Tuesday, May 17, 2011

One Other Thing About John Wesley Powell

When school teacher and principal John Wesley Powell (1834 – 1902) joined the Union Army at the outset of the Civil War, he did not put aside his deep interest in natural history, particularly geology and paleontology.  Indeed, his self-taught geology formed the basis for his role in the army as a military engineer.  It’s that experience of a natural history amateur being swept into Civil War that first brought Powell into the orbit of my interest.

Last year I read William Darrah’s fine biography of Powell (Powell of the Colorado, 1951) and I am now savoring Wallace Stegner’s more literary account (Beyond the Hundredth Meridian:  John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West, 1954).  I had been building a case for initiating Powell into my pantheon of heroes, but then on Saturday, while hiking on Great Falls’ Billy Goat Trail along the Maryland side of Potomac, I inducted him.  More on precisely why in a moment.

Powell led a life marked by restlessness, both physical and intellectual.  He bounced among three institutions of higher education, completing no degree.  He found employment as a teacher in country schools, teaching himself the math and science he needed.  His desire to learn paleontology and geology prompted a wonderful period of rambling in his early 20s.  His school teaching jobs gave him months of freedom during which he wandered – a walk-about for four months in Wisconsin, a row-boat trip down the Mississippi from the Falls of St. Anthony in Minneapolis to New Orleans, another boat trip from Pittsburgh to St. Louis down the Ohio.

The Civil War precluded any chance of settling down; Powell enlisted in 1861 and saw serious action in the western theater of war.  After the war ended, Powell taught geology at Illinois Wesleyan University and Illinois State Normal University, but he was shortly on the move again.  Indeed, he is perhaps known principally for the several expeditions of exploration he led to the western United States beginning in 1867, and particularly for the one in 1869 when he and a small band of men navigated down the Green River and then the Colorado, traversing the length of the Grand Canyon.  They were the first to do so; a journey of great danger met with great bravery.

Powell is pictured below (later in life), as is the river boat Emma Dean (his wife’s name) with its chair from which he piloted during a subsequent exploration of the Colorado.  The original boat Emma Dean was one of four used in the 1869 descent, but late in the expedition had to be abandoned.  [Both images are from the Library of Congress' collection.  The Powell image at this link, and the wonderful stereoview of the Emma Dean image at this link.  Stereoviews have appeared previously in this blog, most recently in a posting about the dinosaur Hadrosaurus.]

In the latter part of the 19th century, Powell assumed leadership positions in the growing federal scientific community, promoting an active federal role in science.  From 1881 to 1894, he directed the U.S. Geological Survey.  His deep interest in the ethnology of the Native American peoples he encountered during his western exploration culminated in his assumption of the directorship of the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology.

The Brief for Hero Status

What’s in the brief in favor of hero status?  Facing and besting the unknown challenges of the Colorado River in 1869 certainly figure prominently.  That a self-taught geologist could make signal contributions to physical geology, drawn from his analysis of the geology of Colorado Plateau Province, ranks up there.  In that regard, as Wallace Stegner wrote in his Powell biography,
Quite alone, his generalizations about earth movements (with his support of uniformitarianism when it was still widely disputed), about the character of rivers and the forms of earth sculpture and the laws that govern erosion, would more than justify his years of work in the West. (p. 155)
During his years in the Washington scientific community he endured the wrath of forces in Congress and corporate America (read:  the railroads) by speaking forcefully about the inability of much of the land of the west to support the kind of agricultural development in which those forces were invested.  That alone for me is almost enough to make the case for hero status.  Powell denied that “rain follows the plow,” the pseudo-science that undergirded the western development movement.  He countered with conservation, careful land management, and with . . . science.

His Civil War service certainly elevates his status.  Powell came in as a private and left as a lieutenant colonel.  He served as a military engineer, learning this science in the field as he had learned so much else.  He experienced many of the major battles of the West, including Shiloh and Vicksburg.

Oh, one other thing about Powell.  At Shiloh, he was shot in the right arm and Army surgeons amputated it above the elbow.

That loss of an arm is the key to Powell’s induction on Saturday into my pantheon of heroes while I hiked the Billy Goat Trail.  The trail follows the riverside perimeter of Bear Island, part of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park.  Here is the Google Earth view of the general area.

View Larger Map

It well deserves the cautionary note struck by the Park Service on its map of hiking trails at Great Falls, Maryland.
Be prepared for the Billy Goat Trail, Section A.  It is a very Physically [capitalization by Park Service] demanding trail.  If you have doubts about your physical ability to climb over angled rocks and boulders, please consider one of the Park’s less strenuous trails.
Led by a retired geologist, the group of which I was a part was there for the area’s amazing and starkly visible geology (perhaps something on that in a later post).  At times, the Billy Goat Trail takes you on a path that lies between a rock face on one side and the steep drop on the other or it heads straight up the rocks.  The views across the gorge through which the Potomac flows are breathtaking, but so is the sheer drop just off the perch on which you walk or sit.

Let it be said that I came to this hike having deliberately ignored the Park Service’s warnings.  I had some doubts about my ability to handle the hike – heights are not my friends.  But, even worse, problems with the rotator cuff in my left shoulder limit what I can do with that arm.

Though I managed to survive, putting up with some pain and avoiding some precarious spots, I realized very early on that climbing cliffs and scaling rocks are not things for a one-armed man.

And yet there was John Wesley Powell during that 1869 expedition repeatedly climbing the cliffs that led up from the rivers in order to determine altitudes and study the geology.  Stegner noted that the members of his band had little patience for Powell’s scientific activities during the descent and his caution in navigating the rapids.  But,
in spite of his science, they had to admire him.  One-armed, he was as agile on the cliffs as any of them.  He had nerve, . . . .  (Stegner, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, p.71)
Yet, the absent arm nearly spelled his death.  Here’s Stegner on one such episode:
Wanting to know as much as he could about the unexplored land back from the river, Powell took [George] Bradley and climbed up a steep, ledgy wall in blistering sun.  Somewhere on the cliff he made the mistake of jumping from one foothold to another, grabbing a projection of rock with his one hand.  Then found himself ‘rimmed,’ unable to go forward or back. . . .  Below his feet was a hundred-foot drop, a terrace, and then a longer drop.  If he let himself go he might fall clear to the river’s edge.  By now his legs were trembling, his strength beginning to waver.  As a desperation measure Bradley sat down on his ledge and yanked off his long drawers, which he lowered to Powell.  With nice timing, Powell let go the knob, and half falling away from the cliff, grabbed the dangling underwear.”  (p. 72)
Despite this close call (and thank God for long drawers), Powell’s cliff climbing continued for the duration of the 1869 expedition.  My little taste on Saturday of what he dealt with from the inception of the journey at Green River Crossing, Wyoming on May 24 until its end on August 30 was the final piece of evidence that sealed the case.  The man was a hero.

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