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Poetry Friday: The Great Unconformity

Jack Share

This week’s Poetry Friday segment comes to us from Wayne Ranney, geologist, author and interpretive guide on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. For years, he’s read poetry to his passengers in special places along the river. Blacktail Canyon is one of those places. It’s also where – long ago – a passenger handed him a poem she had written, inspired by one of the most mind-blowing geological formations in the Canyon. Wayne shares that poem with us today…it’s called 'The Great Unconformity', by Charlotte Graham-Clark.    

Wayne Ranney:

When I go as a geologist on my river trips, I read a poem to people when we stop at a side canyon called Blacktail Canyon. I read this poem on every single river trip, and it never ceases to bring awe to people when they hear it. Blacktail Canyon is a good place to read it, but the story about the poem is interesting, as well because I had done this on one river trip, and a woman came up to me later that night and handed me this poem, which she called "The Great Unconformity". 

So, the reason that this poem is so special to be read at Blacktail Canyon is because for dozens of miles upstream from here I have pointed out the Great Unconformity, a thousand feet above peoples' heads, where these two layers of rock touch each other in the thinness of a sheet of paper, but they represent 1.2 billion years of the rock record that's missing. So, by the time we get to Blacktail, this specific horizon in the rocks has come down to river-level, and people actually get to stop and touch the Great Unconformity. And being the geologist that I am, I always pump them up for how special it is to tell this story at that place.

The Great Unconformity, by Charlotte Graham-Clark

It is time

Touch it

Trail your fingers over a billion years

Etched in the red rock

There is no monument, no temple more sacred

Than this monumental temple to the whole wide world

Seared this great chasm of whispering, eroded eons

With majesty beyond comprehension

And the tender intimacy of glowing sunlight and splashing waters

Stand here on the riverbank awhile and drink

Let the peace of this wild place wash the dirt from your soul

Leave you clean and empty and new

See the light play here over bench and spire

Gold, tan, red, buff, gray

Hear the music of the free water

Green, brown, white, splash, glitter

A new note every day in the symphony of the universe

Credit Helen Ranney
Interpretive geologist Wayne Ranney shows off the Great Unconformity to passengers on a Grand Canyon river trip. It represents 1.2 billion years missing in the rock record

The sun sets and you see there are two rivers

One beside you

And one above you

And as you watch the stars wheel slowly through the dark sky

The silent sandstones leaning over you reveal this grand secret:

You are part of it, and it a part of you

The past is forever and unchanging

But the present moves through it as it will

The sky reflects it all and gives it back

As the waters that divided these vistas flow through you

You were the rock

You will be the sand on the riverbank

And the life that is in you

Will pass through you

From the quiet layers of the past into the uncharted and free-flowing future

Giving life ever downstream

In God’s good time

Poetry Friday is produced by KNAU's Gillian Ferris. If you have an idea for a story segment, drop her an email at

Gillian Ferris was the News Director and Managing Editor for KNAU.