ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Reading The Grand Canyon Rocks

Updated on February 27, 2010

I've toured the world and have lived in places that most people think of only as exotic locations for documentaries. However, nothing has taken my breath away or filled my imagination more than a big ditch in the dust. The Grand Canyon.

You simply don't take the Grand Canyon lightly. The magnificent chasm is much more than a very big gash in our thin-skinned planet. To a geologist it is literally time unearthed, a ridiculously huge sweep of time that reaches all the way back to an unrecognizable Earth.

Of course everyone can appreciate the spectacle of the canyon. Listen to Clarence Dutton in his 1882 monograph on The Tertiary History of the Grand Canyon District, in which he beholds a canyon "sculptured into strange and even startling forms, and lit up with colors so rich and glowing that they awaken enthusiasm in the most apathetic."

When it came to giving names to the buttes and side canyons, Dutton chose the religious, like Vishnu's Temple, The Cloisters and The Transept. But, as Wallace Stegner wrote in Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, when it came time to explain it all, "Dutton found no gods or thunder spirits in the canyon, but only itself, self-created, protean, and immortal."

Dutton wasn't the first to let the rocks, not our holy texts, speak for the history of the planet. Beginning with James Hutton's 1788 Theory of the Earth, certain geologists slowly gathered evidence that the lay of the land could be best understood not by invoking Noah's flood, but instead by observing the continuous action of the geologic powers we see today, from the tedious accumulation of silt, to the sudden hot blurt of magma, to the incessant spill of rain. "What more can we require?" asked Hutton. "Nothing but time."

Unfortunately for Hutton, the orthodoxy held that the Earth was less than 6,000 years old... scarcely predating the pyramids. Hutton's notion of essentially infinite time was, to the church, heresy. As was Charles Lyell's 1830 Principles of Geology. As was Charles Darwin's 1859 Origin of Species. By the time geologist John Wesley Powell survived the first boat expedition through the Grand Canyon in 1869, the church still took the phrase "millions of years" as fighting words.

But it was awfully hard to argue with the Grand Canyon. Powell and Dutton, and most every geologist to follow, unhesitatingly saw in the canyon the imprint of far more than 6,000 years: They saw it in the immense beds of sediments turned to rock that form cliff and terrace; in the petrified vestiges of never-seen creatures; in the monstrous erosional gap between the canyon rims.

All that naked rock: it can change the way you see things. Or not. I'm no geologist, and I freely admit to tripping about the Grand Canyon with my mind fixed mainly on the age of my aching knees, not eons past. But a real geologist, a passionate stratigrapher or a heartfelt sedimentologist, is easily transported to vanished lands and times by a walk in the canyon, much as the "golden oldies" radio station swiftly punts me back to high school.

Just look at a cliff of Shinumo Quartzite which was once an island that was ultimately buried under an advancing sea... or the Tapeats Sandstone which is the beach that eventually covered it all... or simply ask how old is the quartzite? And the answer is about a billion years.

Most people can no better imagine a billion years than a car capable of a billion miles per hour. Rocks are dated by the slow tick of radioactive decay, and if I believe in the reality of atom bombs, I can't reject the same science when it comes up with billion-year-old rocks.

The numbers just keep on rising. Just consider the even more ludicrous figure of 1.7 billion years for the Vishnu Schist, a black mangle of rock, nicely polished and cusped by the river. And then there are the travertine dams and falls in the side canyons of Havasu and the Little Colorado, rock like cake icing that is taking shape this very minute, while the big river and the cloudbursts gnaw at the canyon, making it grander for future tourists, until the same forces that made the canyon flatten it, every stone tower and palisade collapsing, limestone and sandstone and mudstone pulverized and carried off to settle in the sea, starting the whole process anew.

At least that's what the rocks say, and to my ears it's good news. The Earth is not yet finished.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • Hal Licino profile imageAUTHOR

      Hal Licino 

      8 years ago from Toronto

      Thanks, all. Don't miss the Grand Canyon. It may be truly the greatest show on Earth! :)

    • Motor leathers profile image

      Motor leathers 

      8 years ago

      Perfect article! It is written in a such good way that I even decided to find more information and photos of Grand Canyon.


    • sheila b. profile image

      sheila b. 

      8 years ago

      Thought provoking.

    • De Greek profile image

      De Greek 

      8 years ago from UK

      Reeeeeeeeeeeally good news :-))

      Well done


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)