Crossing Boundaries, Part One by Steven L. Peck

Steve and friend heading out

Every year an old friend and I undertake an adventure. H. and I are middle-aged now. Past our prime and youth when our adventures were bolder and more carefree. I can remember when we then, full of laughter, took his new pickup and rubbed its shiny sides against aspens for luck while searching out some secreted beaver dam in which to toss a fly. Now we fuss and fret. We worry endlessly about our kids and their kids and temper our exuberance with caution, having faced too many sorrows and misfortunes since. We are stressed and plagued with the press of the day to day, and we both in demeanor have that worn edge that cheese graters achieve when used on granite.

But once a year we become eighteen again. We plan a day and fashion ourselves into grand explorers and take to the environs of our youth. His wife drops us off on a dirt road. In pictures she took, we cut a pair of comical figures. Camelbacks, pants, and trekking poles make us look like a pair of amateur bird watchers more suited to a stroll along a paved parkway than two bold men (in our minds at least) out for rugged adventure. In one of the pictures, one of us points to the desert. It is a hint that today we are not taking to common trails.

We are making for a deep valley. On Google Earth it runs like a scar from a plateau that skirts the La Sal Mountains, to the Moab Valley. There are no roads or trails that access that Valley, only dim memories of my friend and the secret knowledge, rumor, and arrogance that tiptoes through Moab natives, and makes us think that there is a hidden slot canyon that runs to that willow-lined Shangri-La. We will try to find it. To do so we will cross many boundaries, roads, geological formations, and transitions in soil and vegetation.

In ecology, boundaries, or ecotones as they are called, are often marked by physical transitions. Sometimes abrupt: as in water to land, or rock to earth. Sometimes they are more gradual: as in chemical gradients in soil, or as in elevational changes as you move up a mountain. There are lots of examples: forest to grass lands, coral reef to open sea. There are also landscape-level changes like that from desert to Sahel. In Hawaii there is a transition zone from rain forest, near the Kilauea Volcano crater, to the Ka’Å« Desert where it rains only very infrequently. This transition zone is only a few hundred yards wide. Ecological boundaries are always boundaries €˜for something.’ Something specific. For a snake, a freeway may be an impassible boundary that for a bird treats as nothing at all. But whatever it is, it usually involves bringing in the perceptual awareness of €˜someone’ marking the boarder. Borders can have very well-defined areas, like the trout locked into a stream from which it cannot move, or bears that have fuzzy territories, marked by their awareness of the presence and signs of other bears.

Ecological systems are also complex and this complexity grows as new layers of complexity fold into, and blossom from, other layers. Life expands in evolutionary time to fill new niches and, in so doing, creates new niches. For example, as plants left the oceans onto a barren world of land they created a new level of complexity of habitats, that were soon exploited by insects, which in turn created more complexity allowing vertebrates, then birds, then mammals, then us (our physical form anyway), to enter into these complex dances as natural selection explored these spaces of possible life-types in creative ways. These new niches in turn allowed more complexity to arise and more niches to unfold into the world. Boundaries are created in this process and they are always both temporal and spatial in nature. These things come to mind as we prepare to launch ourselves into the landscape. A patchwork of such boundaries.

We abandon the road and take to navigating through, around, and between the Navajo sandstone fins that slice through the high-canyon desert as we try to make our way to the valley. We are careful not to damage the cryptogrammic soil, wending our way through the frozen dunes fashioned from late Triassic river delta deposits. We wander for a couple of hours, weaving between this rock formation and that, until at last we find ourselves on the precipice of a great cliff. Thousands of feet below us, we see the wide stream of the creek bed lined with ancient cottonwoods. Our objective.

A wind blows hard and cool and we step cautiously away from the edge. There is no obvious way down there. We see several slot canyons entering the wide ravine below, but everything looks as if it ends too far up from the valley floor. We sit down and eat some apples. We realize if we hike about a quarter of a mile forward, we will be on a higher rill from which we may see more of the valley. So we climb up that steep redrock and see hope. There to our left (I cannot give ordinal directions as we are without either GPS or compass €”being from Moab we are gifted with a sixth sense) is a slot canyon that may work. It is a slice in the rock like the narrow gouge of a sawcut in a pine plank (on Google Earth you cannot even see it from above €”it looks like a small grove in the landscape). Actually there are two canyons side by side. Either one looks like it will get us into the valley.

€œWe should have brought field glasses, € H. says.

I nod. I think it will work. To get to the place where the narrow canyon begins requires another half-mile scramble but we find it and start down. It is steep and soon we are in deep shadow as we scramble over the debris and push our way through patches of sometimes-thick holly. The grade grows steeper. We decide on some stopping rules. One danger in these canyons is you scramble down something you can’t get back up, and then after come to a drop you cannot get down. You are stuck between drops. You get rescued or die. We decide that if we reach something we are not sure we can get back up, we stop. Ok?

We are crossing into a new ecological zone as we enter into the canyon. I think about the deep time that has structured this new assemblage of plants and animals. And how this canyon marks out something new. I recall that ecological boundaries also always have historical contingency. They exist because certain features have unfolded in the ways that they have in time because of physical processes, or additional ecological complexity. This historical contingency also means that each ecosystem is unique in ways that is not duplicated. They exist for a time, emerging on the stage or Earth life for a moment (perhaps a geological moment), never to be duplicated exactly or repeated. This canyon is such a moment €”marked out of deep time.

We’ve gone a long ways down. Thousands of feet of rock rise above us. Although it is mid-dayish it is dusky and dark. We’ve been scrambling down a while when we reach our first decision point. A large boulder has fallen into the crack we are lumbering down. It is wedged in the slot. There is a small hole that will take us under it, and a rocky scramble above. I crawl forward over the boulder, edge along a sandy shelf, and find myself rock-bound. It’s only about a twelve-foot drop, but I can tell if we go down here we can’t get back up. The sandstone is crumbly and we may have transitioned to Kayenta Formation, much less stable. I try to make my way along a ledge that looks like a possible descent. But I don’t see one. H. wants to look and I back up to where he is and he edges forward. He thinks it looks like he can get down, but I argue that we can’t get back up, it’s too loose. I am the more faint-hearted and skittish and talk him out of trying. Also, when we thought it would be easy, we both foolishly threw our trekking poles down there. We back away and look at the little hole that leads under the boulder. Could we fit through that? Not likely.

To read Part Two, click here.

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