Monday, August 11, 2008

Natural Bridges, Now and Then

A stone bridge collapsed last week at Arches National Park. According to the park’s chief interpreter, gravity and erosion, the same forces that created the photogenic formation, eventually caused it to collapse. “They all let go after a while,” he said.

At thirty-three feet tall, the Arches sandstone bridge was considerably smaller than Virginia’s limestone wonder, an archway that towers 215 feet above the ground, spanning over 90 feet. Thomas Jefferson, who lived in the neighborhood, described it rapturously. “It is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime, to be felt beyond what they are here,” he wrote, praising the bridge as “so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light” that it was well worth a trip across the Atlantic for any European visitors who might wish to gaze upon it.

Jefferson often speculated on the geological forces that conspired to create such a marvel. Could it have been an ancient cataclysm? Or the slow work of eons as water trickled over stone, as Cedar Creek (located at the bottom of the bridge) wore down the solid rock? Jefferson eventually embraced the latter hypothesis–one modern geologists would share.

He didn’t think of the Bible as a textbook on geology that would explain the age or history of such mineral formations. He looked for scientific explanations of how mountains were formed, rocks laid down, and fossils generated. But his embrace of science never diminished his capacity for awe and wonder or his curiosity about the earth’s origins.

In 1774, Thomas Jefferson finally bought the land that contained Virginia’s natural bridge. He often thought of building “a little hermitage” on the property: a place to retreat and meditate on the ancient, elemental forces of nature.

And although many in his day accused him of being an “infidel,” he was in this sense a deeply spiritual man.

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