Faces of Rivers: Amy S. Martin, Photographer, Grand Canyon
If we are fortunate in this lifetime, we might find a singular place that fills our cup time after time. These are the places that, if we surrender to experiencing them wholly, keep us curious, keep us dreaming and reflexively draw us back.
My story with the Grand Canyon began before my memory can recall. It began in the belly of my six-month pregnant mother who hiked me down to the banks of the Colorado River near Phantom Ranch, where my uncle worked as a backcountry ranger and river guide. Photographs and stories reveal many more trips into the canyon with my mom, dad and sisters, in and out of old external frame backpacks to dip our toes into the Colorado River.
In my early twenties, the canyon drew me back. The one or two novel seasons I thought I would work as a park ranger turned into six. I lived on both rims of the canyon, at inner-canyon ranger stations, on the river, and under the sun and stars in the backcountry. These minutes, days and years spent in the canyon never ceased to reveal beauty, both grand and subtle. This time shared with me the quiet locations of pebble-filled nests of canyon wrens, circular rainbows over the silted river and hidden springs crowded with columbine. It provided the space and foundation to forge close human bonds. It also exposed the true composition of a landscape, encompassing the barren rock, life in all forms, as well as cultural connections, past and current.
After six seasons, I left to work overseas. But returned home after two years away to be with my mom who was battling cancer. Tragically, we lost her soon after on a Thanksgiving morning during which cactus flowers bloomed, out of season, in our yard. Anyone who has experienced the loss of someone they love knows that in the aftermath there is a period of disorientation and grief. I tried to draw strength from who my mom was an unabashed lover of the desert and the wilds — someone who famously fought for its right to be left in its natural state, once placing my sisters and I, as toddlers, in front of a bulldozer to protect the desert outside of our house from being destroyed. She fought for justice, no cause too small, both social and environmental.
Under the weight of losing her, I had trouble moving ahead. Forming thoughts, finding words and sleeping were all heavy labor. I felt agitated and angry at the injustices of the world. I felt a lack of purpose. But during this time, I also had vivid, recurring dreams about the canyon, specifically about the river. I felt the undeniable pull to go back, and luckily I was able to answer these dreams. I picked up work that allowed me to remain down in the canyon for 150 days the following year.
The canyon has a way of distilling down what is important and then encouraging growth from that rediscovered foundation. It gave me the needed space to heal, a space that many times cannot be found in our society which still fails to quiet itself and fully accept and process death, aging, and illness. The canyon lends its solace by laying bare the fundamental truth: We are innately linked to the greater order of the natural world. To me, there is so much that comes with acknowledging this.
Following my mom’s precedence of love of and protection for the desert, I found motivation to work promoting both conservation and environmental justice in the greater Grand Canyon area through the photographic medium that she taught me. I have been back at the canyon ever since, guiding on the river, pursuing biological conservation, and sharing stories with my photography.
Becoming a mother myself last year, I knew that I wanted to share the landscapes of the canyon with my daughter. I wanted to hike her in while she was still physically a part of me, like my mom had done so many years before. I jumped on the chance to work at the bottom of the canyon for a week while I was a few months pregnant. Each day I took time to hike to places that held beautiful memories for me and retold these stories to her. I shared with her the names of the plants and rocks. I baptized our toes in the Colorado River. At night, sheltered in the womb of the canyon walls, we dreamt of the river flowing.
Covid has thwarted many of our planned adventures in the canyon this year, but I vow to continue making the effort to help her explore the wilds as she grows. From my own experience, I know that if we are exposed to nature at a young age when our early innocence thirsts for discovery, we will orient our worldview to incorporate its significance and will carry it with us for a lifetime. As we grow, we then have the foundation to learn the depth of stories intertwined with place, both human and ecological. Importantly, as I learned after the death of my mom, being connected to these places at a young age gives a place to go back to, a familiar space to remember, heal and grow. It gives us sanctuary and respite from the background noise of everyday life. It also makes us realize the fragility of a landscape and question our place in it, which cultivates stewardship and encourages us to become guardians. These are the seeds that will help to protect these places for future generations.
My hopes for my daughter, Sunny, and her generation run parallel with my hopes for the future of Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. Certainly, I hope our generation succeeds in the preservation of the canyon and other wild places in a way that allows for the next generation to experience the silence, the grandeur, the inspiration, the equilibrium, the challenges and the healing that they provide. But, I also hope that their experiences in these places will instill in them the urgency and ethic of stewardship so that the legacy of protection will endure. Specifically and critically, I hope that Sunny and her peers continue to understand and advocate for a holistic approach to conservation of these landscapes. I want the next generation to learn that the geology and ecology is not separate from the cultural history, but each an integral part of the landscape. I want them to come to know that it is not just our experiences within a place that are important and, no matter how powerful our experiences are, they are not above the health and well-being of the landscape itself or the lives and cultures with which they are interwoven. My hopes for the future are that there is a more objective and inclusive approach to conservation, where management is carried out hand in hand with individuals and tribes that currently have and have had a connection to this landscape since time immemorial. I believe the key to enduring stewardship of these landscapes is a collaborative and equitable approach.
The Grand Canyon is a landscape of constant contradictions. It is carved and sculpted by the power of water, but covered by arid desert where water is a commodity. I have lived with the paradox of water in the desert my entire life. You quickly learn wandering arid lands, where there is water, life flourishes. In its absence, competition is high. For plants, animals, humans, it connects us all in our dependence. The demands placed on the springs and seeps by human development threaten life in all forms along the canyon’s corridor. When we divert water from its ancient pathways, we risk the loss of invaluable life, including the vegetated pockets around springs and in hanging gardens that have persevered since the Pleistocene.
Water, in a surrender to gravity, flows downstream in soil, seep, creek, canyon, and river, offering life as it progresses. But waterways also transport both good and evil. If there is a source of contamination in the upper watershed, its toxins will be felt by every being below. We see this with the threat of water contamination from uranium mining on the rims of Grand Canyon that is in danger of permeating the water sources of the Havasupai Tribe.
The Colorado River is the undeniable artery of the southwest, but the side canyons, springs and tributary streams are the vasculature that provide life away from the river corridor and ultimately account for the health of the river itself. If the watershed is not protected, all life in these fragile desert spaces remains in peril.
Ultimately, water in the desert betrays our interdependence to everything else in the ecosystem and exposes the need for stewardship. We, as humans, are not separate from the ecology. John Wesley Powell speaks of these connections in this desert watershed best as “that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community.”
To know a place, to know nature, is to be empowered. There are important places like the Grand Canyon that can hold our captivation for a lifetime. I credit the canyon for distilling down the important things and building who I am now up from my roots. It has provided a physical place to return to time and time again, to regain balance and strength. Exposure to the canyon at a young age gave me a deeper perspective of what landscape truly is, from the stratum of rock to the many layers of human culture, all life tied together through avenues of water. I hope to give the gift to my daughter that my parents gave me, so that it may provide her a place in this lifetime to grow and heal, and so that she can become a steward for the canyon itself and to ensure its legacy for those that come after.
All photos by Amy S. Martin