red Route Bus Line intones, “This is - The Abyss.” Is it a fine sunny day, like the one on which I write these words? Go take a walk instead.

As for me, I’m right on the edge, staring over the rim at a mile of air. This colorful canyon before me engenders many meditations, and one of them involves that D word. I suspect I’m not the only one.

FEAR shows up right along with the thrill. Transcendence and terror are always a team. The end is just a step away, a slip away. With my much-operated-on feet, my sense of balance is compromised, and with it some of the walking security most of you probably take for granted. I pay attention now to where I put these feet.

This is the abyss. I can hear the canyon talking. Death is just behind, one hand lightly on my shoulder, admiring the view. It’s both alarming and comforting, and it contains attraction (more on that later) along with palpable dread. Dizziness comes with the territory, not a physical sensation so much as a short-circuit of our usual visual perspective. What do I mean? Check out Jimmy Jones’ clever 1993 painting, “View from Hopi Point” to experience this, albeit secondhand.

VAST EMPTINESS. Ravens and Turkey Vultures soar above and below in soundless dignity. They hardly have to tilt a wing in their continual search for death. Their lack of motion is fitting; it goes with the absolute silence of their flight. Nothing is happening here. Time waits. Normal existence has been suspended. 

So much stillness and distance is outside my usual scope, but I’ve settled in. I like being alone more than most people. In this deserted place I already feel halfway out of the world; the fact that with one more step I’d be beyond life seems perfectly reasonable.

DANGER. The threat represented by the sheer cliff is felt instinctively. Adrenaline cranks up a bit and shoots through the system; eyes and feet work as a team. No stumbling allowed.

Edwin Way Teale on the desert landscape: “It is easier to accept the message of the stars than the message of the … desert. The stars speak of man’s insignificance in the long eternity of time; the desert speaks of his insignificance right now.

The heat of the desolate landscape rising from below registers as a yellow caution light. Not a benevolent place to visit, it says to me. You can die easy here. One would have to be not paying attention by reason of ego, or suffering from natural reality disorder, to miss this warning.

VULNERABILITY. I have known misery and helplessness. Others I was close to have known much more; some had enough and checked out. It looks like we are all capable of that decision. The weight of personal pain that would send me to that lonely place thankfully remains a mystery. How about you? Is it an cheap easy out, or is it acceptance of the inevitable? Is it a leap of faith? Lot of questions. No answer is available at the present time, whispers the wind from the canyon. But you can check back later.

INDIFFERENCE. Great forces were exerted here, a millennium of excruciatingly slow violence. Solid rock is twisted and torqued, crushed and chemically changed. The ground I gingerly stand on is in motion. All this happens with complete impartiality not just to my fate, but fate itself. Not just ancient people died here, not just extinct animals, not just dinosaurs and trilobites. Whole continents and seas have died, leaving but a trace, disappearing forever.

And yes, this planet I love will die too, as will the star that keeps us from the cold blackness of space. It’s always been random. Whether a stray meteor or an H-bomb, life itself balances on the brink.

Does understanding one’s own irrelevance make death feel a little better? It’ll be comforting to become an eternal part of something so beautiful. But by living, I’m already a part of it. This is the spiritual part of nature we try in vain to describe – greater than us and uncontrollable, it is God’s reflection, made of the things of earth. Turbulent nature is generously hidden from us in most places by a luxuriant carpet of life. Not here, son, this is the awesome, fundamental truth.

And yet little clumps of Cliffrose, tiny Mormon Tea and Sage plants grow out of cracks in the limestone precipice below my unsteady feet. They insist on being here. Talk about a leap of faith.

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This blog is meant to encourage awareness and thoughtfulness about the Grand Canyon, one of our most precious resources. It is not merely a story of what happens or has happened here, not a cookbook for what you should make of it yourself, but more an example of the many-faceted inspiration the Canyon nurtures in an artist, perhaps in you. Indeed, inspiration may be the Canyon's greatest resource.

These words are sincere, my own take on this world, deliberately non-academic and directed toward users of social media. In no way does it represent the policies or opinions of the National Park Service, although it is done under the auspices of that entity, but is offered in gratitude, with my respect and admiration for these soldiers of conservation. George H. Jacobi 2016

Last updated: December 23, 2016

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