Kathy and I, some RTB staff, and a few friends of the ministry recently returned from an extraordinary adventure. We trekked the Canadian Rockies, navigating around crevasses on three different glaciers with crampons, ice axes, and ropes, crossing several moraine fields, ascending and descending on shale and scree, and traversing along the steep walls of a mountain (properly protected by a cable and clips).
I explained to our two guides that the amazing scenery we were enjoying has only existed for the past several thousand years. Never before has Earth displayed such magnificent mountain scenery. They, of course, wanted to know why.
Our guides’ curiosity gave me the opportunity to summarize much of the content of my new book, Improbable Planet.1 I described how through the Creator’s exquisite design and control of the entire extent and history of the universe, Earth, and all of Earth’s life, a very brief time window opened—only about ten thousand years wide—during which billions of humans could live on Earth at one time and launch and sustain a global high-technology civilization. In a similar manner, God’s meticulous design and control produced the spectacular scenes we were enjoying.
How I First Discovered This Canyon
Some forty years ago, I spotted, on a topographic map, the box canyon that is the crown jewel of this part of the Canadian Rockies. On three sides, the canyon has vertical walls 2,000 feet high. Above the canyon on all three sides are massive, slowly retreating glaciers. During the short-lived summers, these melting glaciers produce more than a dozen huge waterfalls dropping over the cliffs.
Forty years ago, I contemplated visiting this canyon. I determined it would take me at least a week from the nearest logging road to bushwhack my way to the confluence of several creeks that led to the entrance to the box canyon. I knew that anywhere else these “creeks” would qualify as white-water rivers. Crossing them would likely require felling some trees. Realizing that I would need to pack at least a two-week supply of food on my back, plus a lot of heavy equipment, and that there was no way I could take that much time off from my astronomical research, I gave up.
I recently found out that I was not the only one who spotted the box canyon on that topographic map. An enterprising Canadian mountaineer did, too. During the last few years, Larry took advantage of a new logging road and helicopter access to construct a backcountry lodge and two huts in the vicinity of the box canyon. Thus, nine of us from the RTB family were able to view the canyon from the top of one of its walls, and one of the guides and I bushwhacked and stream-hopped our way into the bottom of the canyon.
Why Only Now?
The scenery we were enjoying is only possible when Earth is experiencing an ice age cycle. Only during an ice age cycle do large parts of Earth’s surface rapidly cycle from being covered by thousands of feet of thick ice to only tens of feet or less. It is this rapid cycling of ice coverage that carves out the deep canyons and valleys of our mountain parks and also supplies the nutrients and water that make Earth’s agricultural plains able to feed billions of human beings and their domesticated animals.
The only time Earth has had an ice age cycle is during the last 0.057 percent of its history. However, for most of this ice age cycle, the warm interglacials were much too brief and the climate far too unstable for humans to launch, sustain, and advance civilization. Only during the last 0.0002 percent of Earth’s history have conditions permitted the development of any degree of advanced civilization that would allow billions of humans to live at one time.
Part of what makes our present civilization feasible is that we are in that portion of the ice age cycle where the previous glacial period was the longest and most severe of the entire ice age cycle’s duration, and the present interglacial is the longest and most benign. The past 9,000 years is the only epoch in the entire ice age cycle during which Earth has enjoyed the climate stability that makes the launch and advancement of human civilization possible. In fact, as I explain in much detail in Improbable Planet, the past 9,000 years is the only epoch in Earth’s entire history in which advanced human civilization is possible.
As I explained to the guide that took me into the bottom of the canyon, it is the nature of the last glacial period in the ice age cycle plus the nature of the present interglacial that made the canyon as marvelous as it is. We humans are not only living in the only epoch in Earth’s history during which advanced civilization is possible, we are also living in the only epoch during which Earth has displayed such spectacular mountain scenery.
Why Do We Need Beautiful Natural Scenery?
When my sons were under the age of 10, they could not understand my passion for wilderness scenery. When my son David was 7, he said, “Dad, if you want to see a waterfall, just put rocks in the sink and turn the tap on.”
Now that my sons are young adults and facing the responsibilities and stresses of life, they too love spending time in wild nature. There is something rejuvenating about being deeply exposed to God’s creation.
I love my work, but much of it involves being cooped up in an office engaging in intense mental concentration and focus. Leaving the megalopolis of the Los Angeles Basin and immersing myself in a remote beautiful wilderness where I push my body to its physical limits restores me mentally and emotionally. It especially restores me spiritually. Realizing how extravagantly God displays beauty, awe, and wonder in wild nature and how He gave me the capacity to appreciate such beauty, awe, and wonder reassures me of His great love for me and for every human being. When I am in wild nature, I feel His presence far more strongly than I do in an office.
I know I am not alone. When I was a research fellow at Caltech, many of my fellow researchers were resistant to engaging in spiritual conversations on the Caltech campus. When I would take them into the High Sierras just west of the Owens Valley Radio Observatory, all that changed. When I asked them if they could explain to me why the place was so beautiful, the question inevitably led to several hours of fruitful conversation about Christianity and the Bible.
Why is mental illness on the rise? Why is there so much senseless violence? Why are so many people becoming atheists and agnostics? I believe at least part of the answer is that an increasing percentage of the world’s population spend their entire lives, or virtually their entire lives, in dense megacities and rarely, if ever, expose themselves to wild nature.
God gave us two books: the book of Scripture and the book of nature. We need to spend significant time in both in order to lead physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually healthy lives.
Video 1: Footage from the Top of the Canyon
Video 2: Footage from the Bottom of the Canyon
1. Hugh Ross, Improbable Planet (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016).