Nature rarer uses yellow: Snapshots from Antelope Canyon

Words and Pictures by Daniel Stephensen

We have driven from a town called Page to Antelope Canyon and the day before us is clear and divine. It is not yet cold. We are in Navajo Nation. As we drive down to the car park, up on the ridge behind us sits the Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant. A useful blight. We trail a cloud of fine and pale dust. There are in fact two canyons here, both slot canyons, Lower and Upper Antelope, one you climb down into, the other you drive to on the back of a truck bumping and bumping along.

This is arid country, but each summer brings a monsoon and the canyons here were formed and eroded and continue to be shaped by monsoonal flash flooding. From the surface they are rocky cuts. The floodwaters can come from a long way upstream, falling in thunderstorms before rushing down an ephemeral watercourse and channelling through the cramped canyons. Inside the canyons the water rises fast. Our guide tells of a time he was caught in the lower canyon during a flood and in a desperate panic climbed barehanded up the walls to escape. In his telling, I can hear the bewilderment of one who has experienced a miracle. Inside the canyon the temperature is cooler. Its walls are cold. The sandstone feels alive and strong and ancient.

The stone here is a Jurassic bedrock called Navajo Sandstone. It has accumulated in windblown layers, the fine sand deposited by wind and settled into layers by rain. It strengthens over time through massive compression.

Floodwater cast into the canyons smooths and grinds their walls into waves and peaks, huge sculptural forms. I see sinew, muscles, faces.

And look!—Sunlight slips into the canyon, and now the walls shadow and shape, shading yellow and lilac and pink as though we are watching a secret rehearsal for sunset.

Nature rarer uses yellow
Than another hue;

Saves she all of that for sunsets,—
Prodigal of blue,

 Spending scarlet like a woman,
Yellow she affords
Only scantly and selectly,
Like a lover’s words.

—Emily Dickinson



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