Imagine you just moved to a new city. Maybe you got a new job, or perhaps you just needed a fresh start. You are brand new to the area and all that surrounds you is unfamiliar. This new city and its buildings, parks, roads, and people are a neutral space, lacking value and definition. It will take weeks, months, and even years of living here for you to gain familiarity with these surroundings. In the process, the “space” that surrounds you will gradually, but inexorably, transition into a “place.” Knowledge adds value. Fast forward a year, and the corner store a block from your house is no longer just another façade, but a familiar place where you like to stop for a cold beverage after work and have a chat with your friend Charlie who works behind the counter. As you continue to live in a place, your knowledge of its features and inhabitants will grow; your roots will grow deeper as your connection to it is bolstered by the lessons that it has taught you, which become assimilated into your worldview and ingrained into your habits. After years of occupying the same place, you will eventually develop a familiarity and love for it that motivates you to make it better, to give back to this place which has given you so much, because you are a part of it and it is a part of you.
In a similar fashion, scientific knowledge about our environment – about its geologic history, ecosystems past and present, and the hydrologic networks that shape and sustain it – not only teaches us how to better manage our occupation of this “space,” but also aids in the establishment of the Earth as a “place” in our minds and in our hearts. This may have been part of what Powell was intimating when he described the canyons of the Colorado River basin as “… a book of revelations in the rock-leaved Bible of geology.” There is no better place than the Colorado River basin (and in my experience, the Uinta basin) to look millions of years of geologic history in the eyes, while also witnessing a snapshot of this procession frozen in time. Not only does it provide a wonderful canvas for the imagination to paint pictures of past oceans transgressing and regressing, strange organisms evolving and going extinct, and landscapes shifting under the influences of tectonics and erosion, but it also sets a great stage for pronghorn antelope, lazuli buntings, and sandhill cranes to put on a show amidst the regal cottonwood trees. It provides a refuge for hundreds of migratory bird species and a home to the endangered Colorado Pikeminnow. At the heart of it all is the Green River, ever-present and ever-changing. Juxtaposed onto this scene are some human additions – lumbering pump-jacks summoning oil from the bowels of the earth, center-pivot irrigation systems which magically enable alfalfa to grow in the desert, and a cadre of six inflatable rafts carrying scientists and adventurers in John Wesley Powell’s paddle-strokes.
150 years ago, John Wesley Powell set in motion the process of accumulating knowledge on this region of the arid West. Today, as we emulate Powell’s journeys, it would be prudent of us to reflect upon what our current relationship with this place is, both in terms of knowledge and connectivity. Since Powell’s time, the Colorado River basin has seen many changes. The U.S. Geological Survey has been collecting hydrologic data here for over 100 years, recording some of these changes. We have accumulated a lot of knowledge and devised ingenuous ways to use this knowledge to our benefit and the land’s benefit, but do we see this environment through the lens of “place” or “space?” It is my hope that we can all become more excited about science as a means to not only inform policies, regulations, and best management practices, but also as a way of developing a deeper connection to a place and engendering a sense of stewardship toward it. Through honoring John Wesley Powell’s legacy, we can enable people across the country to appreciate the Colorado River basin as a place with value. Because, after all, there’s most likely a little bit of Colorado River water in all of us.