Sunday, 17 November 2013 12:08

Four Corners: History, Land and People of the Desert Southwest

Written by Jean McGovern-White

Kenneth Brown opens his book like so many desert writers before him, with a rapturous description of an unnamed canyon in Canyonlands, running through the colors of the rainbow and his repertoire of synonyms for "dry" and "rocky." Ho hum. But the book improves considerably from there, exploring the geology, biology, and history of the area in enough detail to be interesting but not so much as to be daunting. He divides the area into quarters, explores the geology and life forms of specific locales at each of the four points of the compass and then returns to the center, managing within this structure to unfold a chronological account of the area's human history as well.

The book is full of lots of cool little details. Brown claims old cowboys described the area as "-10 by 80 range. A steer ... had to have a mount ten feet wide and be able to run at eighty miles an hour to find enough food to survive." If you want to know what constitutes an aphrodisiac for the pinyon jay or how they keep their sinuses from getting clogged up with pine sap, or the scoop on how the sagebrush and pinyon use their chromosomes and DNA to get the leg up on other competing species, this is for you. I was also amazed to find out that tiny tinajas sitting side by side on the same rock ledge have unique, discrete ecologies--tadpoles developing in one and entirely different critters inhabiting the pothole next door.

While the Colorado Plateau is a land of dramatic contrasts, Brown also portrays it as a region where everything is laid bare, out in the open, preserved. Its rock layers are easily seen and traced across hundreds of miles, the landscape is littered with perhaps as many as 250,000 archaeological sites. In the big picture, in the dizzying expanse of geologic time, he argues that it is a place of little change, at least comparatively. Its detailed exposures of rocks enabled American geologists of the nineteenth century to "develop conventions of geologic mapping, as well as theories of mountain building, faulting, folding and erosion that literally turned the field of geology on its head." While in the late sixties, skeptics used those same uniform rock layers to dispute the plate tectonics theory because the Colorado Plateau has been left relatively unaffected by those massive continental changes at work elsewhere: "too far east to be affected by the disturbances that shaped the Basin and Range and too far west to be affected by those that built the Rockies." Current geologic research is focused on patterns of gravity and magnetic anomalies. My eyes had a tendency to glaze over for parts of this discussion, but I did find it interesting that the Colorado Plateau, not the Rockies, is "the highest ground in the west. The average elevation of the Rockies is actually lower than the average of the neighboring Colorado Plateau." It is also less dense than the surrounding areas, seeming to be floating up like a balloon. " 'There is no mystery as to why the region is less dense,' Blank (a geologist) said. 'It's less dense because it's hot. The sixty-four dollar question, however, is what causes it to be hot.' " The discussion that follows seems to suggest that geologic change is in the wind.

Even human history has been gentle, again, comparatively speaking. Brown maintains that the Archaic culture which dominated the region from 5500 B.C. to perhaps 100 A.D. and whose artifacts lie buried only a few inches below the surface, existed in Europe, Asia and Africa as well, but there its remains have been largely obliterated by the sweep of civilization and empire-building. He maintains that the area contains the largest concentrations of archaeological ruins in the world, preserved by aridity, sparse development, and Native American taboos.

If you find the Four Corners region as seductive as I do, the book is worth a read. It's published by Harper Collins. I bought my copy at Navajo National Monument, but it can be ordered from Amazon ( or your local bookstore.

Last modified on Sunday, 17 November 2013 12:15
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