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How the Grand Canyon went from 'valueless' to national treasure

Yolanda Youngs, author of “Framing Nature: The Creation of an American Icon at the Grand Canyon”
University of Nebraska Press, Yolanda Youngs
Yolanda Youngs, author of “Framing Nature: The Creation of an American Icon at the Grand Canyon”

The Grand Canyon is much more than a place. It is an icon, an idea that’s woven into the fabric of American identity. And, our next guest analyzed hundreds of images of it to explore what that icon means.

Yolonda Youngs is the author of the new book “Framing Nature: The Creation of an American Icon at the Grand Canyon,” out earlier this month. In it, she looks at maps, artifacts, postcards, photographs and more to find out how visual interpretations of the Grand Canyon have shaped the American West.

But there was a time when people viewed it as “valueless.” The Show spoke with Youngs more about it.

Full convesation

YOLANDA YOUNGS: There was a time when the Grand Canyon was considered valueless, — and that is more of a reference to ideas in the late 19th early 20th century that places that could not be harvested for timber resources or mineral resources or all-important agriculture and farming, those were just valueless places. And so the Grand Canyon, it was obviously arid, it’s high desert, water’s difficult to get to in the desert, and it’s a tough place to farm.

And the turning point that happens is this movement across the country but particularly centered around the national parks movement that value might come from the scenic and perhaps even sort of the spiritual or intellectual merits of a place. So (Henry David) Thoreau and certainly the early National Park Service director Stephen Mather really encouraged thinking about these places as places that need to be protected and the had great value because of their beauty.

LAUREN GILGER: So coming from a place in which the Grand Canyon was considered valueless in this way, and then looking at the way we see it today, there’s quite a gap there. And I don’t think we can understate how value-full, I guess, we see the Grand Canyon today, right? It is iconic in so many ways. And you’re tracking that kind of a metamorphosis in this book.

You do this through a variety of things. You have illustrations and postcards, film, maps, much more. So tell us, what are some of the earliest images or imagery that you found of the Grand Canyon?

YOUNGS: The book is full of imagery because, as you’re saying, that’s part of my tracing of these changing ideas about the canyon is looking at it visually and, very important as well, spatially. So there’s over 140 photographs, illustrations and maps in the book.

And some of the earliest work. I trace it back to early Anglo and European exploration of the region. And if we go back, as I did — I looked at maps from say the Dominguez and Escalante exploration of 1776 and some of those earlier maps. There’s not a lot on that page, quite frankly. You know, there were some attempts to find the canyon and to explore it in a certain extent, but really not much until we get to sort of that era, in the 1860s and ’70s of river exploration.

And so this is part of what I found intriguing is that early views, if you will, a lot of these are like woodblock prints and sometimes became sketches or paintings. Thomas Moran’s there’s a great woodblock print called “Noon Day Rest in Marble Canyon,” and the view is absolutely at the river level, looking up into the incredible expanse of the Grand Canyon.

But that look of the river looking up is quite different from that rimside view, which is what I found in the hundreds of images I went through. I went through more than a thousand images for this book, for the data. So it was kind of interesting to see the early views were very much on the river, and then it started to shift up to the rim.

GILGER: You’ve talked about the Grand Canyon as two things, right? Like at the same time, a real place as well as an abstraction. And there are a lot of layers to that. But tell us, first of all, what do you mean by that? Like, how is it both of these things and in what ways is it an abstraction?

YOUNGS: Part of that abstract idea is the parts of the Grand Canyon that shape what geographers and some scholars call our popular idea of the Grand Canyon. And that is something that derives from imagery and from descriptions and oftentimes things that we have seen or read that other people have recorded.

Many of your listeners have probably been to the Grand Canyon. I’m sure most of them have seen some sort of image of the Grand Canyon. But if you close your eyes, even if you haven’t been to the Grand Canyon, you have an idea of what it looks like.

When I started to write this book, I would ask people, “Have you been to the Grand Canyon? What did you do there? OK, if you haven’t been to it, what have you seen of it?”

And very frequently people would say, “If I close my eyes and think about it, I see the canyon. I’m standing on the rim. I’m looking across. There’s this vast horizon. I could see the big blue sky, and then I can see this really deep canyon in front of me.” And that comes from experience, that comes from images we’ve seen. But it also comes from the thousands and thousands of images over 100-plus years that have shown us very specific places in the canyon and very specific views.

GILGER: Let me ask you lastly, Yolanda, about sort of the the myths that this all contributes to. As you’re saying, if the Grand Canyon is this abstract idea as much as it is a real place in kind of American mythology and Western mythology, do you think that’s a good thing? Or how do you see its role?

YOUNGS: It is a place that is outsized. In many ways. It is an icon. but it is so incredibly influential in terms of environmental management and policy ideas, not just for the park or even for that region, but nationally extensive. And it kind of connects to a couple of my big takeaways from the book: That thinking about the Grand Canyon, we need to consider place. Place is very important here.

To think about an environmentally sustainable and climate resilient future for the Canyon relies on understanding it in a regional context. Understanding it has incredibly rich biodiversity. It’s a multicultural place and has been for a long time. It is a place that experiences climate regimes that we need to appreciate as well, especially as we move forward.

And importantly, it’s a place that we can look to to think about things like water resources as we move through our climate future. So you know how we see the Grand Canyon is really important to how we perceive it, what we use of it, and our expectations about it. And those things translate into decisions. Those could be policy decisions. Those could be the ways we decide to go and visit the Grand Canyon or use it. Or even if we don’t see the Grand Canyon, it’s important to think about what this icon of American landscape might mean to us.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text is edited for length and clarity, and may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.
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