Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Sketches on rainbow slate
-Grandeur...grit...and greed-

The road travel route from Southern California to Southern Utah's Golden Circle of national parks, traces a transect cutting across contours in physical maps and borders in political maps. It is a journey from America's fruit basket through its southwestern deserts, in a road passing through California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah. In fertile California, we see Nature's grandeur. In the arid Mojave desert with mile upon mile of stubborn shrubbery refusing to wither away, we see Nature's grit. The plant kingdom has established outposts in the rockiest of canyons and a toehold on the steepest of cliffs. The trees though, seem to be wary guests or harmless intruders in the impregnable sandstone canyons at Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park at Utah.

While seen as impenetrable overbearing cliffs when seen from below at Zion, or while seen as an impassable chasm from the vantage points at Bryce; the canyons establish an inescapable presence, proclaiming their permanence to mankind. The cliffs which to our eyes seem permanent, are merely the sands of geological time frozen in a momentary stillness of sandstone in a landscape that was once seafloor and then sand dunes. What now is seemingly an adamantine landscape is to the Forces of Nature the most yielding earth, gorged on and gouged out by the unyielding persistence of the Virgin River. Charles Lyell, one of the greatest geologists of all time and one of the first to suggest that the earth's surface is not 'set in stone' but is being endlessly recast, vividly describes in his 'Principles of Geology' the contest between subterranean Fire and flowing Water; Fire making mountains from the molten rock underneath and Water laying them low. We can witness the most dramatic shows of strength in the battle between the Forces of Nature, most grandly in a canyon. Astronomy is said to be a humbling science, a constant reminder of mankind's irrelevance to the cosmos. Even without looking skywards, the geology of the earth at the canyons is an inescapable and humbling vision of our own impermanence and insignificance.

In the noonday sun, the cliffs glisten with a myriad hues of sandstone, with streaks and swirls of white, black and red rock. In the setting sun, this play of colour makes way for a shadow play on the cliffs. The sandstone of the cliffs is a metamorphic rock, formed when sands of the primeval deserts were compressed by layer after layer of accumulating sand. The encrustation of minerals and oil within these layers has streaked the rocks with blackish and reddish hues, earning it the name 'rainbow slate.' The rainbow slate has been the palette as well as the canvas of the geological masterworks here, where one can see rock that is swirled like water, molded like clay and pleated like fabric by the elements that shape them. One of the notable sights at Zion is the Checkerboard Mesa, where the accumulating layers of rock form horizontal lines and vertical fissures complete an unbelievably perfect checkerboard on the cliff which creates disbelief in the fact that no human hand carved it. One can almost exclaim to the cliff in William Blake's words " What immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry?". While Blake wrote about 'seeing the world in a grain of sand', here we can almost see a world in sandstone. We see worlds in red, white and black rock which are older than the histories of the exterminated Red Man, the exploring White Man and the enslaved Black Man and will outlive all of them.

To a geologist, a place like Zion or Bryce canyon is a holy ground where wonders never cease. To an artistic observer, the patterns on the rocks seem to give shape to the most fanciful visions and uncannily resemble strange animals and people. Artists and sculptors can find innumerable shapes and forms to stimulate their creativity. Psychologists will find in the rocks patterns which stimulate as much thought and association as any inkblot test. These are rockfaces where one can actually see faces in the rock. To the Native Americans who were the first human inhabitants here, and who too must have wondered what immortal hand framed these symmetries, the rocks are sacred. The cliffs are to the Navajos what Olympus was to the classical Greeks and what Kailasha is to the Hindus. Mountains the world over are shrines older than the religions built around them. In India, the lush tree-bearing lands reveal nature in a nurturing motherly aspect; while in the land of the Navajo Indians, the cliffs reveal nature in a more forbidding overlordly aspect. Whatever the manifestation, the grandeur of nature has shaped the life of men in both matter and mind. The diversity of the flora in India made the ancient Indians at the same time deeply reverent and curious of the life-giving properties of plants, and thus was born an ethos respecting natural cures and environmental protection, which offers valuable lessons to the world community today. The rocks and deserts in North America challenged explorers to a conquest of the tyranny of geography; and the history of America would not have taken the course it has, but for those intrepid explorers who braved it beyond the impassable cliffs and claimed the wilderness for civilization and the enterprising engineers who built roads through the seemingly impenetrable barriers and found hidden treasures of mineral wealth.

Las Vegas occurs on the route via Nevada from Southern Utah to Southern California. After the sights of the natural wonders, Las Vegas is an assault on the senses and sensibilities, a rude return to current civilization in its most decadent aspect. After sights affording contemplation of Nature's bounty, Las Vegas is the very picture of human greed. Greed is only presence here and there is neither grandeur nor grit; for all the grandeur is make-believe and all the grit is foolhardy. Overlooking the casino-lined tout-infested streets are garish replicas of world wonders like the Great Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty; seeming to proclaim that here's the world and it's all yours if you are greedy enough. The blinding pyschedelic neon lights on the casinos and clubs are lights that lead to darkness; which the unscrupulous and unwary are condemned to. If the American Dream is to stretch the limits of human possibility, then Las Vegas reduces it to just pushing one's luck. If American cities and corporations are built to make the most of human strengths, Las Vegas has been built to exploit every human weakness. If America is the world's greatest marketplace for goods and services, Las Vegas is a fair of evils and vices.

1 comment:

vikram said...

well this was poetry in prose(and no i am not being my sarcastic self)