Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/November 1898/Architectural Forms in Nature
|ARCHITECTURAL FORMS IN NATURE.|
"Semblance of castle and arch and shrine
Towered aloft in the clear sunshine."
THE world is old, yet the world is new. It is old in our sight because it has endured for a time that from our puny standpoint seems long, but which, gauged by the standard of eternity, would barely be represented by a single tick on the dial that knows no beginning and no end. It is a work still in process; when it is done the human element will not be here to admire or condemn it. When in the long ages of its development parts Fig. 1.—Completed Bridge. of the solid crust have been pushed above the waters, the elements have combined to pull them down and sink them again under the seas. It is a battle between the waters and the dry land, and when during the refreshing shower we see the rivulet at our feet brown with mud, we see the victory of the rain; we see the price the earth is paying to this subtle foe. This warfare goes on day by day, year by year, age by age, and will go on as long as a dry rock rears its head above the deep. The rains and frosts and winds, acting on the exposed surface with unceasing energy, have in many localities produced strange contours and striking resemblances to objects familiar in our daily life, especially to buildings and other structures due to the hand of man. These are often on a giant scale. But, in addition to the quality of size, these natural forms possess as well the ever-important element of beauty, without which bigness is vulgarity. Nature is never vulgar. Whether we look upon the roadside violet that wilts under the touch, or whether we stand wondering at Niagara, or strain to see the tiptop rock of the Grand Cañon, we may always discern a radiant beauty, which pervades the
world to its foundations, and is poured out upon us unmeasured and unpriced.
So these architectural forms that result from the perennial battle between the dry land and the sea, no matter what their size, are charming in majesty, in proportion, in harmony of color, and in variety and grace of outline. Our imaginations are constantly in search of resemblances, and it is not strange, therefore, that every land presents to human curiosity numerous specimens, though it must be admitted that the mind is sometimes taxed to discover the likeness. On the other hand, some are so evident as to have acquired a world-wide celebrity. The Natural Bridge of Virginia (Fig. 1) is not only a resemblance, it is a reality. In the Rocky Mountain region are numerous other bridges formed thus naturally. In the Canon of Desolation, Green River, Utah, far above the water are many natural arches in the thinner salients of the monster cliffs. These perforations are often two thousand feet above the river, looking like enormous windows opening on some other world. In one a pine tree that must have been at least a hundred feet high was growing, and its top was many feet below the crown of the arch. Wherever this particular formation is exposed, these arches or bridges occur in all stages of development. The sandstone of this formation has the peculiarity of fracturing conchoidally, and when the face of a cliff contains one of these fractures (due to weathering) and is not thick, some crevice is sure to open a path to the enemy, which is soon widened to a highway for the frost and rain, and a cascade in shower-time pours down, picking up sand as it goes to help in the attack. The weathering becomes more rapid, the arch opens up, and in time a natural bridge (Fig. 2) spans the air where once there was but solid stone. The process continuing, the bridge will disappear, a vacancy will take its place, and far off in the river bottom, or still farther in the sea, will rest the disintegrated material that once made part of the continuous cliff. Where the cliff is too thick to be perforated (Fig. 3), the arch breaks back into a deep cavern whose roof falls and falls till the blue sky takes its place. Thus has a natural bridge, like a flower, its birth, its growth, perfection, and decay. Wind erosion also plays a part, but the chief work is due to water.
Besides bridges there are numberless other forms. Who has not seen Castle or Pulpit Rocks, or Devil's Slides, or Palisades, etc.?
But it is in the West, perhaps, that the most remarkable rain carvings and wind carvings occur, and especially in that part called the Southwest, that "land as old as time is old," that strange, weird land of red rocks, of tall, long cliff lines like mountain ranges split asunder to span the desert in their nakedness; that land of labyrinthine canons, where the bloom of morning lingers to kiss the gloom of night; land of isolated buttes that frown in lofty silence on the lower world like monuments belonging to some cemetery of giants; land of mesas, plateaus, pinnacles, and peaks.
The massive red-and-yellow buttes at Green River, Wyoming, are familiar to passengers on the Union Pacific Railway, and have
been beautifully rendered on canvas by Thomas Moran. Visitors to Colorado Springs will not forget the superb "Steeple"; and "Cathedral" rocks in the Garden of the Gods (Fig. 4), whose gorgeous vermilion is thrust vertically into the Colorado blue; and many there are who have seen the wonders of the Yellowstone and the Yosemite. In all these places there are architectural forms that have justly received the admiring tribute of thousands, yet in more remote regions are forms quite as remarkable that have seldom been seen by the eyes of white men.
While riding northward across the Navajo Indian Reservation from Fort Defiance, I well remember seeing, at a distance of a mile or so, which may have "lent enchantment to the view," an immense arch in red sandstone, and, more interesting still, one of the most perfect suggestions of a building I have ever seen. To go closer at the time was not practicable, nor even to stop for a more deliberate study, but they were in sight from the slow-moving cavalcade for a considerable time, and I have always remembered them as about the most perfect architectural forms I have seen in all the West.
Pinnacles and multitudinous other forms were also there, and a close inspection would doubtless have discovered many quite as near perfection as those which attracted us from afar.
In other places in this same locality huge volcanic masses had been pushed mysteriously, in remote geological time, here and there through the strata of sandstones, and the layers of water-made rocks having been subsequently cut away by the rains, the harder fire-made rocks offering more resistance were left behind in tall spires, towers, and various fantastic shapes. To one of them, revealing from the mountains above it a central mass with wingiike dikes spreading out on each side, the Navajos have applied the name of Tsebetai, "The Stone Bird," and by this name it is now known to all who enter the barren and peculiar country. Gazing down upon it one day from the crest of the Tunicha Plateau, I was instantly impressed by the felicity of the Indian title, for there it lay upon Fig. 5—The Captains. the plain exactly like a great buzzard petrified with wings outstretched for flight.
As a rule, it is not the volcanic rocks that furnish the close images of bird, beast, or building. The sedimentary or water-made rocks yield the greatest number and the closest resemblances. Even in towers and pinnacles the water-made rocks, though softer, come out ahead, frequently sending up their splendid shafts to hundreds of feet, or to a full thousand, like the "Captains" in De Chelly Cañon, Arizona (Fig. 5). Minarets and spires from one hundred to three or four hundred feet high might be counted by thousands in the cliff and cañon country.
In far-away Greenland Dr. Kane came upon the red sandstone, "dreamy semblance of a castle flanked with triple towers, completely isolated and denned," which he named the "Three Brothers Turrets" (Fig. 6). Not far from this he found a still more singular and impressive shaft, whose poetical symmetry caused him to name it "Tennyson's Monument" (Fig. 7). This he describes thus: "A single cliff of greenstone, marked by the slaty limestone that once incased it, rears itself from a crumbled base of sandstones, like the boldly chiseled rampart of an ancient city. At its northern extremity, on the brink of a deep ravine which has worn its way among the ruins, there stands a solitary column or minaret tower, as sharply finished as if it had been cast for the Place Vendôme. Yet the length of the shaft alone is four hundred and eighty feet, and it rises on a plinth or pedestal itself two hundred and eighty."
In some of the canons of the Great Walled River, the Colorado of the West, turrets, pinnacles, and even natural arches stud the
walls with countless imitations of architectural forms, every bend of the stream offering some fresh novelty. In parts of Marble Cañon the high walls are eroded into endless alcoves, caves, towers, weather-beaten castles, and a thousand and one weird or fantastic forms. One night, just below our camp, was a perfect semblance of a ruined castle. Around the indentations which answered for crumbling windows clung carelessly bunches of mosses and ferns, while at one side from a mass of emerald verdure, rendered greener and sweeter by contrast with the miles on miles of barren red cliff up and down, gushed forth a clear spring whose waters, churned to silver, dashed through the vines into the deep river a hundred feet below.
In the Cañon of Desolation, twenty-four hundred feet above the surface of the river, surrounded by pine trees, is a formation that seemed from below so exact a counterpart of a pioneer log cabin that it was difficult to believe it was only a deception. The beetling wall which it surmounted was named "Log Cabin Cliff."
Another class of resemblances are those called "domes." The Domes of the Yosemite are a well-known example, but the Five Domes of the Virgin River in southern Utah are perhaps quite as wonderful, while having the advantage of more inviting color. The region surrounding them is one of the most remarkable scenic spots on the continent, and in time will become as celebrated as the Yosemite or the Yellowstone. It has fewer freaks and curiosities, perhaps, but probably more real beauty. Not far from the Five Domes are the Temples of the Virgin (Fig. 8), similar to the domes, but more rugged at the top. These are veritable temples of the gods, solid as the rock-ribbed earth itself.
There are also in some places domes hollowed out. In Glen Cañon of the Colorado, a little below the mouth of the San Juan, is a dome of this character carved out of the homogeneous sandstone by the action of a pretty brook, which in fair weather is a mere rivulet, but in rain time is an angry flood, sweeping down on its tide immense quantities of sand. This little stream enters at the back of the cavern through a very deep, narrow cleft, not more than a foot or two wide, and after a plunge of some thirty feet or more into a clear pool trickles on out to the river, which flows past the entrance. The chamber is about two hundred feet high, with a narrow crevice twisting on up to the top of the cliffs, about a thousand feet, Fig. 7.—Tennyson's Monument. while the area of the sandy floor is about two hundred by five hundred. Its mouth is barred by a little grove of box-elder trees. When the storm is abroad the innocent brook grows to a giant in an hour, because of the rain accumulating on the barren, rock-surfaced country as on the roof of a house, and, gathering the load of sand in its impetuous clutch, it hurls it against the bounding walls, thus doing its part in the war of the waters against the land. I have counted dozens of these cascades leaping over the cañon walls during heavy rainstorms. An exploring party once camped within the dome mentioned, and, thinking it rendered well their songs, they named it "Music Temple." Some carved their names on the soft sandstone wall, and three of these a short time after were sent by the Indians to the Great Dome of all.
The extensive Pink Cliffs, forming the escarpment of the southern edge of the Great Basin, are of the colonnade type, and for many miles their exquisite color and massive columnar facades crown the high country ten thousand feet or more above the sea, visible far to southward, and with the underlying Gray Cliffs and the still lower down Vermilion Cliffs (which find their beginning in Glen Canon of the Colorado, and trace their serpentine line leagues to the west to meet the Temples of the Virgin) Fig 8.—Temples or the Virgin. form one of the most magnificent panoramas to be found anywhere in the world. Detached and isolated portions of these Pink Cliffs, surrounded by the upper members of the Gray, produce sometimes novel effects. I recall one sunny morning when I found myself suddenly in a silent grassy glade, green and gray all round, with before me what can be likened only to an immense pipe organ, its delicate pink columnar pipes standing full two hundred feet high against a somber background of pines where Æolus could be heard sighing for the lost chord.
Major Dutton, in his Geology of the High Plateaus of Utah, says of these Pink Cliffs: "The resemblances to strict architectural forms are often startling. The upper tier of the vast amphitheater is one mighty ruined colonnade. Standing obelisks, prostrate columns, shattered capitals, panels, niches, buttresses, repetitions of symmetrical forms, all bring vividly before the mind suggestions of the work of giant hands, a race of genii once rearing temples of rock, but now chained up in a spell of enchantment, while their structures are falling in ruins through centuries of decay. Along the southern and southeastern flank of the Paunsagant (plateau) these ruins stretch mile after mile. But the crowning work is Table Cliff in the background. Standing eleven thousand feet above sea level and projected against the deep blue of the western sky, it presents the aspect of a vast Acropolis crowned with a Parthenon. It is hard to dispel the fancy that this is a work of some intelligence and design akin to that of humanity, but far grander. Such glorious tints, such keen contrasts of light and shade, such profusion of sculptured forms, can never be forgotten by him who has once beheld it."
Thus everywhere the imagination is roused to the comparison of the natural and the artificial; with little effort it discovers classic outlines in these rain-carved forms. And occasionally there is something uncanny about them. In eastern Utah, some miles from the point where White River joins the Green, and close by the former stream, lies a whole group of natural edifices, to which General Hughes applied the name of Goblin City. Remote and lonely at the time of our visit, in the midst of a hostile country, the numerous small houselike buttes, resting like a real town in the bottom of the rugged, desolate gorge, seemed about to pour out an angry host, to stop our further entrance into their weird and forbidding land. The broken cliffs through which we had descended to the "City" presented detached rocks here and there looking like petrified guardsmen who might only be revived by the Prince's kissing the Sleeping Beauty, somewhere perhaps to be found in this goblin realm.
Gunnison's Butte, on Green River, not far from the point where the brave captain crossed the stream in 1853, is a fine example of what may be called the cathedral type (Fig. 9). Rising supreme in colossal dignity twenty-seven hundred feet Fig. 9.—Gunnison's Butte; 2,700 feet above river. above the river bank, in its tender color, in its splendid lines, it is without a rival. On its southwestern part, toward the base, the numerous abutments and little slopes crowning them are of a pure delicate blue, rivaling the tint of a summer sky. Extending far to westward, these Azure Cliffs, which begin with Gunnison's Butte, present one of the most remarkable and beautiful touches of color the rocks have ever unfolded. Near the mouth of the San Rafael, Dellenbaugh's Butte (Fig. 10) exhibits a different type, likened by the explorers of the region to an art gallery, because of its broad roof and simplicity of outline. Four hundred feet high, its chocolate-brown mass rests beside Green River, silent, serene, as if waiting for the jury to finish arranging the exhibit and open the doors to the public
Monument Rocks near Colorado Springs are well known for their fantastic shapes, but another set of similar monuments in southern Colorado are not so familiar, and have been Fig. 10—The Art Gallery. formed in a different way. Those near Colorado Springs are due to a hard spot in the rocks acting as a kind of roof for the portions below, but in the other case the resistance has been offered by fragments of basalt rolling down to a plain from a neighboring hilltop, and assuming protection over the area upon which they happened to rest. Thus they soon found themselves topping numerous adopted monuments twenty or thirty feet high (Fig. 11).
One of the most out-of-the-way regions left within our boundaries is that lying around the junction of the Grand and Green Rivers in eastern Utah. These two rivers, flowing at this point in canons about twelve hundred feet deep, come together in a canon thirteen hundred feet deep to form the Colorado. You climb out from the junction by a narrow crevice, and on top find yourself on a barren, much-cut-up plateau. The surface is verdureless, consisting for the most part of bare rock split by numerous crevices. You Fig. 11.—Basalt Topping Earth. are in the midst of "The Land of Standing Rock," as the Indians call it. Powell, in referring to this locality, says: "We must-not conceive of piles of bowlders or heaps of fragments, but a whole land of naked rock, with giant forms carved on it; cathedral-shaped buttes towering hundreds or thousands of feet; cliffs that can not be scaled, and cañon walls that shrink the river into insignificance; with vast hollow domes, and tall pinnacles and shafts set on the verge overhead." Year and far in all directions the eye encounters pinnacle after pinnacle, butte after butte, cliff after cliff, like a stone forest, impassable, impenetrable, except to the trained mountaineer. Some of the shapes here are most peculiar. One which I call the Synagogue (Fig. 12), as no other name, so far as I know, has ever been applied, is representative. Its lines are strikingly like those of the temple of Khandaria in Khwahrao, Central India. It has a round main structure, showing several deep lines of horizontal molding, and is of a deep reddish-brown color. The "roof" is a light pinkish red, as I remember it, and rounds up to a central cupola of the lower color. Springing from the front is a beautiful minaret, carrying the darker color to the apex.
Though strange rock structures abound in all this region, it is in the specially arid portions that they are most common. The strata
being unprotected by vegetation, the wearing away is more rapid, and follows more eccentric lines. The higher and drier a locality, there—provided there is some rainfall—will be found the most extraordinary rain carvings. The lack of abundant rain prevents the growth of vegetation and the altitude permits the rain torrents to carry loads of sand, and the more sand and velocity the greater the scouring. In some of these intermittent stream courses the sand and bowlders scoop out deep holes like huge pots—a variety, in fact, of the hole known in geology as "pothole" (Fig. 13). These are very deep and sometimes provide a thirsty traveler with a draught of clear water that has lingered from the last shower. In some places these "pockets" or "tanks" supply the only water to be had, and it is a glad sight when one sees a pocket before him. Each formation has its own peculiarities of erosion, or as Dutton aptly puts it, "its own school of natural architecture." Given, then, a particular formation exposed to the atmosphere, it can be foretold just what its natural architectural forms will be, whether domes, minarets, pinnacles, arches, towers, or what.
Architectural forms are not confined to the United States, nor to the American continent. The Giant's Causeway in Ireland is a familiar example of what they have in those parts, while under the Arabian sky the conditions resemble those in our arid Southwest,
and there we find many fantastic rain carvings. Among these is the Sphinx of El Guerrah, carved by the rain-sculptor doubtless expressly to furnish answers to our "whys and wherefores" concerning this "wondrous architecture of the world."