Grand Canyon

In her postcard, my friend Judy Harris asks why there isn't a Grand Canyon in Middletown, New Jersey, or any other place that a river runs through.

One reason is that the Rocky Mountains create a catchment area for a lot of water that eventually has to find its way to the Pacific Ocean. The other is that much of Arizona consists of an enormous intact plateau—a huge slab of land that had been uplifted gradually for millions of years, and then miraculously was not broken up by earthquakes or other tectonic activity. When the predecessor to the Colorado River materialized, it had a vast blank slate to pass over, rather than a landscape already made craggy by earlier geological processes. Grand canyons, by the way, are not formed by water gouging a deep furrow as it passes over a flat surface (that image never made sense to me). They work their way backwards from where a plateau ends in a huge cliff. Imagine the Colorado river reaching the end of its plateau and forming a Niagara Falls. Just as Niagara Falls could eat away its bed and migrate backwards, leaving behind a canyon, the Colorado River ate its way through the plateau backwards in a mouth-to-source direction.

I learned all this from Canyon Dave, a geologist at a small state college in Arizona. Canyon Dave served as our guide to the Grand Canyon one afternoon last month during an old-fashioned family driving vacation out west with my wife Ilavenil and her mother and stepfather. (Having in-laws from New Zealand means that you get to see a lot of spectacular scenery—not just because New Zealand has a lot of it, but because they force you to see the spectacular parts of your own country when they visit.) We began at Stanford, where Ilavenil gave a presentation on her art to the Art, Brain, and Cognition study group at the Center for Advanced Study. Then we drove to the Mojave National Reserve, London Bridge (in Lake Havasu City, Arizona), the remains of Route 66, the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, the Glen Canyon Dam, Zion Canyon, Mono Lake, and Yosemite, all in 8 days and 2200 miles. As the old ad slogan said, See America First.

In his novel Small World, David Lodge wrote that academic life had been transformed by the jet airplane and the photocopy machine. That was before email, the laptop computer, conference calls, cell phones, Federal Express, and now, wireless handheld personal digital assistants, like my Handspring Treo. The curse of technology—during this "vacation," I reviewed a grant proposal on the outbound plane, took part in an NSF panel via a motel room phone, answered email by thumb-tapping the Treo as we drove through the vast open spaces (Bruce Springsteen never sang about that), received a package of page proofs on the last night of the trip, and edited the proofs on the homebound plane. Still, I spent five of the eight days completely unplugged, and had none of the old end-of-vacation dread in which you fear the worst about the accumulated crises that await you on your return.

The proofs had the last few proofreader's queries about my forthcoming book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. "Of the making of many books there is no end, and in much study there is weariness for the flesh" (Ecclesiastes 12:12.) I finished it in January, returned the copy-edited manuscript in April, and the page proofs in June. Still, it won't go away. There are flap descriptions, blurbs, jacket designs, magazine adaptations, and press releases to scrutinize (both for the US and UK publishers). I've learned that the details at this stage need one's full attention, or else everything that can go wrong will go wrong. (For the Language Instinct, a publicist who had not read the book drew up a list of questions for radio interviewers, most of whom don't read the book either. The first question was "How does the language of whales work?"—a topic about which I knew nothing. I was asked the question on live radio three times before I realized what was going on and gave myself a crash course on the songs of the humpback whale. Since then I have insisted on seeing the press kits for my books before they go out.)

The rest of the summer, I hope, will provide some calm before the storm—beginning in mid-September, six weeks of touring to talk about the book, and, given its subject matter, probably some controversy. In July and August I'll be alternating time at MIT with time in Cape Cod, where I'll distract myself with photography, kayaking, and tandem bicycling. Ilavenil and I are planning to repeat our feat of last summer, when we rode a century (a hundred miles in a day, a test of endurance much like writing a book, but with a much sorer butt. And no, I won't take the wireless email gadget.

Postcards from: