THE BLOG
04/25/2013 10:53 am ET Updated Jun 25, 2013

Rock on

This past weekend the National Park Service (NPS) hosted me at Grand Canyon, and I gave the keynote talk for its Earth Day celebration to a crowd that hailed from all over the world. It wasn't the only vertiginous aspect of the trip. I hiked down into the canyon one day with rangers Marty Martel and Pam Edwards, and got a new appreciation for the word "steep." Another day I took a long stroll along the rim, transfixed by new views at every frequent turn. The truly grand facade stares at you, timeless. But of course time is what makes it. As my observation telescoped and expanded to try and (unsuccessfully) comprehend, a raptor silhouette made a long, graceful stitch in the scene. I couldn't tell if it was one of the California condors that have been successfully reintroduced to the park (though the population remains threatened by poisoning from lead bullets), but if it was, the prehistoric bird brought a pretty deep stretch of historical time into the present. The California condor has a wingspan of 9 feet. Against the scale of the canyon, size like that hardly counts -- could have been a turkey vulture, with a 5-foot wingspan.

Tagging along with Martell, beginning with his 7:30 a..m roll call with about 15 other "interps," or park ranger interpreters, I got a glimpse of a day in the life. One ranger was off to New York City, to help Sesame Street introduce a new puppet to the show, a park ranger! This makes me happy. Martell told me about meeting an East Indian octogenarian in robes he had encountered one day, who told him that as an 8-year-old he had seen photos of Vishnu Temple Peak in National Geographic and had wanted ever since to come see it. Martell pointed out the glorious peak, in a line of other religio-historically named formations, like Wotan's Throne, Solomon Temple, and Tower of Ra. The names furnish a drapery of human history on rocks that are orders of magnitude older than even our most ancient spiritual traditions. Martell told me the seeker wept with joy upon seeing Vishnu Temple Peak, hugged him, and moved on. As ephemeral as our naming might be, it helps evoke and contain the sense of transcendence and destiny to which the rocks otherwise silently testify. Or so we feel/think.

Ah, the human. When he introduced me to the gathered crowd, Martell told them about how one of the major topics of my books, trophic cascades, is impacting the park. Indeed all of us could see it everyday -- rangy elk chomping down every little bit of greenery between the signage and the stones. Martell explained that mountain lions do range in the outer precincts of the park, but not close to the human presence; the elk know what side of the canyon their bread is buttered on. He mentioned discussions about bringing the wolf back to Grand Canyon's ecosystem. That they deal with such difficult complexities in the human-wildlife balance, or lack of it, is another reason to value and respect our park rangers.

On Sunday I manned a table of books with Phil Payne, from the Grand Canyon Association, who after hearing my rap several times became better at articulating it than I am, and helped explain both the science and the entertainment value of the book. All weekend I heard murmurings from park rangers that their boss, Superintendent Dave Uberuaga, "is awesome," and there he was, gamely dressed in plastic bags in honor of Earth Day, chatting with little children and not even scaring them! The Grand Canyon is impressive in every way, including, in fact, the human way, and these good folks are stewarding this treasure with seriousness and love. Now remember, it's still National Parks week, which means entry fees are waived -- so go see for yourself!