Zion: on the cusp of transitions

We’re deep into summer and the winter wonderland photos below might be a bit jarring for those living in the Northern Hemisphere. But this post about a trip to Zion National Park is ready to go out into the world. It’s long overdue. Travel is often my inspiration for blog posts. This past year led me to a lot of closer-to-home discoveries in the natural world – but, also, the lack of motivation to write, as we have all struggled to sort out life in a new version of this dystopian world. But here it is: my first visit to Zion.

I love that my first memories of Zion National Park will always be shrouded in an icy haze. Arriving in a new place after dark – whether it’s a rainforest, a bustling South American city, or a natural cathedral carved through the desert over millions of years – always leaves me disoriented. And then it snowed through the night, covering roads and painting still-bare trees in white. The world felt pillow-soft as I stepped out of my cabin. I walked across the grounds of the lodge, and the fog shifted to give me my first glimpse of a canyon wall. I had no idea how far these walls rose up, but I could feel the ones I couldn’t see – in the stillness, and in that sense of being enclosed and protected.

It was just before 8am and people were beginning to stir. A group of three young women emerged from another cabin gasping in surprise as they reach for their phones. I walked past the main lodge to the trail that runs along the road. I crossed under some low-hanging snow-weighted branches to access the trail and felt like I had passed a veil into a magic kingdom. Red canyon walls starting to emerge from the mist reminded me of citadels on some alien planet in a sci-fi novel.

Waking up in a new place can be like a jumpstart to your senses. When those jumper cables connect, you start to buzz. Neuroscience now tells us that these types of experiences help add grey matter to the brain. Maybe that’s the stuff that keeps us going and keeps us young when we start accumulating years. I hope it is, anyway.

Think about the last time you felt wonder at the sight of the world outside your door. Maybe you’re one of those people who is able to feel this every day – in the icicle that forms on a pine cone, or the mist that rises from the road when the sun peaks out from winter clouds. But it’s not the same as finding yourself someplace new. That feeling is especially strong when you suddenly find that 12 months have passed and you have not eaten in a restaurant, gone to a movie theatre, or even had a cozy conversation with a friend at the kitchen table.

Time races beneath your feet like that creek that’s frothy with springtime snowmelt. I think most of us hope to live a life that lets us stop and play in the eddies that circle along meandering banks. Travel helps me do that. But sometimes, when the water rises and the eddies vanish, you find yourself just trying to balance on the cobblestones that dot the river – trying to keep your loved ones in sight near the banks. Or just trying to stay dry and not sprain your ankle. That requires your full concentration.

I stepped out of my cabin into a snowy Zion nearly 12 months to the day after stepping back from the world in March 2020, at the start of my pandemic year. One year in pandemic time feels like ten years, but it is still only a scratch on the surface of millions of years of layered rocks that make Zion what it is.

I tried to hold this in mind as I walked across these layers. It’s not hard to imagine what it used to be – a vast sea of sand dunes. Despite the snow, and the fact that it’s mid-March, the canyon is buzzing with people after 9am. We forego the infamous Angel’s Landing hike across a ridge with 1000 foot drop-offs and hordes of unmasked people so that we can hike in peace in a less dramatic part of the park, but one that lets me feel deep time beneath my feet. The direction of the angled layers of rock criss-crossing the landscape suggest that the prevailing wind 250 million or so years ago was from the north. But that’s our north, today. I know that North America was tilted about 90 degrees to the right 250 million years ago, straddling the Equator. So I imagine these winds could have been northeast trades, traversing thousands of miles of dry, hot earth in the Permian, when all of the continents formed one large landmass that stretched 20 thousand kilometers from the South to the North Pole.

One of the cool things about being a paleoclimate scientist as well as a meteorologist is that I can imagine the world under very different conditions – with continents rotated on their sides, or partially underwater. I can imagine how this might shift in the jet stream – the river of air in our upper atmosphere that plays a large roll in steering storms. The jet stream exists because warm Equatorial air is moving northward and gets deflected by Earth’s rotation. But the position of the continents plays a large role in where the jet stream ends up. Though millions and millions of years, Earth’s continents have shifted, spreading apart and colliding, transforming oceans to mountains and crumbling mountains to dust. All of this affects where our storms will travel. And through it all, our world is in constant transformation – some of these changes are slow and patient, some arrive like a clap of thunder.

Visiting Zion on the cusp of spring, I feel like we’re moving through one of these more rapid transitions – a shift toward sunshine and warmth – despite the snow. I see trees primed with tiny swelling at the tips of their branches where leaves will burst forth in a few weeks. Short blades of pale green grass line the bank of the Virgin River, winding through the canyon.

What’s happening in Zion is a microcosm of a global transition on a bigger, longer timescale. A transition to a world with mega-droughts and mega-storms brought on by shifts in the jet stream caused by changes in atmospheric chemistry, not shifting continents. I hear people say that world (really, our human civilization) will never be the same as it was before 2020. Of course, they are referring to the pandemic. But the fact is, this transition began decades ago. More than a century ago, actually, when fossil fuels changed everything about how we live.

Sure, the world has undergone global shifts before – dramatic warming and cooling that would make the surface of the planet nearly unrecognizable to us. But shifts on geologic timescales are generally slow. We have changed the face of the globe in the course of a single human lifetime. My lifetime.

As I have written in other posts, we have power, intellect, and (hopefully some) compassion to repair some of the damage. We will not be able to return Earth to what it was 100 years ago. That’s impossible, and I’m still coming to terms with that. But there are so many things we can do to make our civilization sustainable. At this point in our planetary evolution, it’s time for us to step up as stewards of this world. Nature cannot react quickly enough to the changes we have made. Ongoing, sustainably directed, transformation is the only way to repair the world.

The experience of half a century on this planet somedays leaves me feeling tired. But in many other ways, I’ve never felt so good, so excited to be alive, so much myself. I think we are all, along with this planet, evolving to become something that most closely aligns with our true essence. If you had seen Zion 250 million years ago, you would not have imagined the splendor of a snowing morning at the base of the canyon. Sometimes, moving forward, leaving the past behind, is the only way to get at the best of what we all are.

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