In geology class, I learned that the forces of erosion create our landscape. At the moment, this fact seems a ludicrous falsehood as I squint up towards a towering sixty-five foot (20 meter) sandstone span inside Arches National Park in Utah. I am positive that the gargantuan structure in front of me is ageless. I cannot imagine this southwestern corner of the United States without its two thousand red sandstone arches posing as perfect picture windows. Call it weakness or merely human, but I am attracted to the carved Entrada sandstone curves not only for their fiery beauty, but also for their intransigence. They stand immutable, like mountains or ancient trees, a testament to me that somethings in life are forever. To discover that only three hundred million years ago inland seas gleamed under the same infinite cobalt sky is tantamount to having the curtain forcibly ripped and see no great or powerful Oz.
I do not know what it is in our nature which makes us yearn for that which is indestructible and everlasting. I only know that this yearning exists, making me pine for what I perceive to be unchanged in the cosmos.
“Constancy is what I increasingly cannot find in my life or on my planet.”
My home base, my surroundings, and my environment vary from one month to the next. As the years pass, friends and kindred spirits fall away too. So I veer towards any signs of constancy wherever I travel, as if I were a compass needle and permanence my true north. These colossal configurations look steadfast and immovable, like fixed points in the rush of history, and that is what attracts me. Their adamantine nature is, however, only a façade. Both deep within their composition and on the outside, the stunning arches in Utah are crumbling to pieces. Yet, the more I study the geological process that shaped these fascinating arches, the more I am entranced by the possibilities of change. The formation story of these arches is a beguiling one, full of tension, raw power, and heat. The plot twists are full of seas disappearing, the ground beneath our feet bending and breaking, the very elements generating mammoth stone towers and destroying them in the same breath. The account of these arches is of a series of magical worlds being created within our planet both over vast stretches of time and in every second that passes.
It is not a finished story, however. The powers that shaped these ponderous formations continue to pare, and trim, and mold. Eventually every gorgeous arch I behold will be destroyed as dust and wind and rain and sun work away, intractable in their demolition. Who knows what this landscape will look like three hundred million years from now? It is an ongoing tale, happening even as I touch the durable vermilion sandstone and walk under the massive bridges. It is a story similar to mine, of changing climate, condition, and circumstance configuring a metamorphosing entity. The arches themselves stand robust and sturdy in spite of the silent agents of ongoing erosion. It is a unique moment in their lives, a chance that will never happen again.
“What are a few billion years to a rock but the blink of an eyelid?”
Painful as the deterioration process is, for a handful of centuries it has constructed incomparable architecture out of sand, gravel, and clay. I spy a view of the expansive firmament through one of my transient arches. It is not an eternal vista through a permanent window, but merely an ephemeral glimpse in time.
In geology class, I also learned that the essence of nature is flux. Everything changes… everything, give or take a million, billion, trillion years. Standing on the other side of a geological picture frame, I, too, cannot escape this lesson. I have changed, am changing, will change, pared and trimmed and molded in the same way by forces beyond my control. The forces that alter me take many shapes. Like the wind, the sun, and the rain, circumstances, situations, and time itself continues to modify my character, to rebuild me into the person I am today and will grow into in the future. Somewhere along the way we are told that at a certain point in our lives we stop developing, become adults. Studying the exquisitely formed arch before me, its history of erosion written in its gouged sides and scraped foundations, I cannot agree. I am, like this arch, slowly but inescapably eroding. Yet, in the meantime, I am evolving into a robust and hardy personality, as unique as a single arch, formed in my way by life. There is a lot more story in the science of change than there is in permanence. I shall stand here before this sandstone instability proud that before the next blink of an eyelid I, too, can share in its epic struggles.
Arches National Park is not only a unique aspect of geological history, it is also a unique moment in time. One hundred thousand years from now, the arches inside the seventy-six thousand acre park will have completely eroded away, leaving an entirely different landscape for future visitors to the area.
Have you visited Arches NP? What landscapes have you seen that have changed over time?