Amy S. Martin

THE LAST REMAINING LEAVES on the Fremont cottonwood hold the sun as it slips through a notch in the Grand Canyon’s southern wall. Trunks and limbs, near-naked in the chill of late afternoon, lay shadows across the footbridge and onto the assorted stones that line Bright Angel Creek. Even in the long light, these stones are boundless in color and form, collected from every geologic layer above. Water and time have reduced the facades of limestone, sandstone, shale and schist to boulder, cobble, sand and silt, all eventually settling in the cradle of the creek bed. The entire scene, from pebble to panorama, asserts nature’s artistry as creator and destroyer. There is no resisting entropy.

I have always loved this creek. I grew up listening to stories of the 16-pound rainbow trout my dad caught out of its shallow pools before I was born. I memorized dog-eared photographs of my sister and me leaning against the cottonwoods after my parents stuffed us into old external-frame packs and hiked us down the Kaibab Trail to Phantom Ranch. Years later, the creek was my office for hundreds of days while I worked, knee-deep, in fisheries conservation. For three searing summers, I lived on the creek’s bank as a backcountry ranger, the perennial waters providing a welcome haven to every living being within miles. It is a place of refuge, as is all of the Grand Canyon. I keep coming back, reflexively, to reground and rebuild, to secure my soles on the earth and allow my head to idle among the bluffs.

I keep coming back, reflexively, to reground and rebuild, to secure my soles on the earth and allow my head to idle among the bluffs.

Here again, running my hand through the gray-green arrowweed that crowds the creek’s meanders, I come as a seeker of balance after the self-transformation in becoming a mother, followed closely by the paralyzing exile of the pandemic. This is the longest that I have been away from the Canyon in 10 years. And those years mark a significant decade, bookended on the front by the loss of a mother and on the end by the birth of a daughter. In between, the Canyon lent its sanctuary. After my mom’s death, I worked, rowed the river and fished with my dad for hundreds of days below the rim. My mom introduced me when I was in her belly, and her death pulled me back. I leaned in. The Canyon distills all down, then grants the space to build back, layer by layer. We leave with deeper and wider roots, senses refined. 

In these last minutes of 2020, bundled in my mom’s old sweater, tea in hand, I settle into the damp winter banks of the creek. Handfuls of the yellowed cottonwood leaves surrender in a fit of December wind and come to rest in the current of the stream, in the mud of the mule pen and on the dewed tops of tents in the campground. Each touchdown begins an abrupt new relationship between leaf and landscape. I sit with this. These leaves budded from their barren boughs last spring, just as lockdowns spread throughout the world and the laws that directed our previous lives frayed. Time had been fluid. It blurred, stalled. These leaves, through their reliable cycle of existence, are suddenly a point of orientation. Their shedding acknowledges the passage of time that I have sought. I finally know in my bones — with some shock, some sadness, but with hope — that three seasons have passed. 

The Canyon saturates every sense, but memories and daydreams still impose. I pull off my socks and lower my feet into the riffles. The shock of the cold water forces the present. But in this stalemate of time, the yesterdays and tomorrows are never far. My mind slips to my last trip in the Canyon, when, blissful and blinded with anticipation, I was pregnant with my daughter. Sonora — “Sunny,” as we call her, for the light she embodies — would have been 6 months old, my age when my parents hiked me down, on her next trip into the Canyon. But COVID, of course, had other plans. Half a year delayed, Sunny has just now made the journey, taking quickly to the novel landscape from her perch in our backpack. She immediately tested her newfound stride in a dash to the river, baptizing her toes in its waters as I surely did a lifetime ago, when my own mother was more than a memory.

I focus my camera on a ribbon of seep willows, their tufted seeds scattering. The camera feels heavy in my hand, as I barely lifted it in the past year. My work as a photographer dried up with the lockdowns, and the quieted mind required for creativity remained so far out of reach. I found it a strange paradox that in a world defined by separation, layers of our personal lives were precariously stacked upon each other. It became the new normal to balance my daughter on my lap to write emails in my bedroom workspace, both of us eating lunch in our pajamas. In this new era of motherhood and mandated isolation, there was both too much space and, at the same time, not enough.  

Somewhere between ancient bedrock and lofted buttes, however, the Canyon grants space for the lungs to fully expand and contract — space for creativity to breathe. I pull my old Lensbaby from my pack. I hadn’t thought about it in a dozen years, but, in the oddness of the times, it called from the corner of the closet. In the haze and the blur, it had become a welcome architect for my newfound, imperfect surreality. The edges of the lens smear the background, imitating Vaseline on glass. The focus is tight and narrow. In the past year, this became a coping mechanism and a way to move forward, to concentrate on small beauty and let the periphery fade out. 

Somewhere between ancient bedrock and lofted buttes, however, the Canyon grants space for the lungs to fully expand and contract — space for creativity to breathe.

I frame the creek through the lens. Bluehead suckers, the yogis of Canyon fish, cruise casually over submerged stones. The current behind a slab of schist collects some of the cottonwood leaves that fell earlier and sends them spinning back upstream, in both individual and collective circles. I pause at this detour in their logical path. I had imagined them, governed by gravity, drifting down, down, deeper into the bedrock, toward the confluence with the Colorado River. I once thought all water, and everything it might carry, flowed only downstream. But I am reminded that the Canyon knows of other, perhaps better, rules.  

In the clear of early darkness, only a nose out of my sleeping bag, the sound of the creek still rushes my ears. I begin to trust again in what the landscape lays bare. The interruption of plans, the loss of direction, the stalled time — they are the meanders, the eddies and the minutes between seasons. The same water that breaks cliffs into sand is lifeblood for the willow and cottonwood. Nature herself is erosion and creation, disarray and order, death and birth. Even in her contradictions, exposed now more than ever, there is solace. We are not separate from the cadence of the Canyon, and I am learning again to yield, as do the cottonwood leaves, in trust of it.