Buttes, Mesas, Pillars and Time


I’ve been reading Eugene Minkowski’s Lived Time. His preoccupation is with the structure of psychopathology as far as it concerns the experience of time. He does have novel ideas especially about future orientation or what he calls the future horizon. He makes the point that Desire, Hope and Prayer are future orientated. In melancholia, desire and hope are impaired. Perhaps Desire is impaired because of the fact that melancholia disrupts reward systems and the capacity for hedonism, hence anhedonia and the absence of Desire. Or perhaps as Minkowski says Desire and Expectation are both interlinked and further linked to time and since melancholia disrupts time experience it demonstrably disrupts Desire and Expectation. Prayer is another matter. In the poetry of melancholia, prayer is constant (see Berryman, Gurney & Elizabeth Jennings). Rather than nullified, Prayer is preoccupying as melancholia removes any sense of redemption, the feeling of sin is grave and burdensome and only prayer stands in opposition to this feeling of futility. And, as Minkowski makes clear prayer is future orientated but in this case the role of Prayer is to arrest time and to bring death closer.

Minkowski’s project was to characterize abnormalities of subjective time experience, what he terms ‘lived time’. In opposition to this is objective time or clock time. And the magnitude of objective time is made manifest in the opposition of geologic time to human history. Think of 4.6 billion years against a mere 150,000 since Homo sapiens africanus rose up on the Eastern African Plains and 70,000 years at most since he emigrated to central Europe and the mere 5,000 years, if that, of history!

The grandeur of geologic time was ever present in travelling from Los Angeles through the Sierra Nevada and the Mojave Desert to Boulder, just skirting Las Vegas. The prize was Grand Canyon by way of Hoover Dam.

Grand Canyon. How to speak of wonder and spectacle without exaggeration or hyperbole? The play of light on endless strata rendering shadows and colour visible, lifting contours and angles, curving and flowing everywhere, yet still, frozen, and architectural in its splendor.  There were dramatic cloud formations, and the horizon and the sky cooperated to define and reveal a field of visual inquiry and to make this aesthetically pleasing.


Minkowski’s patients experienced slowed and frozen time, time that upended the forward pointing arrow of time, reversing this apparently immutable structure of the material world. But Grand Canyon was stating the obvious, time can itself be caught in a net and brought to a standstill. A river like the Colorado can slowly and relentlessly carve sandstone, rocks, into a chasm that astonishes. It is as if the abrupt and abnormal experience of time were graphically communicated in the line of rocks, the shape of the canyon to an uncomprehending audience.

To walk down the Kaibab trail at Grand Canyon to Skeleton Point, 3 miles down and another 3 miles back, the descent 2,000 feet is to travel back 1.5 billion years. It is  a hike not a walk. It is grueling and exhilarating. The weather can be changeable. It rained, showered, hailed and then the sun in its glory shone for a time as we walked down. And then there was a rainbow hanging there in the sky, right against the canyon colours, a rare and magical sight. Fantastic.

And wherever you turned there was another spectacular display of the earth’s beauty, whether it be colour, shape, splendour or aura, the spirit felt uplifted. This was walking back through time, reversing the arrow and seeing the past close-up.

Grand Canyon was only a precursor to Monument Valley. At Kayenta close to Monument Valley, the rock formations were strange and intriguing. There were pink, salmon, or red stones in unusual shapes. A total absence of ground vegetation but trees in isolated positions growing into the rocks.


At Monument Valley. Although these natural monuments had all been named, elephant, camel, hand, etc, they demanded that our own imagination rescue them from these names that held them fast, immobilizing their desire to be free. So we wondered aloud: Was that a serpent, a sphinx, or an alien in cosmonaut gear? What kingdom did these masters rule and where are they now? Here at Monument Valley Time seemed not to be merely frozen into strata but to be struggling to free itself and to take on symbolic form, that is to have meaning, which is recognizable and nameable.

The evening closed in without any display of sunset colours.

The final Act was Bryce Canyon Amphitheatre, at sunset. It is like an ancient city that one has suddenly come across in a forgotten island. The castle walls are a deep unforgettable red. Laterite. The battlements gigantic fortresses enclosing a centre that is circular, concentric and whorled, based on the design of a rose.


In the distance the sun, lights up the watch squares, giant battlements glacial solid in a dream and emptied of life. These ancients have left for another place. Where are they all now? Mile upon mile of sandstone formations, sculpted by wind and rain to form the most arresting pieces of natural art. Deep red, variegated carmine red, yellowish red of mud, then grey and mustard. Champagne even. These were cities, citadels, castles, cathedrals, balustraded, ornamental, baroque in their splendour. Ahead, on either side, curving and fraught with delicate wings and stately gardens, these majestic deserted palaces overwhelmed any sense of cynicism about nature’s capacity to enrapture and enchant.


Time was the underlying theme, the implicit, covert message in this display of grandeur, elegance, beauty and colour. Time as it is when it ventures to reveal itself but cloaked so discreetly in rock that it remains hidden from the unsuspecting eye.



Photos by Jan & Femi Oyebode

5 thoughts on “Buttes, Mesas, Pillars and Time

  1. Thank you so much for this exhilarating post. You are an extraordinary storyteller and you make theories about time simple to comprehend. I am eager to see the world through your camera lens. Thank you Jan and Femi for your beautiful pictures. You have captured time in a capsule. Peace and blessings. Michele

    1. Dear Michele, You are most kind with your comments. We thoroughly enjoyed our time in the States and the physical environment was extraordinary. Very best wishes, Femi

  2. Dear Femi

    I was discussing my desire to see the Grand Canyon with Dele in CA only a few days ago and you have now turned that into a compulsion! Nice photo- journal and writing. Thank you.


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