Peterson Arch, Charcoal on Paper 2018

Viewpoint: From base of rockface looking Northeast. 36” x 40" Charcoal on Paper

Viewpoint: From base of rockface looking Northeast. 36” x 40" Charcoal on Paper


I was introduced to Peterson Arch by a biologist working for the Forest Inventory and Analysis for the US Forest Service, a continuous forest census initiated by an act of Congress in 1928. The ongoing project keeps a running account of growth and forest health in thousands plots throughout the country. Katrina, the biologist, is keeping record for the region south of Moab for the next generation. Peterson Arch, unknown to the public, is not among the plots studied, but Katrina’s regional knowledge is deep and opened my eyes to the significance of this location.

The drawing contains three focal points: a large Juniper tree, an arch, and a balanced rock: this is a treasure trove of rare natural wonders left wild and undocumented, a secret magical cove in the desert. The scene’s real impact emerged after sunset when the vast desert became lit by ethereal moonlight. The elegant arrangement in silver seemed almost vaporous, the rock and sand becoming waterlike, the balanced rock floating even more lightly on its perch. Yet, the artist there was the true ephemeral detail, come and gone in less than a century, while the non-human components have stood for eons, strong as they are graceful, persisting for hundreds and thousands of years. 

The Dominant Tree: This is the large Juniper framing the left side of the drawing. Katrina estimated that it began life sometime in the 1500s based on the width of the largest section of main trunk. She dates tree core samples for a living, so I took her word for it. The 500-year-old tree is the living ancestor of all the other Junipers in this patch of life, dividing desert sand from rock face. It has provided the shade for small creatures to shelter in, and their gathered food and resulting waste has fertilized soil for other small plants that have taken root. This garden is now about an acre in size. The tree has created an oasis in the margin from which bare sand stretches away for miles, an ocean-like mirage in the moonlight.  

The Arch: Arches first take shape as fins of rock, created when cracks in solid sandstone erode over time, isolating narrow vertical plates. Flaking and weather erosion of the sandstone on occasion create an alcove in these fins, and they can eventually wear through, forming a hole. The caprock, a harder type of rock on top of the arch, protects the formation from downward erosion as weather and time widen the hole and broaden the arch. Eventually, all will erode and collapse, as did the famous Wall Arch in nearby Arches National Park in 2008. From a geological perspective Peterson Arch is new and will likely widen considerably before its collapse, perhaps thousands of years from now.

The Balanced Rock: This seems to have been precisely placed from above, but in reality the movement occured from underneath. Ground winds pick up rough surface material and more quickly erode rock close to the ground, leaving a less exposed and more durable rock above, precariously balanced on a disappearing spire. The sandstone of this area was deposited 150 million years ago, and water and wind have been shaping it into fantastical formations since. It provided such a sweet top note in this drawing of paradoxes, so precariously placed, yet stable for thousands of years.

In a final note, I’d like to bring attention to a fourth subject occuring quietly in the center of the cove, just below the arch. Here you see the formation of a new, tiny garden, perhaps just 100 years old, growing directly out of the rock itself. The garden consists of a small Juniper and a companion Pinyon Pine forming their own, new, satellite garden. Fed by nutrients deposited from flash floods that occasionally pour over the cliff walls, these small plants are destined to create another cycle of life in the desert. Eventually, perhaps centuries from now, the tiny new Juniper and Pinyon Pine may become dominant trees themselves.  

The Juniper, the arch, the balanced rock and the small garden demonstrate the range and durability of the natural world’s composition. In moonlight, as if freed of their physical properties,  the ancient weight of the elements in the cove becomes delicate, and momentarily united in the fluid, silver light.