March PhotoBox

/The Grand Canyon averages a depth of 1.5 km from the rim above to the riverbed below, measures up to 29 km wide, and extends for 447 km.

Hopi peoples migrating from the San Juan Valley and settling on the Black Messa would, each year, trek to the Grand Canyon across great barren plateaus, by monumental red sandstone pillars, around buttes, down through canyons, along rivers. They travelled to see the great Grand Canyon – more precisely, to feel it, its immensity; feel themselves, small in comparison. 

In the Hopi origin story, Spider Grandmother led them from the third world through an opening and into this the fourth world, to have a better life. Over many generations Hopi peoples migrated throughout the southwest, building homes, then moving on again. Stories told by Hopi elders suggest their wandering was for more than simply meeting their physical needs; they were seeking out a spiritual harmony with the natural world. Pilgrimage to the Grand Canyon was one way to discern this harmony, this better life, by reminding themselves of their place in the world: their smallness within nature’s greatness.

Many visitors travel to the Grand Canyon today, over six million a year. There are many different approaches to experiencing the Grand Canyon. Some trek down to the canyon floor, follow along the Colorado River between the steep canyon walls, experience the excruciating heat being inside the canyon. Others drive or take bus tours and walk along the rim seeing the great expanse of the canyon from above.

While ways of experiencing the Grand Canyon are varied, so too are ways of perceiving the Grand Canyon. One approach to the Grand Canyon is to look at the canyon. Most everyone on the rim whom I observed went to the edge of the canyon, took a selfie or had a friend take one’s photo standing or sitting on the rim edge. 

From this perspective, the human looms large in the photo, the canyon a backdrop. In effect, the canyon becomes an object one possesses, an object claimed for oneself: ‘Here I am at the Grand Canyon.’

A different perspective is to see the canyon not as object but as subject. In this way, one looks into the canyon, not to possess the canyon but be possessed by it. As for the Hopi people, the intent of this subjective approach is to find a harmony with nature, to be at one with nature: to see oneself as small, intertwined in a greater whole. 

Imagine yourself in the photo. Each of the green points you see is a bush, a bit taller or shorter than yourself. See yourself way down there standing by a bush. There you are in the great expanse of the Canyon. Unlike being in a selfie. Small, a part of a much greater whole. Another way of seeing.

In this way of seeing – as the sages of this way tell – the surrender of oneself to the great expanse and elegance of nature is to accept nature as a teacher: that life has in its nature a deep wisdom to reveal, if only one would notice.

The sages also suggest coming to this wisdom takes time to discern – a long time, maybe a lifetime. Only as one slowly surrenders to the canyon, lets go of any presumption of superiority over the canyon, only then does the wisdom of the canyon begin to possess one. Only then, it seems, can nature reveal itself, disclose its ancient wisdom about living well. 

Painter Emily Carr would go out to the rainforest with her canvases each summer to paint. Each day she would set up her easel and stool, but she wouldn’t start painting, not for hours, not before she had been there long enough for the trees in front of her to tell her what to paint.

This is a particular perspective for living life: kind of upside down and inside out from the perspective that asks ‘what can I get out of this day?’ Instead, it is to awaken, to ask: ‘what surprise, what gift, has the world for me, this day?’

There is nothing straightforward or easy about the journey of wisdom. The ancestorial Hopi people, even as they pursued their communion with nature, struggled in that pursuit. Time and again, they left their stone homes and fertile plots to wander into the unknown. While they would move because of drought or other factors, Hopi elders suggest they also moved because communal life degraded: became contentious, divisive, self-serving, indulgent. They migrated, it is suggested, to find another beginning, begin again. They abandoned home, ventured into the uncertain, the unknown, to seek a better life – in harmony with nature – find their true home.

What is there for any of us when the thin veil of our self-assurance and self-sufficiency is rent? That moment when we no longer have control. What is there for us but to let go, fall into the abyss of the canyon, into the unknown? What is there but to surrender to the grandness of nature: let nature possess us, tell us who we are, show us how we are to be? 

I don’t know yet what this photo of the Grand Canyon says to me with its undulating shapes, its intersecting lines – the appearing and disappearing of forms. And if you have taken this photo as your gift, have been drawn to it, it may become something for you; something for you to feel – possibly, over time – to speak to you, through your contemplation, your surrender. 

The viewer surrendering to the viewed.

February PhotoBox