The Consciousness Question

Nature, nurture, and the hundred billion neurons in between

A Loss of Wonder

Exploring the Grand Canyon

The great 19th Century American naturalist and explorer, John Muir—one of the first travellers to see the Arizona Grand Canyon—expresses his wonder when he writes:

No matter how far you have wandered hitherto, or how many famous

gorges and valleys you have seen, this one, the Grand Canyon of the

Colorado, will seem as novel to you, as unearthly in the color, and

grandeur and quality of its architecture, as if you had found it after

death, on some other star.

Well: I drove two old friends from the East—who had never seen the Canyon—the 80 or so miles from Sedona to the West Rim and they were—as is said—‘blown away’. This deep gorge of the Colorado River—over 200 miles long, 1 mile deep, and 18 miles across at its widest point—was formed over millions of years. The North Rim is roughly 1000 feet higher than the South, and in walking the South Rim one can only occasionally catch glimpses of the river below—the mighty Colorado—reduced to a thin sliver; while a maze of secondary canyons with their own attendant up-thrusting pinnacles create independent red-rock cathedral-like vistas separated by multi-leveled, seemingly benign, plateau-like slopes. The spectator on the Rim feels airborne, presses heels firmly down on the path for gravitational security. The rock colors are beautifully graded while the air trapped between the Rims seems a shade darker, less translucent than that of the atmosphere above—the legacy bequeathed by millions of years of Depth, Time, and Space…while the liberated upper air, the free-ranging sky above is altogether lighter, crystal clear.

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The overall affect is to move one into a new dimension of ‘Being’…lightheaded and light of foot…gravity defied. In 1891, Charles Dudley Warner visited the Grand Canyon with friends via stagecoach. He writes: ‘Our party were struggling up he hill: two or three had reached the edge. I looked up. The duchess threw up her arms and screamed. We were not fifteen paces behind, but we saw nothing. We took the few steps, and the whole magnificence broke upon us. No one could be prepared for it. The scene is one to strike dumb with awe, or to unstring the nerves; one might stand in silent astonishment, another would burst into tears.’

I have never seen the South Rim at Mather Point so crowded on the day we visited. There must have been several hundred tourists present. But—most surprisingly—was their seeming insensibility to the spectacular vista that confronted them. When I last visited the Canyon about seven years ago, there were not as many visitors—a goodly crowd, nevertheless—and they spoke softly to each other and moved slowly from vintage point to vintage point. One had the impression that they were astounded—‘struck dumb’, as is said—by the experience; displayed the kind of reverence one feels when wandering in some thousand-year old Gothic cathedral. They stood singly or in small groups, talking quietly—if at all.

In contrast, ‘the mob’ (a fair description of the throng on my recent visit), breezed along the Rim in groups, conversing loudly, children racing about all over the place. From time to time they would pause while someone stood on the edge to be photographed…before continuing their promenade…very much as they would likely do on promenading the New Jersey seashore: rarely pausing to ‘stand and stare’, as the poet Wordsworth described the fascination that comes when facing a Natural Wonder. I certainly can’t say that I saw anyone struck ‘…dumb with awe’ as Charles Dudley Warner put it over a hundred years ago.

For me, this recent Canyon experience was an object lesson in the quick and cursory attitude to so many of life’s experiences that nowadays exemplifies our human condition. One possible reason for the apparent lack of deep emotive and intellectual responses in this day and age is that our sense of ‘Reality’ has become modified. For when so much time is spent in the ‘Virtual Reality’ of a computerized environment, then the acuity of our Five Senses which link us to the natural world suffers: resulting in the curtailment of our interior psychological life of intuitive thought, feeling, and imagination.

Overall result? Loss of Self-Realization: less chance of glimpsing some possible meaning and purpose in one’s own existence.

Don’t think I am campaigning against the Great New World of Computer Technology. I am only warning of the loss of wonder…when the phenomena of the natural world, as revealed through intensive use of the Five Senses and the resulting complex psychological responses…is so casually experienced.

Here is Einstein to lend some authority to these remarks:

The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental

emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows

it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead,

Graham Collier, author of What The Hell Are The Neurons Up To?, is an exhibiting landscape and portrait artist in Britain, an artist-philosopher in America, and a frequent Antarctic voyager. more...

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