Driving south from Salt Lake City, I found it hard to believe that we were en route to a celebratory vacation. The landscape surrounding us looked like any other commercial strip-mall, except that it was situated in a very harsh — almost bleak — semi-arid desert terrain. To my surprise, and — I might say, great relief — it was not long thereafter that the scenery underwent a tremendous change — some might say a phase transition. Indeed, I was not disappointed. Awestruck, we found ourself face-to-face with the rising sandstone cliffs of the Capitol Reef. The only comparable vista that I have ever seen is at the site of Petra, in the land of Jordan. However, the Capitol Reef is not only much vaster — extending over a hundred miles; unlike Petra — where Man had a major role in carving out its topology and architecture — the Capitol Reef owes its unique landscape and incredible array of multi-colored sandstone canyons, castles, pinnacles, and buttes — some of them reaching right up to the sky — to Nature’s rich endowment of evolutionary forces. Here, over eons, the rain, the snow, the sun, and wind have converged, employing all of their might to render a grandiose and unforgettable landscape.
Resembling all too closely a stage set from a Pixar film, the Capitol Reef’s natural landscape appeared at first to be unreal — simulacra, so to speak.
Resembling all too closely a stage set from a Pixar film, the Capitol Reef’s natural landscape appeared at first to be unreal — simulacra, so to speak. It is only when we explored the area on foot that we were able to get a real feel for the extent of life and movement around us. For example, we followed the path of a wash through winding canyons, where new delights emerged from around every bend. Making our way along this trail, we experienced the secrets of the place unfolding before our very eyes. Each historical epoch — dating back as far as 250 million years — was revealed to us in the distinct colors and layers of the rock formations, the rare remnants of petrified wood, fossils embedded in the canyon floor, and the deposits of mammoth rocks that Nature had imported from afar. Just as in a library or archive, the record was open and there for all those inclined to see.
instead of the essence of human nature, nature’s libraries unveil the mystery of the evolutionary process itself.
Libraries have existed for centuries, archiving and documenting the history of mankind. Browsing through their stacks, turning over the pages of their voluminous books, we get a sense of human nature as a whole, not just a snapshot of the myriad, individual parts. Exploring Nature’s repositories, such as the Capitol Reef, provides much the same kind of experience. However, instead of revealing the essence of human nature, nature’s libraries unveil the mystery of the evolutionary process itself.
Recognizing their value, nearly all communities are willing to provide public support for libraries that preserve materials written by human beings. Unfortunately, in the case of Nature’s libraries, the opposite may be true.Â Although Capitol Reef is protected by Federal Law, there are many exquisite landscapes that are not. One need only consider the situation in Southern Utah where all too often we saw drilling pads, clear cut logging, desert-destroying off road vehicle trails, and just plain vandalism. It’s all documented in Edward Abbey’s classic account The Monkey Wrench Gang as well as in the more recent, equally eloquent writings of Terry Tempest Williams.