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An empty landscape, a sublime discovery

Soul of Nowhere: Traversing Grace in a Rugged Land, Craig Childs, Sasquatch Books: 224 pp., $22.95

November 17, 2002|William Kittredge | William Kittredge is the author of many books, including "The Nature of Generosity," "Who Owns the West?" and "Hole in the Sky: A Memoir," which won a PEN West literary award in 1993.

First-rate writers and books keep emerging from the American West and delineating the Western experience in smart, edgy ways. Lately there have been Judy Blunt, a memoirist who tells of leaving the constraints of ranch life in the vicinity of Montana's Fort Peck Reservoir in "Breaking Clean," and novelist Judith Freeman, who, in "Red Water," depicts the haunting results of violence following Utah's Mountain Meadows Massacre.

And there's also Craig Childs, a younger writer focused on natural history. Childs tells stories of scientific discovery and adventure in the field. His special competence lies in close, accurate and evocative descriptions of the natural processes that shape evolving life in the American Southwest. Childs is a fountain of confirmed-on-the-ground, often surprising knowledge when it comes to understanding interwoven biological complexity. And he's not afraid to tell us what he thinks it all means.

In 2000's "The Secret Knowledge of Water," Childs tells of hiring out to research the availability of ground water in Arizona's Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, parking his pickup truck and walking off into the most arid territory in North America. He followed bees and other insects and found thunderstorm water in stone pockets called tinajas. Lots of it. "The canyon narrowed into a resistant rock, a hardened volcanic slurry that turned soft in its eroded shapes. The narrows burrowed down so that the walls became curved rather than sharp, squeezing until they revealed a disk of water fifteen feet across. Two thousand fifty-three gallons of rainwater."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 20, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 12 inches; 448 words Type of Material: Correction
Grand Canyon -- The caption with a photograph of the Grand Canyon in Sunday's Book Review stated that the canyon is 227 miles long and 18 miles deep and that it illustrates 4 billion years of geologic time. The canyon is 277 miles long and, in places, 18 miles wide. It is about a mile deep and illustrates approximately 6 million years of geologic time.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 24, 2002 Home Edition Book Review Part R Page 14 Features Desk 1 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Grand Canyon -- The caption with a photograph of the Grand Canyon in the Nov. 17 review of Craig Childs' "Soul of Nowhere" stated that the canyon is 227 miles long and 18 miles deep and that it illustrates 4 billion years of geologic time. The canyon is 277 miles long and 18 miles wide. It is about a mile deep and illustrates approximately 6 million years of geologic time.

That find, amid thousands of square miles of aridity, was "overpowering, like coming across blood on the snow." He found toads 70 miles from the nearest permanent springs and water fleas "hardly visible to the naked eye." Under a hand lens, a flea was "as fine and crystalline as an ornament of blown glass, its body almost invisible except for faint shadows of internal organs." Examined under a powerful microscope, the water from that tinaja and others that were ranged above it in that canyon, each overflowing into the one below, "appeared as if full of broken slivers of glass, countless fragile organisms." So an exercise in seeing accurately revealed evolving insect communities that were utterly dependent on random thunderstorms. The news seems to be that life survives where water goes, so long as our planet isn't burned to an utterly dry cinder.

On a weeks-long hike into the Grand Canyon described in "Soul of Nowhere," visiting the springs the Hopi and Zuni claim as their tribal emergence sites, places from which their ancestors came out onto the surface of the Earth, Childs and a friend climb onto a cliff in wetsuits. They venture into a cave from which a "fire hose" flow of water emerges to free-fall 40 stories and they "walk inside of a spring." They want, his friend says, "to pierce the veil."

"The rock, a hard limestone, was sharpened into small thorns and razors," Childs writes. "If I were to lose my grip I would be hamburgered before getting another hold, before getting washed out of the waterfall." A "quarter mile into that desert cliff," in "the belly of the mother," they climb into a domed, utterly lightless chamber their headlamps reveal to be a "garden of waterfalls and pools." Beginning to suffer hypothermia, Childs faces a silent dripping chamber at the end of this cave and tells himself to "remember the silence." A cave -- alive with rushing water and life-threatening adventure, significance inside secrecy, a weave of circumstance -- generates metaphor and meaning.

In "Soul of Nowhere," Childs tells of a precipitous route down from the north rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River. It had been used by the Anasazi almost 1,000 years earlier, forgotten and rediscovered by a legendary canyon explorer, mathematician George Steck. How the Anasazi found the route, which works along cliffs into a cave explorers called "the wormhole," Childs says, "is difficult to imagine." It was "a major feat of relationship with the land." How Steck rediscovered it is also difficult to imagine.

When Childs' party of climbers entered the cave, they found "the ceiling above streaked black with smoke scars. It was easy to imagine a procession of Anasazi doing the same, carrying torches of wrapped juniper bark and pine pitch, lighting their way toward the wormhole."

"Back in total darkness was a hole, hardly as wide as my hips. It was a trap door in the floor. The rest of the limestone in the cave was sharp and broken, but here, leading into the hole, it was smooth as porcelain. This was the wormhole. The limestone had been burnished by the passage of human skin. Anasazi skin." Childs and his friends scooted down the wormhole and emerged on a balustrade hanging over a cliff. Below, the Anasazi had set a sequence of ladders. "The Grand Canyon is so immense," Childs says, "and yet this is what it comes to, a hole barely big enough to fit through."

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