William H. Calvin
UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON 98195-1800 USA
This page is at http://WilliamCalvin.com/bk3/bk3day6.htm
|The River That Flows Uphill (Sierra Club Books 1987) is my river diary of a two-week whitewater trip through the bottom of the Grand Canyon, discussing everything from the Big Bang to the Big Brain. It became a bestseller in German translation in 1995.||AVAILABILITY limited; the US edition is now out of print. There are German and Dutch translations in print.
The River That Flows Uphill|
A Journey from the Big Bang
to the Big Brain
Copyright 1986 by William H. Calvin.
You may download this for personal reading but may not redistribute or archive without permission (exception: teachers should feel free to print out a chapter and photocopy it for students).
To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.
.......WILLIAM BLAKE (1757-1827)
No breakfast, not even tea or coffee to announce the new day. We just packed up and, the phrase suddenly meaningful, silently stole away from the camp, starting the float down our river in the predawn darkness.
The Colorado River is now colorless, as is all of the surrounding moonlit Canyon, but the river's surface glistens in the windless night air. I am in the first boat and, looking back, see ghostly silhouettes of the other six boats strung out behind us on the river. I cannot identify either boats or people; the sun is coming our way from back east, but it is still night here. We are each alone in a pervasive black and gray stillness, as if this were a continuation of a private nighttime dream.
All is in profile on the land; all on the water is swirling motion as the moonlight reflects on the waves. The loudest sounds are the talking ripples beneath our bow, except when a more sustained breeze drums up a beat.
Looking around at the hilltops, dark against the milky sky, I imagine that I see a large bighorn sheep watching us. Perhaps he is one of the five that we saw last evening. But the shape eventually reveals itself. It is only an oddly shaped ocotillo shrub on the skyline. The only animals that I see for sure are the bats, still busy catching flying insects over the river, flipping and dipping and gliding near our boats, their clicking sonar vaguely heard.
WHAT LIES AHEAD? On the river itself, new sights, new rapids, the experiences of a new day. Thinking ahead, one wonders what news will await us after we end our isolation on the river. The abrupt intrusion of the outside world at Phantom Ranch last week is only too fresh in our minds.
But for ourselves, as lone humans on a blue-green planet circling a minor star in a middling segment of the Milky Way galaxy, member of the Local Group of the Universe -- in this larger sense, we wonder what lies ahead for the human species. What will be the next thrust of evolution? Which of our present skills and institutions will inadvertently provide the foundation for something really new? In what new way might we take flight? Can we only look back, try to understand the terrain over which we have traveled to get where we are? Or can we guess ahead, just as we try to look at the canyon ahead for the telltale side canyons which foretell the next rapid?
The stars are fading in the western sky. To those not used to being up at this hour, the stars not the familiar ones of the evening. Only a few of the brightest can still be seen. And I now begin to think about sidesteps in evolution rather than mere "progress." What is really striking, about both biological and cultural evolution, are the unexpected sidesteps, not the commonplace straight-line improvements in locomotion or cleverness.
At some point, there were enough forelimb feathers for a novel, unexpected property to emerge -- flight. I keep coming back to that, somehow. There is nothing in the theory of thermodynamics that predicts gliding or soaring, yet unexpected properties of feathers gave rise to a whole new class of vertebrates, the birds, that would dominate the air surrounding the earth until their basic aerodynamics were finally mimicked successfully by twentieth-century humans, who built a flying machine with the technical knowledge their forebears had accumulated over the centuries.
There is similarly nothing in the Newtonian physics governing a thrown stone or spear that predicts a blossoming of brain size and consciousness and language. Yet such sidesteps -- more insulating feathers or more timing neurons having unexpected properties -- are the really dramatic stuff of biological evolution over the millennia. And, on a time scale of only a generation or less, of cultural evolution too.
For now we see through a glass darkly;A RAPID INTERRUPTS. It, certainly, is no dream. The river water is as cold a shower as one might imagine, and some of us probably needed it to wake up on this particular day. This is my first rapid without sunglasses and hat brim shielding my face, and so my face gets thoroughly washed by the modicum of river that unexpectedly sails in over the bow. My face cold and dripping, I somehow feel that I can see more clearly now. I could hear the rapid better too -- you notice the sounds of the individual splashes over the roar while you're in the middle of it. Reassigning brainpower, you hear better when you can't see.
but then face to face.
.............FIRST EPISTLE OF PAUL TO THE CORINTHIANS, 1800 years ago.
Besides our half of a moon, we have a single morning star -- the planet Venus, low in the eastern sky just above the canyon wall. And the dawn light is now strong enough so that the highest of the Redwall cliffs has taken on a chocolate-orange hue. But the rest of the canyon below is in monochrome. Even the orange lifejackets on the other boats are only part of the ghostly dark silhouettes following us down the river. The dawn comes an hour later in the depths of the Canyon than on the rim, so the twilight period is pleasantly prolonged.
The shapes of the eroded rock formations are sometimes suggestive of human architecture. Especially when you see only profiles and not details, they stir up many schemata in one's imaginative brain. It is easy to imagine that a predawn journey down the Nile through Luxor would reveal similar shapes of temples and monuments hugging the riverbanks. A triangular pyramid is even seen downriver: Diamond Peak, with the dimly illuminated rock strata tilted along its side to look like a winding road up to the top. We had seen a false Diamond Peak last night, one of its several lookalikes, spotlighted by the changing clouds after the threatened storm, framed by a great rainbow, complete with a secondary set of outrider stripes. This morning, there is little suggestion of color in the predawn light illuminating the real Diamond Peak, looking like a rough caret of the Redwall mounted in a striped setting.
Diamond Peak from Leonard Thurman's Grand Canyon River Running web pages.
REMEMBERING A GEOLOGY GUIDEBOOK, I now realize that the path that the river is currently following must be the Hurricane Fault. If we could see it beyond the low, eroded hills, the Redwall on the left bank would be elevated. Indeed, by as much as one-third the total depth of the Canyon -- just as if the ground under a building in a downtown canyon were uplifted until the sidewalks were at the 120th floor of the skyscraper across the street. Slowly one realizes the extraordinary magnitude of this, that all the underlying metamorphic rock has been pushed up out of the hot depths of the earth's crust by some ancient, earth-shaking event.
Our orderly, layered world seems turned on end, thrown awry. We seem split between two ancient worlds -- we are drifting, ever so casually and innocently, along a great and powerful crack in the earth's crust. A fault that still occasionally quakes.
And the shadowy boats behind continue to follow us. Do they realize where we are?
But our unspoken injunction against speaking inhibits me from calling out to the other boats. They just blindly follow us down the great crack. For a moment, I am reminded of our playful re-enactment of Ingmar Bergman's figure of Death leading away a long serpentine chain of his victims along the moonlit skyline, our frolic that night shortly before the moon entered the earth's shadow to be eclipsed.
That image now merges in my head with another figure of myth. That of Charon, the boatman on the River Styx remembered from Michelangelo's ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. And from Greek mythology, if I remember correctly. Charon, he who ferried silent passengers on their one-way journey to Hell.
I shudder -- but only, I tell myself, because there is no sun to warm my soaked clothing.
LOOKING BACKWARD as we first emerge from a minor rapid, the other boats seem to be embedded in the mirror-smooth surface of the river just before the lip of the rapid. Then each one slips into the turbulence, pitches up and down the standing waves, and finally emerges into the swirl of currents downriver from the rapid.
The water mills about, little whirls appearing and disappearing, before settling on a new path. Much of the surface water reverses course, flowing back up toward the rapid in a back-eddy. Like backsliding in evolution. We pick our way down a line of foam that marks the narrow fence of sheer currents separating the left- and right-handed back-eddies, so as to avoid the backwaters that entrap. The boatmen only row enough to steer us down this ever-changing channel, the creak of the oarlocks the only sound other than the songs of the birds awakening, now that we are past the rapid.
Emerging from the monochrome, the eastern sky now has pastel shades, and the orange of our lifejackets can now be dimly seen. Even a hummingbird has come over to inspect them, but it rejects the strange, oversized flower. The wet sand along the shore has taken on a purple pastel hue, one that I have never seen in sand before. Nor seen captured in a painting. Another, larger bird makes a sudden pass at me, almost hitting my head, going "cheep-cheep" as it flies away disappointed.
I keep hearing music run through my head. It's Beethoven. The Ninth Symphony, I think, the Chorale. Not the whole thing, fortunately -- just part of the final movement. It's appropriate, anyway. At least it's not Mozart's Requiem which he wrote in his dying days. At age thirty-seven.
THE AIR IS VERY CLEAR, and we can see for many miles when the walls of the inner canyon permit. The high limestone cliffs appear white. The cicadas begin to take note of the approaching dawn, adding a chorus to the fluting sounds of the water passing over some minor rocks in the river, the pattering sounds of the occasional light windwaves against the bottom of the boat, perhaps even the distant roar of another rapid.
Two large ravens fly by overhead, maintaining an orderly formation amidst the random motions of the cruising bats -- as if they were the king's messengers striding purposefully to an important downriver appointment. I wonder where they're going?
There are a few patches of red downriver among the white cliffs, looking like partially applied makeup. But the first real sign of sunrise is glowing in the clouds overhead, the fluffy cumulonimbus left over from last night's threatened thunderstorm. These scattered clouds look dark and pregnant against the eastern sky, but their undersides are tinged with pink. Below them, the sky passes from deep blue to purple and violet, then almost to pink before reaching the reddish mauve of the rocky rim of the canyon. Rainbows were never like this.
I look around to see who my fellow passengers are on this final morning, now that there is enough light. We are all unrelated: a woman from New York, a man from Alaska, a woman from Switzerland, and our head boatman, Gary Casey. By common consent, we are each alone with our thoughts, but passing through this moment in time together.
We turn a corner and the next rapid announces itself with a subdued roar. We can see the water splashing randomly above the surface of our mirror-like river. The course of our lives, even our progress to more complex evolutionary stages, is not unlike the river's progress. We too have our quiet moments when time passes uneventfully, as well as our passages through uncertainties and turbulence, our moments of finding a new course once the froth has quieted down. But the swirls still abound, pulling us one way and then another.
But the cold water of the real rapid is no metaphor.
THE DESCENT down the energy gradient somehow creates a self-organizing ascent. From descent to ascent: How? How did the existentialists' world of chaos become our orderly universe? Good old irreversible thermodynamics and stratified stability is the short answer. But when it comes to biology, a principle is no substitute for the major details -- because there is nothing inevitable about the directions taken. History is everything.
Like the dozens of rapids on the Colorado that cause notable descents, we've been jacked up through dozens of major ascents during our evolutionary history. From quantum radiation to quarks to matter. From elementary particles to simple atoms like hydrogen and helium. Jacked up via supernovas into heavier elements such as carbon and oxygen. Jacked up via the volcanos and rainfall of a fortunately-situated planet, simply because the resulting rivers created an assortment of particle sizes. Ascending via the clay, catalyzing more complex molecules by providing the right framework. And then the big step to self-replicating molecules.
They're all big self-organization steps, but some are more revolutionary than others. Self-replication is the key step to life as we know it -- it set in motion a fundamentally different line of evolution because it allowed small effects to accumulate. Before, both time and change had occurred -- now history happened.
The cell itself was another big step -- the self-replicating machinery enclosed in an envelope. The little bacteria that eventually evolved 3,500-million years ago captured sunlight themselves and turned it into even more bacteria, filled up the oceans with life. Supercell was another great step, the success of the committee building on the success of the envelope, where the sum of the symbiotic parts produced a cell with the capability to evolve far fancier life forms.
Gene duplication, followed by diversification, was another super-sidestep -- another metaptation. As was sex -- because sex institutionalized randomness, and so made more inheritable variants on which natural selection could operate.
And multicellularity was a step that engendered another super-sidestep: nerve cells and then nervous systems and then brains. And while brains were handy for coordinating defense against predators, the super-sidestep aspect came from the brain's ability to combine unlike behaviors to yield some totally new behavior. And that institutionalized rapid innovation.
The Cambrian explosion of life-forms might be considered a big step -- we're riding along the Great Unconformity again -- but it's not really a sidestep. There's nothing to keep a mollusk from evolving into something as fancy as higher primates -- just look at how far the octopus has come (neurobiologists feel a lot more comfortable eating squid than octopus). But there's something about mammals, and particularly the primate lineage, that seems to lend itself to juvenilization, so that the proportionately larger brain and the juvenile behaviors like curiosity and play have been repeatedly enhanced, jacking up complexity once again. Step back to leap, get caught by stratified stability at a new level. All the way up to the point of our elaborate form of consciousness, weaving scenarios about the past and future, with ourselves at the intersection of several possible futures -- surely that ability marks another major point of departure, another metaptation.
And cultural evolution must be seen as a super-sidestep: while not peculiarly human, in the context of the human brain it makes possible additional sidesteps such as language. Such as writing. Written history. Science. Such as building a computer with some brain-like properties -- a sidestep of evolution that may turn out to be the next super-sidestep.
Now all we have to do is figure out which imminent steps are really back-eddies in disguise, paths that lead nowhere. And entrap us.
NOW THERE is direct sunlight falling on the topmost layers of the canyon walls to the west, looking like pink frosting on a chocolate cake. The half-moon is crisp, with its flat plains clearly to be seen, suspended on a blue backdrop of morning sky. The Canyon behind our boat is still in deep shadow.
An early morning freshening breeze begins drifting upriver, rippling the glossy surface of the water and bringing new smells to our nostrils. A canyon wren sings its distinctive song of eight notes descending the scale, as if warming up for a voice lesson, competing with the sounds of riffles. We are now passing through upturned slabs of granite, foliated and pointing upriver as great slabs. The river narrows here, thanks to the granite on both riverbanks, and the flow speeds up, squeezed through the narrower space carved through the harder rock. Rows of ocotillo line the nearby hilltops, like a row of regularly-spaced sentinels flanking an approach. As we look back upstream, not only does the water glisten but the riverbank granite shines in the early morning light where it has been polished by the river in centuries past. Our other boats eventually float silently past these marbled gates. The creaking turn of the oarlocks is the only sound of our progress.
Our silent boatmen aside, none of us really knows which bend in the river will bring us to our takeout beach, none of us knows which rapid will be the last one for us. And none of us knows what news awaits, back in civilization when we intrude on the resident lizards at a lonely desert telephone booth.
A whole new section of sunlit canyon is now revealed, emerging from behind a shadowed profile of nearby cliff, with more red and white layers coming into view with each creak of the oars. Layer-cake geology, being slowly colored in, layer-by-layer, from the top with a broad brush.
A CRASH is heard. It is like the "ker-plunk" made by a large rock being dropped in the river. I instantly surmise that we are witnessing another rare episode in the Canyon's slow erosion, a repeat performance of that first evening on the river. But I can neither see nor hear other small rocks trailing behind in usual rockfall fashion.
I keep looking around, puzzled. "Ker-plunk." Again we are startled by the same singular crashing sound, even closer to us this time.
Gary points silently and then I see it: we have a beaver swimming off our bow. Sleek and domineering, he is trying to scare us away, using great flips of his flat tail. He wasn't merely giving an alarm, announcing our arrival -- he's trying to herd us, threatening us with that tail flip.
Beware, all ye that enter here. Go back, stay away. The beaver dives after each resounding tail flip, to emerge many seconds later, to challenge us again.
The beaver is cruising ahead of us downstream, swimming through what appears to us as an orange pool of water. I look up. The orange is the reflected sunlight from high cliffs downstream that the dawn has reached. The beaver keeps pace with us but occasionally turns to face us, as if a sheep dog trying to herd us aside, warning us to come no further. He then crashes his tail into the orange water, emphatically telling us that this is his territory. I hope that, like some car-chasing dogs I've known, he doesn't snap at the passing rubber -- those teeth might puncture a pontoon, giving the poor beaver a rude surprise.
There is no sign of his toothwork among the willows and tamarisk lining the shore -- perhaps he has just eaten all of the fallen trees, having failed to dam the great river. This river would be enough to frustrate a thousand beavers -- except, unfortunately, the busy kind that pours concrete. Finally, after another great crash of his tail, our beaver doesn't reappear.
The river seems lonely without him. Beaver are actually common all along the river corridor but, because of their nocturnal habits, we haven't been out at the right hour to run into one.
I'm beginning to miss his companionship, aggrieved though it was. Then we hear him again, more distantly this time. We look back. And there he is, repeating his unheeded warnings to the second boat in our silent string. He is determined, that beaver. We continue onwards, forewarned trespassers.
TO ADD EMPHASIS to our sense of being on the threshold of some forbidden gateway, the left riverbank changes. Great up-tilted slabs of Vishnu Schist rise skyward, cathedral-like spires ascending from bases along the shore, laced with veins of granite.
The river has also reached a dead-end against the steep canyon wall up ahead. It just ends, right there.
This has happened before. We have learned by now that this is an illusion caused by the river taking a sharp turn. But which direction? We've made a game of it, each person on a boat offering their considered judgment. Today, I guess silently to myself. To the left, I predict, concentrating on the dead-end and comparing its left corner to the right one, unable to see details in this light.
And then I see, in the right corner, that the morning sun now shines directly like a spotlight on -- well, I'd swear it's a polished black marble-like pillar standing alone, out in the river. That's crazy. But it casts a long morning reflection out onto the river's swirling surface....
What is it? It stands alone in the water, spotlit. The next thing to happen, I tell myself, is that I'll be hearing the Strauss "Also Sprach Zarathustra" music from the opening score of the film 2001. Did Arthur C. Clarke ever take this river trip? Now that we're closer, I see the others starring at the prominent black pillar too, wondering.
Our boat slowly emerges into the small sunlit section of river, and we see the sunrise peeking out from behind a cliff to our rear. Soon it disappears as we float a little further and are in shadow again. One thinks of the ancient Anasazi, faithful observers of the rising and setting sun, who waited each morning for such a first glimpse of the new day, atop a chosen hilltop in the Canyon.
We begin turning left, the view ahead no longer seeming to be a dead-end but opening up to the left, into the dogleg of the trench carved by the river. After we pass the enigmatic black pillar and look back on it, we see that it is not as regular and polished as it earlier appeared from the distance. It is only a rectangular slab of rock several stories tall that stands on the shore in front of the regular schist wall of tilted vertical slabs. It has been polished somewhat by the spring floods of the untamed river. Liquid sandpaper. With no more silt-laden spring floods, little more sculpting will occur until the dam's demise.
The Strauss music fades. But the mood is still expectant, pregnant with mixed emotions.
AGAIN COMES the familiar sound of a major rapid, though we cannot see it. Indeed, a major side canyon can now be seen downriver on the left. Is this Diamond Creek, with its connection to the Hurricane Fault? The fault that is now followed by a rough road up the canyon walls, through the Hualapai Indian reservation to Peach Springs? Is this brightly lit section of Canyon heralding our return to civilization?
I turn and look away -- up at our half-moon and our spotlit pyramid, back up-canyon to our indignant beaver and our silent boats, to the warm and rich colors of dawn in the Grand Canyon.
But downriver, when I finally look again, there are some concrete picnic tables relentlessly emerging from behind the greenery on a broad sandy beach. We haven't seen picnic tables since Lee's Ferry, where our journey began outside the park. I'd happily do without them forever.
And then a sturdy blue truck can be seen, if one dares to look. Unmistakable, unavoidable clues that we are about to leave our wilderness. But inscrutable ones. We drift closer and closer to the left riverbank.
As we near the shore, I drop off the side of the boat into the river and wade in to the sandy beach, my hands kept occupied by the coiled mooring line. I am reluctantly the first person ashore from the first boat. I turn my back on the signs of civilization, and try to heave the stern of the boat up onto the sand, looking back all the while at the river and its passengers. I see the faces of my fellow travelers as their six boats also slowly approach the takeout beach, one by one.
It is an enigmatic procession, one whose creaking oarlocks sound a counterpoint to the intermittent cicada chorus from the trees, to the morning calls of the birds, to the unending roar of the rapid heard downriver.
We are all -- without exception -- silent, somber, and reflective. As in a sanctuary.
Perhaps. I look into more faces as I move along the beach, pull another boat in. Somehow, the faces express sorrow. Almost, but not quite, disbelief. Where, on so many faces together, where have I seen that look before?
I keep surveying faces as more boats approach.
Our eyes focus at a great distance, our jaws hang slack....
As, I now remember, at the funeral of a young graduate student who died suddenly.
Unexpectedly. An untimely death, even earlier than Mozart's. That's the way we look.
No one wants our journey to end, this flowing interlude in a life that is too brief.
The creaking oarlocks have fallen silent. The pounding roar of the rapid continues just downstream. But we shall not pass through this one.
Time is a river which sweeps me along,
but I am the river;
it is a tiger which mangles me,
but I am the tiger;
it is a fire which consumes me,
but I am the fire.
....... JORGE LUIS BORGES, A New Refutation of Time.
Decay is inherent in all compounded things.
Strive on with diligence.
.....................................The Buddha's last words.