9.22.2013,2:01 PM
The Man of Two Canyons
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 the West.

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 background).

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 prefer.....

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 Rivers.

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 adventures.

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 penniless.

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.

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posted by Macrobe
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