Living along the Columbia River can be an exercise in feeling small and contemporary.
I am referring to the profound awe sensed when walking, driving or boating among the massive cliffs of deep coulees that wend their way from mountains to ocean. These great vertical-walled gorges extend mile after mile, inexorably gouged out by the Mighty Columbia through layer upon thick layer of lava-turned-basalt.
If you have lived in Eastern Washington for a long time, it may take the perspective of a first-time visitor to renew your appreciation for the Columbia River coulees. While one of them is named the Grand Coulee, it is far from the only astounding one to see; we recently witnessed the 1000-foot walls from the river near Vantage.
First came the successive lava flows (French: coulees) over ten million years ago and over hundreds of square miles that hardened into different basalt formations. Some became tall six-sided columns; others feature large smooth faces or lumpy rounded curves.
Second is that one can only see these basalt layers because of the humongous torrents of water and debris that over ten thousand years ago roared down time after time from western Montana to violently carve huge square-ish canyons through solid rock and deposit gigantic berms of gravel and sand.
In comparison, during the past one hundred years humans have built great concrete dams to harness the power of falling water, a resource that continues to generate electricity (as well as political debates that are beyond the scope of this reflection). One notable impact of the resulting reservoirs was silencing after millennia the stunning roar of Celilo Falls and other cascading cataracts. Nevertheless, large as our efforts seem, they pale in comparison to the extensive Channeled Scablands.
I say this to renew our understanding and appreciation for humanity’s modest, dependent place in the grand scheme of things. As the Creator and Sustainer of the heavens and earth demands of us to answer, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?” (Job 38:4ff)
Indeed, where were we when cracks in Earth’s crust oozed forth lava flow after lava flow? Much later, did we witness the river sculpting coulees or what became the magnificent Dry Falls or the fertile Willamette Valley farther downstream? The answer is No, we were not here … yet.
But ever since we started walking these regions, we have witnessed evidence of such awe-inspiring forces. These epic energies remind us that we are not the Creator; we are a much later part of a marvelous Created Order.
I believe when we experience expressions of grandeur (say from Lake Chelan’s depths to multifarious flora and fauna, from beneath oceans and eventually up to the stars), the impact can be profound. We may experience wonder, humility, gratitude, modesty, praise, and even occasional stewardship!
Gazing from the river hundreds of feet straight up those rock surfaces, I felt small. But when I gaze even farther up toward the Maker of Rock and River, I feel strengthened and refreshed for the living of my brief twinkling of time. (Psalm 8)