The Grand Canyon is one of my “thin places.” As Eric Weiner wrote in The New York Times, a thin place is a locale “where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.”
My wife and I have made several ten-day rafting trips down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and we once spent a week hiking on the North Rim. Wherever I’ve gone in what the river guides lovingly call “The Big Ditch,” I’ve been amazed by the way this ancient and sacred place grounds and transports me.
Once, while camping at the bottom of the canyon on a moonless night, I had an experience that changed my sense of who and where I am. I was lying on my back gazing into one of those midnight Arizona skies where the stars appear not as a few dozen scattered dots of light, but as thick sheets of starlight many layers deep.
A full mile above me, the edges of the canyon walls delineated a gap through which I could see only a relatively narrow band of sky. As I studied the sky through that slot, I became aware that — if I stayed focused — I could see the star-sheets move ever so slowly across that gap, drifting into view along one edge and disappearing over the other.
Then, in an instant, I realized I had it wrong. Those stars were not moving. Instead, I was lying on a ball called Earth rotating on its axis as it has for eons. With my backbone connected to its core and my eyes on the heavens, I was able to see and feel Earth turn, to know in a bodily way who and where I was — a sojourner sailing in space on a ship made of astonishment.
For 30 minutes that I will forever treasure, I had bone-deep knowledge that this green, blue, and white planet on which we live was wheeling me safely through an unimaginable vastness, embracing me in beauty that beggars description.
Today is Earth Day, 2015. May we remember who and where we are. May we do everything in our power to care for this precious planet that has for so long been our sanctuary in space, spinning endlessly to carry us home.
In the following poem, I’ve taken liberties with a theory that says the Grand Canyon was formed over millions of years by water cutting through a rising dome of rock. I don’t know if scientists still regard that theory as credible. But if they don’t, that’s okay. The poem is less about the formation of the Grand Canyon than about the formation of my own life — and on that topic I get the last word!
They say the layered earth rose up
ancient rock leviathan
trailing ages in its wake
lifting earthmass toward the sun
and coursing water cut the rock away
to leave these many-storied walls
exposé of ages gone
around this breathless emptiness
more wondrous far
than earth had ever known
My life has risen layered too
each day each year in turn has left
its fossil life and sediments
evidence of lived and unlived hours
the tedium the anguish yes the joy
that some heart-deep vitality
keeps pressing upward
toward the day I die
And Spirit cuts like water through it all
carving out this emptiness
so inner eye can see
the soaring height of canyon walls within
walls whose very color, texture, form
redeem in beauty all my life has been
the darkness and the light, the false, the true
while deep below the living waters run
cutting deeper through my parts
to resurrect my grave-bound heart
making, always making, all things new.
Parker Palmer’s poem will appear in Going Down Grand: Poems from the Canyon, edited by Peter Anderson and Rick Kempa, to be published by Lithic Press in July, 2015.