Seeking Zion -- the National Park, that is...

On a late afternoon in Zion National Park, I stood on a pedestrian bridge spanning the Virgin River, a gentle arch over the snow-fed crystalline rush. The surge and clash of water on rock, a tumult of notes flat and sharp, somehow evoked Aldo Leopold's insights about the haunting timbre of cranes in flight.

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"A dawn wind stirs the great marsh," the great conservationist writes in "Sand Country Almanac." A breath of air that "rolls a bank of fog across the great morass" without a sound: "A single silence hangs from the horizon to horizon." As the sky lightens, though, this preternatural quiet is shattered by "a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks, and cries that almost shakes the bog with its nearness, but without yet disclosing whence it comes. At last a glint of sun reveals the approach of a great echelon of birds. On motionless wing they emerge from the lifting mists, sweep a final arc of sky, and settle in clangorous descending spirals to their feeding grounds. A new day has begun on the crane marsh."

A day like countless others before it, Leopold affirmed. The cranes' honking echoes out of the "remote Eocene," an impossible-to-imagine referent dating back 56 million years. "When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men."

The icy waters sweeping beneath my feet, and their clangorous energy, make the same demand on our attention. After all, this river, and its many braided antecedents, has been at work since the Triassic, a mere 248 million years ago. That's when the site's oldest sandstone formation was laid down, to be overlaid periodically with new layers of rock, gravel, and sand that streams carried in from crumbling high ground, and more recently still by volcanic ash, gypsum, and shale, an incessant process of sedimentation and deposition truncated by periods of uplift and erosion.

Yet these earlier geological disruptions are not what have drawn so many visitors to Zion. Nor were they the reason why President Taft signed legislation creating Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909 (The National Park Service would delete its indigenous moniker nine years later, according to historian Hal K. Rothman, a consequence of the "prevalent bias of the time. Many believed that Spanish and Indian names would deter visitors who, if they could not pronounce the name of a place, might not bother to visit it. The new name, Zion, had greater appeal to an ethnocentric audience").

No, what most struck the monument's proponents about this unique landform and to which Taft's proclamation obliquely refers -- "the Mukuntuweap Canyon, through which flows the North Fork of the Rio Virgin, or Zion River, in Southwestern Utah, is an extraordinary example of canyon erosion and is of the greatest scientific interest" -- was a product of the relatively more recent layer of Navajo Sandstone.

The Virgin River has been carving through this iron oxide-rich material for eons, a force of nature that when combined with the erosive power of wind, and the sudden reconfigurations that earthquakes and rock slides can trigger, has left behind (and still sculpts), a baffling terrain.

1903 painting of Zion National Park by Frederick S. Dellenbaugh. | Image: Public domain, U.S.

"One hardly knows just how to think of it," observed artist Frederick S. Dallenbaugh in 1904. "Never before has such a naked mountain of rock entered into our minds! Without a shred of disguise its transcendent form rises preeminent. There is almost nothing to compare to it. Niagara has the beauty of energy; the Grand Canyon, of immensity; the Yellowstone, of singularity; the Yosemite, of altitude...this Great Temple, of eternity--."

He has a point. Even about a section of the park as heavily visited as Emerald Pools. I got a sense of their eternal fascination while trailing behind a family of five; the tall, slender parents patiently herded three tow-headed daughters toward the lower pool.

When I first came upon them, the youngest was distraught. She had flung an acorn over the guardrail, an act she now regretted as her sisters had held on to theirs. To cushion her jealous pang, her father suggested that maybe she had helped plant a tree. His was a deft resolution that drew a comforted smile.

How perfect that a toddler might create new life in a valley containing some of the region's oldest soils.

By the time the boisterous brood had reached the small pool, fed with spray from the upslope ledge, the parents had slipped hats on their progeny's small heads to protect them from the light mist. No sooner had they reached the heaviest fall, though -- a cool shower on this hot day -- than mom and dad urged their children to look up. The kids shrieked; their faces glistened.

"A facial," their mother laughed. A geological scrub, I thought, a ritual cleanse, a baptismal kiss.

More immersed in this place are the canyon tree frogs, whose resounding racket bounced off the rippled sandstone walls, magnifying these amphibians' claim to niche and mate. Their insistent bleating followed me up the stone-stepped path worn down by thousands of feet, and intensified when I reached the middle pond, only to double in volume as I clambered over boulders and dropped into the bowl that cupped the upper pond's still waters.

Passersby chortled: "They're so horny."

Can you blame them? Their reproductive urge, circumscribed by their narrowed opportunities to attract and couple, vibrated in the thin air. Like the primeval blare of Leopold's cranes, these frogs' booming pleas are "wildness incarnate."

The shadowed rock face that towers above asserts an even more ancient claim. It has been forever stained by falling water, a chiseling flow that hones the dark edge of deep time.

About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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