I couldn't help but laugh at this bold headline on CNN.com: "Gravity, erosion rob Utah park of popular arch." Why so funny? There wouldn't even be an Arches National Park if it wasn't for gravity and erosion. In fact, many of the West's most popular parks are monuments to gravity and erosion (think the Grand Canyon for one).
Nature giveth and nature taketh away. Last week, one of the park's more noted arches, Wall Arch, collapsed. According to press reports, the arch was first reported in 1948 (which shows how recent some of these geologic discoveries were). It was was more than 33 feet tall and 71 feet across. "It ranked 12th in size among the park's estimated 2,000 arches."
I went to Arches last year and was struck by how many of our park landscapes are testaments to slow- and fast-motion catastrophe. Places like Arches are a tribute to the power of forces like gravity and erosion, which created the arches in the first place. As we speak, new arches are slowly being created and slowly being destroyed by the forces that "robbed" the park. Think of them as sandstone snowflakes that take a very long time to melt.
Edward Abbey was a ranger at Arches and wrote about their creation and destruction in his classic Desert Solitaire:
On the way, I pass Skyline Arch, a big hole in the wall where something took place a few years ago which seems to bear out the hypotheses of geology: one November night in 1940 when no one was around to watch, a big chunk of rock fell out of this arch, enlarging the opening by half again its former size. The photographs, "Before & After," prove it. The event had doubtless been in preparation for hundreds maybe thousands of years — snow falling and melting, trickling into minute fissures, dissolving the cements which knit the sandstone particles together, freezing and expanding, wedging apart the tiny cracks, undermining the base — but the cumulative result was a matter, probably, of only a few noisy and dusty minutes in which the mighty slabs cracked and grumbled, shook loose, dropped and slid and smashed upon the older slabs below, shattering the peace of ages. But none were there to see and hear except the local lizards, mice and ground squirrels, and perhaps a pair of outraged, astonished ravens.
That's the other thing about the process that's amusing. According to press accounts, no one saw or heard Wall Arch collapse either, except maybe the lizards. It might take arches centuries to topple, but when they do, there's no warning and it's over in an instant. Despite being a popular tourist attraction in a national park, nature does have a way of announcing that its business is still private and untamable nonetheless. The collapse is part of the show we came to see, even if we missed the thundering climax because we blinked at the wrong second in a long millennium.