October 21, 2018

That Really Bunches My Panties . . . by Brendon Marks


In general, human beings like having an order or natural progression to things. Three teaspoons make one tablespoon, 16 tablespoons make a cup, two cups to a pint, two pints to a quart, and four quarts to gallon. However, it breaks down when you get to barrels. A typical barrel is different from either a beer, oil, or whiskey barrel, and forget about a hogshead. All of this varies depending upon where you are in the world as well, which is why when I moved to Arizona and found out the people here have several different names for what are naturally occurring landscape deviations caused by erosion without any method of determining where one ends and the other starts in any hierarchical structure, it started decades of perplexion.

Listing alphabetically, I am referring to abyss, arroyo, canyon, chasm, coulee, crevasse, drain (or drainage), draw, fissure, gorge, gulch, gully, ravine, and wash. All of these are channels that follow the contour of the land allowing water to flow from higher elevations to lower. I have eliminated such names as ditch and rut because those are typically not naturally occurring. We do have ditch-diggers and wheel-rut, but we don’t have canyon-diggers or wagon-washes. There is such a thing as a gully-washer, but that’s similar to a trash-mover which is a brief, heavy rain shower which also can produce flash-flooding in any of the aforementioned channels.

Using the above list how do you rank them in size? Canyon must be the biggest because if there is any similar noun for something bigger the Grand Canyon would be called something else, like the Grand Humungahole. And it fits the definition which also means the Grand Canyon was not formed by Paul Bunyan dragging his axe while making a detour from the California Redwoods back home to one of several states claiming his birthplace.

For this purpose we can throw out arroyo because it is a Spanish word that translates to several of the other words and is used only when the speaker doesn’t know which name to use. The dictionary states that a chasm is a deep fissure, an abyss is a deep chasm, a gorge is a valley between mountains, a canyon is a deep gorge, a ravine is a deep gorge narrower than a canyon, and a gully is a small ravine, but where do the rest fit in? How wide does a ravine have to be before it becomes a canyon? How deep must a chasm be to make it an abyss?

Gulch also coined the expression “dry-gulch”, which means hiding in a gulch with the intent to attack a passerby. From that we can get a general size for a gulch, assuming it must be big enough to at least hide a man and possibly his horse, but we have no approximate dimensions for any of the others. Note also that the term specifically requires a ‘dry’ gulch as a ‘wet gulch’ (one with water running through) is not acceptable for this activity. During those times when no ‘dry gulch’ was available the miscreants had to resort to ‘bush-whacking’, hiding behind a bush to whack the unsuspecting traveler. Urban ruffians had no access to gulches or bushes, so they were reduced to ‘whacking’ their victims. There is no historical mention of ‘wash-whacking’.

If we assume that wash is the smallest, at what point does erosion become a wash, at what point does a wash become something else, and what is that something else?

I’m sure that early explorers who approached the Grand Canyon from the north-east didn’t call it a canyon right from the start and those who approached from the south didn’t call it a gully either. Probably the guys from the south knew that very likely somewhere upstream the Grand Canyon was a wash, but I’ll bet the north-east guys followed it for a while before they ever called it a canyon. Do all washes eventually become canyons? Is there some map of the Grand Canyon that shows which part is a wash, which part is a gully, a gorge, or a ravine?

As you can see, decades of perplexion have given rise to many questions for this transplant who has a strong need to know how many washes does it take to make a canyon, and could it have actually started with a teaspoon.

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