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HALL: Walnut Canyon tells its own story

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Walnut Canyon National Monument in Arizona. Bottom white rocks are sandstone, middle vegetated layer is shale, top slabs are limestone.


Sunday, November 26, 2017

The colors of fall are the colors of northern Arizona. Yellow sandstone, Mars-like Vermillion Cliffs, chocolate shale, and orange limestone create a permanent autumn landscape, all without the contribution of a single leaf! With no leaves, the stark shape of the terrain stands out, harsh and angular minus the fuzzy contours of weeds and trees.

To the south and east, in a scrawny little canyon called Walnut, the colors wash out and the layers flatten. The festive feelings fade, and a vegetative stubble shadows the face of the horizon. The Martian vista turns dull and scrubby.

Walnut Canyon is a mere scratch on a landscape dominated by gaping chasms. Carved by a stream, much like its flashy Grand patriarch to the west, it wedges through some of the same history as the Colorado River, but slowly, quietly, dismally. Despite a few walnut trees by the creek in the bottom of the canyon, it is a dry and dusty forgotten place, with the tired grayish hue of an aging wannabe facing a listless slide to obscurity. Eight hundred years ago, the Sinagua people built homes into cliff caves and farmed the mesa tops like roof gardens for beans and corn, but they, too, have moved on.

One can look out over the Kaibab carbonate rim and sense the erosion. Along the water’s path, follow the spooning progress of gravel and mud; the burn of limestone bleeding out of the solids and into the liquids; the crumbling and tumbling of Toroweap shale down the slopes. The canyon deepens slowly, already millions of years in the making, worn and weathered at a weary pace. And the carving is the fast part: how much longer did it take to accrete the canyon walls that had to grow up before they could be torn down? Long before dinosaurs came and went, at a time when the Earth had but one conglomerated continent, the first ripples of an age of sand blew across the fine silty soil of a coastal plain not unlike ours in Eastern Carolina (albeit it is cooler now, and the dragonflies are smaller), laying down the first grains of what is now the little canyon. Molecule by molecule, mote by mote, milestone by milestone over millions of moons, the Arizona plain grew, every swash painting an invisible layer onto a stronghold of sediment. It can take 10,000 years for an ocean bottom to thicken by a yard: a lifetime of limestone is only as thick as a slice of bread.

But there is an echo of greatness.

The steep, billowy walls of Coconino sandstone at the bottom of the canyon, where the creek lingers, have no secrets. The hitch-hatch cross-patch marks along the sandstone whisper the story of the glassy grains from that ancient Sahara, sweeping over, leaving ripples in the dancing sands that striate the wall. Later, the dark sloping Toroweap silently settled silt as sea level rose into the desert, in turn capped by flat gray slabs of deep-water limestone as the sea rose higher still, splitting most of North America in two.

The greatness came along the loop trail at the bottom of the canyon.

Sometime in the 1970s, somewhere along that trail, where the Coconino grew bolder and lighter, Dad heard himself talking. The plump sandstone walls were eavesdropping, tattling, gossiping our very words.

“Listen!” he said.

“Listen. Listen. Listen,” the canyon murmured back. Its tone was crisp and precise, the spitting image of Dad’s. There were three of us in the canyon, but we sounded like a whole orchestra of orators. Our voices came faster and louder and whispers became shouts and it didn’t take long for measured tones and harmonic reflections to give way to barks and snorts as if conversing with a flock of aggravated geese. The more we shouted the less we heard. Our ears rang like bells. We shouted nonsense, just to hear what the canyon walls would throw back. Finally, we were quiet, and the canyon threw that, too. The echo reacts, never acts; answers, never asks; reflects, never emits.

Yet it tells an original story.

The ripples, the grains, the hitches and hatches, the colors, the billows and slabs are its words. The canyon speaks its own story, first.

In the words of Jalaluddin Rumi, “A mountain keeps an echo deep inside.”

Joy Moses-Hall teaches physics and astronomy at Pitt Community College. She has a Ph.D. in oceanography and is the author of the novel Wretched Refuge.