The Man of Two Canyons
I grew up in a moderate sized WASP-ish community southeast of Buffalo,
NY. I never really felt at 'home' there unless I was in the woods, in
the creek, or out in the meadows. My parents had a hard time getting me
in the house; I preferred the strawbale fort, the tree house, even the
igloos I made. I would drag my sleeping bag outside and sleep on the
lawn, gazing at the stars and watch the stories of the constellations. I
skipped school, even as a teenager, to skate the frozen pond in the
back or explore the nearby large creek. I was a nerd and wall flower in
school, preferring to read and write instead of do the social clicky
things with my classmates. I 'escaped' shortly after graduating from
high school. And returned 42 years later; this summer.
My favorite memories of growing up were our family vacations to the
Adirondacks, the Finger Lakes, Alleghany mountains, and the various
parks. One of my favorites, as well as my Dad's, was Letchworth State
Park. Decades later, both my Dad and sister would return to live nearby,
preferring rural life to the urban sprawl. And this is where I have
spent my summer.
An earlier post depicted Letchworth Park, but it does little to truly
describe the landscape. And barely touches on the cultural history other
than mentioning the Seneca Nation connection. Ironically, I was to
learn this summer that this area was an influence on another person, one
who shared my love for the natural history and life both here and in
In 1834, John Wesley Powell was born in the village of Mount Morris.
Anyone familiar with Utah and Arizona landscape and history will
recognize the name. Powell's most famous mark on history is as leader of
the expedition that explored and charted the Green and Colorado Rivers,
and the Grand Canyon. Powell was also later to become the second
director of the US Geological Survey, professor of geology at Illinois
Wesleyan University and Illinois State University, as well as director
of several several major scientific institutions (e.g. the Smithsonian,
etc). Perhaps where he was born and spent the first years of his life
was a lasting influence on his career interests and path.
The fourth of nine children, John was born when many town and villages
were beginning to grow and prosper. It was also a time when outside
influences were pushing their fingers into local communities, such as
religious, social and political entities. European immigrants were
flooding ports of entry and testing the 'land waters', so to speak. It
was more common for immigrants to be migrants than to land on one
specific location and plant their roots. The 'new' Americans usually
moved from settlement to village and on, changing their locations
sometimes every couple of years. The Powells were no exception to this.
The decades leading to the onset of the Civil War were long brewing with
conflicting ideals and morals before they came to a head. Joseph, a
poor Methodist clergyman, and his wife, Mary, had emigrated to America
from England in 1830. Joseph joined the anti-slavery movement after
immigrating, partly through the influence of John Wesley, a founder of
Methodism. Like many Methodists, Joseph was an Abolitionist and joined
the Liberty party.
Joseph Powell supervised the construction of the Methodist Church in
Mount Morris, and the family lived in the parsonage next door. Although
the church has since been replaced with a more modern structure, the
parsonage is still standing and now serves as a residence, and
sandwiched between two churches (the Methodist church is in the
Interestingly, there are five churches forming a tight cluster in
this neighborhood (the street is named Chapel Street for a reason). One
is characteristic of the early 1900's: wood clapboard siding and single
steeple. Another is very distinctive and reminiscent of southwest
architectural influence (see below). You can guess which structure I
Because of Reverend Joseph's profession as a clergyman, the family moved
often. The slavery issues prompted Joseph Powell to leave the
Methodist Episcopal Church and became an ordained minister for the
Wesleyan Methodist Church. His vigorous stand against slavery was met
with hostility by many of the townspeople. For both of these reasons,
the family left Mount Morris and moved to Castile, a small community on
the eastern shore of Silver Lake, and across the lake from where I sit
at this moment typing this.
Joseph and Mary had another son, William Bramwell Powell, who made his
own mark in history as a prominent teacher and also a member of several
scientific and social science institutions. William was an ardent
supporter of enabling education to all children and incorporating the
fundamentals of education as a learning experience rather than dictated.
Joseph and Mary Powell had an enormous impact on their children and
their pursuits throughout their lives. According to one obituary, Joseph
"had a strong will, deep earnestness, and indomitable courage, while
his wife, Mary Dean, with similar traits possessed also remarkable tact
and practicality. Both were English born, the mother well educated, and
were always leaders in the social and educational life of every
community where they dwelt. Both were intensely American in their love
and admiration of the civil institutions of the United States and both
were strenuously opposed to slavery, which was flourishing in America
when they arrived in 1830."
Because of their strong view, the Powell family experienced persecution
and community ridicule. Joseph was known to "stand on the steps of the
courthouse and denounce the slave owners, in the midst of a community
full of southern sympathizers." On the other hand, Joseph was also an
avid naturalist, teaching his sons about known science of the natural
world, how to be keen observers, and passed along a restlessness that
stayed with John Powell throughout his years.
Landscapes such as the immense Genesee River gorge and the lakes in
their backyards may have had a lasting impression upon the Powell
brothers. However, in addition to the landscapes where John grew up, was
the strong influence of his parents' naturalism. Historian Curtis
Hinsley explains, " I would say that the key formative influence on
Powell is the inheritance of natural theology from his father and his
mother, both; the belief that the study of the natural world is a way of
studying God, of studying God's creation; and thereby seeing the face
of God. I think in his later life this element is subdued, it is muted,
but that the face of God is always an element in Powell's science, that
he inherits this from his Methodist childhood and he carries it with
him, although he must put it in new form, in order to distinguish
himself from his father and his father's beliefs, or behaviors, and
separate himself from that, but at the same time, carry that on. I
believe that it is that inheritance, that legacy of natural theology
that is most important in Powell."
His family moved again, to Ohio, Wisconsin and then Illinois. Throughout
John Wesley Powell's childhood, he was more comfortable out in nature
exploring the landscapes, collecting plants and creatures, observing and
learning the natural sciences. Later, he would spend three months
hiking around Wisconsin. He also retained an avid interest and love of
rivers. He rowed up and down the Ohio, Illinois and Mississippi Rivers,
which precipitated his ultimate adventure on the Green and Colorado
After the Civil War, in which he lost his arm, Powell lead the first
expedition to travel by boat down the Green and Colorado Rivers. In
1869, he and ten men navigate these rivers and through the Grand Canyon
for three months. He repeated the expedition in 1871–1872 with resulting
maps and papers, including a book which he authored about his
After several bouts of ill health, John moved to his summer home in
Haven, Maine, with his wife and daughter. There he died on September 23,
1902, of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was only 68 years old, and nearly
Tomorrow is the 111th anniversary of his death.
Many are familiar with Lake Powell, and other landmarks named after him. But to many, including myself, his legacy is this:
"We've got to be responsive to places, we've got to know them and know
them well. That, I think is the most important of Powell's legacies.
But, also I think he had a sense that, again very relevant today, that
the way in which we build on the land and settle the place has
consequences for our institutions."
Like John Powell, the natural landscapes have formed and still form who I
am, also influencing my my career path as a biologist. And like
Powell's restless nature, I too, love to explore them as much as I can.
Especially on a motorcycle.