The earliest known evidence of hominid discovery of how to control fire is dated around one million years ago near a fault line in South Africa at Wonderwerk Cave.  I find it interesting that so much human discovery, insight, and innovation has such a close proximity to unstable areas in the Earth’s crust. Instability seems at the heart of expansion, as when fire meets water. Homeostasis becomes obsolete when we emigrate into the unknown.

In the fall of 1979, a mile below the rim of the Grand Canyon and under the starry ribbon of the Milky Way, my college girlfriend and I stood suspended on the Black Bridge.  Its steel cables lazily marked the intersection of fault and river where primal fire meets primal water within the absolute container of Vishnu schist.  The rock precedes complex life on the planet. It precedes the discovery of early man’s control of fire by more than a thousand cycles of that history.

With flashlights off we paused. Unable to see or hear the smooth midnight waters of the Colorado River just beneath us through the night’s closed eye, we were able to feel its relentless surge viscerally. Its power was transmitted through the cool air, the black vault of the cliffs, the steel twig of bridge under our boots.

Suddenly, in the deepening silence, we simultaneously felt a disturbance.  It was anticipatory, like pre-dawn, but it was hours before daybreak.  We touched hands in acknowledgment of the enigma, yet perhaps more out of fear of the unknown.  Our heads tilted up, piqued by a strange call to discern the source of this uncertainty.  Then we saw it.

A soft glow was catching the highest cliffs above us as they receded into the night sky on the north side of the canyon.  Slowly, the entire north wall became illuminated as the mysterious cool wash tipped downward descending as gently as falling snow.  The luminous curtain’s edge met the bridge, then sipped from the river. We turned around under the summons of some ancient instruction to see the seraph of a full moon leap weightless off the ragged edge of the South Rim just behind us, spilling its limitless grace into the onyx grail of the Inner Gorge.

The Vishnu schist caught fire as if a great swarm of fire flies had come to feed on its dense nectar.  The inrush of awe was staggering and as we gasped, we leaned against the steel railing of the bridge for balance.  I do not know how long we remained transfixed under the spell of mystical experience emitting from simple matter, but eventually we became conscious of our breath and our bodies.

We turned back around to peer over the rail and admire our shadows cast side by side like two anthems written by the moon onto the score of the river.  We never spoke.

This occurred in an environment not only devoid of sound – no wind or churn of rapids – but of something greater than silence. Amplified silence.

The immensity of the Grand Canyon seems to amplify what precedes thought, speech, imagination.  Its unquantifiable emptiness has the power to transport one back to before even the dreaming of language to a state of utter instability – of creation.  The experience can be one of deep listening to a silence that originated before consciousness, before self, before archetype.

When I begin to become too familiar with life, when stagnation pricks me awake, I deliver myself to the Grand Canyon, entering it open as dry tinder to the flame of possibility.  I return because I am remade every time. I must, and will, lose something there in the acquiring of something new. Not just to connect with my ancestor’s control of fire, but to be discovered by primordial stone and water as fire itself, as they strike against each other in my psyche.

For from communion with creation at the bedrock of the beginning of time comes creativity.  To allow language to be dreamed alive through me is the ultimate gift I can give myself as a writer.   In the Grand Canyon I never know what chemistry of earth, sky, river, imagination, or physical exertion will ignite me as they work on my soul.  I just trust that they will, as they always have.

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