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Ubi Sunt

I created the photo above several years ago on a Fall trip to Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park. I had been exploring the Navajo Trail and turned around at one point to find this compelling juxtaposition—a slender sandstone spire on the left flanked by a more massive, multi-hued wall of sandstone on the right lit warmly by the morning sun.

At the time, the scene made me wonder how the same forces of wind, water, heat, and frost could have formed such different shapes from what may once have been a continuous stretch of sandstone. But now, after learning that the spire toppled into the canyon late last year, the scene speaks loudly to me about the transitory nature of the beauty that surrounds us. And the folly of expecting our favorite places to last forever—even if they give no outward indication of wear or weakness. No one, from what I can recall, anticipated the imminent collapse of Wall Arch before it fell to the ground six years ago. Or the fall of Keystone Arch on the Oregon Coast, which collapsed into the ocean six years ago.

High Clouds above the Mittens. Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Arizona.

We can do nothing to prevent the inexorable force of erosion. Erosion will eventually claim Landscape Arch (the delicately thin and long arch in Arches National Park); change the outline of the Mittens in Monument Valley; weaken Thor’s Hammer.

The irony? Erosion actually brought all of the silt and fine granite particles to Bryce Canyon and other parks and territories in what-is-now western North America. Blasting fine particles from the sides of extinct mountain ranges, the forces of erosion deposited that sediment into the Western Interior and Hudson Seaways that once covered much of North America (from southern Mexico to Northern Canada, central Utah to eastern Nebraska).

Over the course of tens of millions of years, the particulate matter drifted to the bottoms of those vast inland seas, where it deepened and, under pressure, hardened. As geologic forces eventually raised new mountain ranges to the west, the seaways withdrew, revealing thousands of feet of sandstone and other sedimentary rock.

At which time, erosion began again its methodical and tireless work on the newly exposed rock.

(By the way, Ubi Sunt, a literary motif used since the 5th century to lament the transitory nature of life, has appeared in the work of authors as diverse as Boethius, François Villon, Shakespeare, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, J.R.R. Tolkien, Pete Seeger, Don Mclean, and Paul Simon. You can find examples of the motif in the article about Ubi Sunt on Wikipedia.