Traveling is the best geography lesson. No matter how glossy the photos and detailed the descriptions, textbooks give the impression of flatness and uniformity to a multidimensional and diverse land. Nowhere was this more apparent than in my family trip to the Grand Canyon this summer. I’ve lived in Florida my whole life, so it was a change of scenery to see pine forests give way to bayous, the landscape buckle into hills and valleys before giving way to immense plains of wheat.
We first arrived at the Canyon rim at midday, when the sun canceled out all the shadows. The Canyon was so huge that it looked disappointingly flat, a photograph under an endless blue sky. However, a change of lighting transforms its entire character, highlighting the cliffs and small mesas, poetically called “temples.” At sunset, the air turns a delicate blue shade, like smoke, because of air pollution. Light filters through the air, becoming visible shafts that are shaped by the silhouette of the canyon. The effect reminded me of an Impressionist painting, or perhaps Chinese watercolors.
Inspired by movies, I had expected the landscape around the Canyon to be a scorching, barren wasteland, with only a solitary tumbleweed to break the monotony. But life has a tendency to cling to even the most inhospitable places. When I arrived, I found greenery in stunted shrubs eking out an existence between the rocks and parched soil, even resurrection in the tall flowers of the agave. Constant winds bent the bristlecone pines into gnarled shapes, like hunched old men. Grazing on the desert plants within sight of the road were local mule deer, so called because of their long ears, and an occasional brave, bushy-tailed Abert’s Squirrels, appeared to the click of cameras. I’ve never seen squirrels so tame in my life. They had no problems with clambering beneath the legs of sitting people and even stealing muffins from tourists, who had been carefully warned not to feed the animals, lest they bite fingers.
The Ancient Pueblo Peoples have also lived in the area for millennia. Although there are many archeological sites with petroglyphs and pictographs, we could only visit the Tusayan village ruins, a pueblo built by the labor of 8-year-olds. People matured much faster then, becoming adults by 13 and elderly by 35. Perhaps their 10 hour workday made up for that. They lived by farming and gathering, using every part of the animals, trees, and bushes that grew around them. The thick-leaved agave plant was useful as thread, needles, soap and food, especially the delicacy of the tall flower stalk each plant only produces once before dying. They even consumed the poisonous agave leaves by cooking them underground for four days, although one wonders how that was discovered.
The wild plants, with their twisted branches and tiny leaves so adapted to a harsh climate, were vulnerable to one thing: humans. Although the crowds that gather at the park love nature, their presence requires paved parking lots and trails, naturally destroying habitats. Even hiking can turn deadly, for the plants at least, when people trample on young sprouts and inadvertently snap off brittle branches. For that reason, I saw plants with hoops of chicken wire wrapped around them, caged for their own safety. Toddlers used them as trash cans. Isn’t it curious how humans are a force of both preservation and destruction, spending so much effort to reverse the impact of our own existence?
I’ve traveled internationally, to China, Spain, and France, yet there are sides to my own country that I’ve barely experienced. Although Boston could hardly be more different than Arizona in climate, architecture, and nature, I look forward to going to MIT as an adventure just as exciting as the Grand Canyon.