This year is the 150th anniversary of Major John Wesley Powell’s epic Colorado River trip.
He was first through the Grand Canyon in 1869.
There are many celebrations and events planned, but as a river runner, the one I like the best is the concept of taking Powell’s brain down the rapids that he named.
It’s possible. His brain has been in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian Institution since he died, in 1902. It was removed so he could win a bet. What the bet was about, and where the money went, is another of the major’s many exploits as one of the 19th century’s more important American scientists and heroes. He dedicated his life to empirical, rational thinking, which is certainly hard to find in the nation’s capital these days.
Powell’s brain floats in alcohol. It might rather float the river.
In the 19th century, scientists thought that intelligence was a function of brain size. Powell’s brain tipped the scales at 1,488 grams. Edward Spitzka, the anthropologist who examined it, was impressed. He stated, “Major Powell, geologist, ethnologist, explorer, philosopher and soldier, was endowed with a superior brain, and, what is more, he used it well.”
Powell re-made the gigantic 288-mile hole-in-the-ground of the Grand Canyon into a national and international destination, which now annually hosts 5.5 million people. This year is the centennial of Grand Canyon National Park.
Powell understood water. He knew how much the West was reliant on snowpack, irrigation for agriculture and the value of riparian water rights.
He understood Native Americans. At a time when most explorers and scientists traveled west heavily armed because of their fear of American Indians, Powell learned Native languages and studied their customs.
Born a Methodist, in the depths of the Grand Canyon Powell came to understand that his religious teachings could not explain the deep time vividly displayed in rock layers. He realized the Earth was millions of years old, not the mere 6,000 years of age promulgated by preachers.
Powell was indomitable, fearless, and utterly committed to the value of science to help settle the American West. Because he knew first-hand that water was crucial, as director of the U.S. Geological Survey, he sought to postpone the public land rush of the Homestead Act of 1862 until all the water basins could be mapped. That raised the ire of western politicians who slashed his federal budget and vowed to force him out. They succeeded.
He tried to understand the forces of nature but failed to grasp the pitfalls of human nature. Yet he never gave up on rational thinking. With his friend W.J. McGee, president of the National Geographic Society, he sparred over who had the larger brain and hence who was smarter. McGee died a decade after Powell and his brain came in at a mere 1,410 grams. Powell won. Cash from the bet went to the Smithsonian.
So why not take the major’s gray matter out for a 150th commemorative river trip? Think of the stories to tell around campfires. Think of the questions passengers will have and how many toasts of cold beer on hot days guides will offer to the granddaddy of all river runners.
I like the idea. Powell would, too, but I’m not sure what he would think of Lake Powell, dubbed Lake Foul by environmentalists. He might think we have too many damn dams. The major favored small, locally controlled water projects, not big federal pork barrel reservoirs with high evaporation rates. I’d enjoy being on a trip with Powell’s brain, but even more, I wish we’d saved his heart. I’d take his heart down through the rapids that remain – the Gates of Lodore, Whirlpool Canyon, Split Canyon, Desolation-Gray Canyons and on through Cataract Canyon. In his beloved Glen Canyon, I’d find a sandstone opening and bury it.
But we have his brain, not his heart. Powell would understand. Always the showman, he’d love to get back on the river. Why not? Science is being ignored in Washington these days. Put the major’s brain on a river trip. Politicians ignored him in his lifetime. Politicians ignore climate change now.
Let’s bust Powell’s brain out of the Smithsonian this year and get it back where science is real and water is life.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org