Ephemeral: Photographing in Arches National Park

Sensuous Double Arch casts its mesmerizing spell on all who stand in awe at its base.
Sensuous Double Arch casts its mesmerizing spell on all who stand in awe at its base.

Story & photos by Jerry Ginsberg

The dictionary defines ephemeral as transient.
e-fem-e-ral —  Temporary, or passing, as changing as the rocks.

Maybe not.

In the case of the rock formations that dot and decorate our Earth, we could also add, “in transition” for the rocks do not stay the same. Even though they may look to us mortals that they do, it is only because we are changing faster than are they. Sometimes.

Even though these rocks are notorious for changing only in what seems to us to be slow motion, eroding at a pace usually imperceptible in a relatively short human lifespan, from time to time, we get lucky.

When I first visited Arches National Park in southern Utah in the Early 1990’s, I photographed most of the stellar attractions there including the stunning spans of Double Arch. Its red sandstone sweeping sensuously in graceful curves, the fraternal twins of Double Arch carve dramatic and lovely arcs across an azure blue sky.

Some twenty-five or more years later when I returned to re-visit this wonderful park, I fully expected that the rocks would not have changed in so short a time. However, I quickly noticed that something was different here. An anomaly that I hadn’t seen before: a third opening peeking through the massive arc of the front arch: a thin sliver of blue sky.

Was this aperture there on my earlier visit, something that I has simply failed to notice or has it, in barely a scant score of years, actually worn through the solid Entrada sandstone and suddenly transformed Double Arch into Triple Arch? While I will have to wait until I can closely examine earlier photographs of this span, of one thing we can be certain. Whether that small opening is more or less than twenty-five years old, at some point in the past, it did not exist – just as if we go back far enough in time, the whole fantastic form of Double Arch itself did not exist. The forces of Nature have sculpted this as well as the approximately 2000 other stone arches in this 77,000 acre national park, the largest concentration of such forms in the world. Day by day, season by season, through the centuries and millennia, the wind, rain, freezing and thawing of this soft sandstone have continued fashioning it into a wonderland of graceful stone sculptures.

One of the premier scenes anywhere in the redrock country of the American Southwest, this tiny spot presents a bit of a challenge to reach.
One of the premier scenes anywhere in the redrock country of the American Southwest, this tiny spot presents a bit of a challenge to reach.

But unlike manmade sculptures cast in bronze, these works of art are not static. Each day they wear away to some infinitesimal degree. While they may appear to us to be permanent, these arches, just as all things animate and inanimate, except perhaps for the elements, are in constant transition. Wind and water; the very same powerful forces that formed these forms are constantly working to destroy them. Each of them will one day become so thin that it will eventually collapse, break into a million pieces and turn back into the sand beneath our feet from which it was originally formed.

We humans have a natural tendency to assume that these rocks have always looked the way we see them today and that they will stay the same into the future. While somewhere down deep, we really know that rocks do change, the vast difference between human and geologic time tends to mask our ability to truly perceive that even the rocks do change, age and wither. The same is true in all of Nature. Whether it’s erosion or ‘climate change’, to assume that conditions are static is folly. Ice ages have come and gone.

The most recent (mini) one may possibly have ended as recently as 1905. While we are thankful that the glaciers that formed it no longer fill the places that we enjoy today such as Yosemite Valley – up to the very tips of icons such as El Capitan and Half Dome –

we dare not assume that this seemingly impermeable granite will forever look as it looks today.

Naturally, this holds true for any spot on Earth. The forces of Nature are dynamic, powerful and ever-changing. While these changes occur at a rate so slow that it is imperceptible to us, they do go on day and night – 24/7.

The opposite leg of spectacular Delicate Arch casts its shadow across the Entrada sandstone at one’s feet. Note the rising moon in the sky.
The opposite leg of spectacular Delicate Arch casts its shadow across the Entrada sandstone at one’s feet. Note the rising moon in the sky.

In Nature, the only thing of which we can be sure is that nothing remains the same.

The only thing permanent is change.

In fact, just about all the major natural attractions you find in the West – the Grand Canyon, the Badlands, the Goodlands, the Mediocrelands, the Rocky Mountains ….. -were caused by erosion. Dave Barry

Jerry Ginsberg is a widely published photographer whose landscape, Nature and travel images have graced the covers pages of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s National Parks with medium format cameras. (Newly created Indiana Dunes N.P. coming soon!)

Jerry has been awarded Artist Residencies in several National Parks. This October, he will be in residence in Shenandoah National Park in VA.  His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition.

Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.

More of Ginsberg’s images are on display at www.JerryGinsberg.com. Or e mail him at jerry@jerryginsberg.com