The Voluble Desert

A hundred feet above the desert floor, on the delirious edge of a sandstone escarpment, the rock speaks in tongues. Its black mineral surface has been etched and scraped into a gallery of clamorous images, some animal and some human and some simply other, which press on me with the fervent generosity of a child or a drunk a message I cannot understand. Speechless, I merely crouch over them in the long light of sunrise and then move on.

As far as distance in the Southwest goes, this rock art gallery is not particularly remote – only a mile from the nearest dirt road, and mere feet from an unmapped but trafficked trail. There are thousands or hundreds of thousands of such sites out here, some consisting of a single symbol, and others crowded with so many images that the eye and the mind swim uncomprehendingly in their midst. Some are reached by paved paths in public parks and others are so remote that if you are fortunate enough to have found them, you are either a skilled backcountry traveler or in danger of dying in the near future. And some have probably not been seen by humans in a thousand years.

For the most part, these images are incomprehensible to non-Native inhabitants of the region. Even the term ‘rock art’ may be a misnomer: what we Westerners understand as art usually involves an aesthetic component, while many of these symbols and images may have been purely functional in purpose. It is possible that they tell a story, or offer information to travelers, or warn interlopers, or memorialize the dead, or are simply the half-inspired doodles of a bored but patient artist. We have guesses, and a few solid clues, but for the most part we simply do not know. My Field Guide to Rock Art Symbols of the Greater Southwest contains the following brutal disclaimer: “There is no proof that any of these meanings is correct. It is not possible to define a symbol…. There is evidence that some symbols may have more than one meaning, even in a single culture.”

For anyone who longs to decipher more than a whisper from the voluble desert, variation of meaning in a single culture is vexing enough without factoring in the limitless cultural variety of Native American societies. A Diné (Navajo) man in Canyon de Chelly once explained to me the meanings of some of the symbols in the canyon, and I listened to his explanation with interest. But the symbols weren’t originally carved by the Diné, who moved into the area after it had been inhabited by unrelated societies for millennia. I have no idea if his explanations were correct or not. I know that he knew what the symbols meant to his people, but whether that is different than what they meant to the people who made them is harder to resolve.

The degree to which the petroglyphs and pictographs are legible to the modern Native Americans whose ancestors made them is an open question. Both the Puebloans of New Mexico and the Hopi of Arizona are descended from societies who inhabited the Rio Grande valley and the Colorado Plateau for thousands of years – including those who are now known to us as the Anasazi – but the precise cultural genealogy is hard to trace. These were desert people who moved in response to climate change and resource depletion, adopting and discarding beliefs as they went, splitting and coalescing into lesser or greater groups as circumstances demanded. Other than the rock art, which may be incredibly sophisticated, they had no written language. Their knowledge was passed down through oral tradition, which can be extremely accurate, but which is also subject to the tradition-wrecking gremlins of improvisation, forgetfulness, political manipulation and irrepressible creativity.

Nor is it as simple as asking the Native Americans what they know. Some tribes are more open to sharing their lore with outsiders than others, but understandably few make a habit of being cavalier with information that they believe presents a potential for abuse. In House of Rain, the naturalist Craig Childs recounts being told by a Hopi elder that “there was no way a pahana [white man] such as myself could ever grasp the ancestry of his people.” Childs moved carefully in that conversation, afraid that even the wrong question might provoke an irreparable breach in communication.

Even if the knowledgeable among the Hopi were to completely unburden themselves of their understanding of every symbol they recognize, it would be difficult to verify that their conception was the same as that of the men or women who held the chisel over the stone. Those writers in rock are lone gone. In some cases, we might be able to use archaeological or other associated evidence to support a particular interpretation, and in others observable astronomical phenomena can strengthen an argument or a hunch. There are researchers who devote their entire careers to understanding the carvings and paintings in the desert, and some of the conclusions they have reached are ingenious. But in many ways science is in the same position I was when I stumbled across the messages in the caprock: a grateful passerby, full of curiosity but holding little hope of resolution.

When I was a child riding through the Southwest in the back of a Chevy wagon, I used to imagine that on the top of every passing mesa, in the folded sandstone skirts of every blurred butte, there was an undiscovered ruin or an unseen rock carving waiting to be found by anyone intrepid enough to brave the exposure. At that age – twelve or so – I was still susceptible to the puerile defecations of Louis L’Amour (see The Haunted Mesa, in which the supposed disappearance of the Anasazi is revealed to be the result of an interdimensional portal), and only beginning to enjoy the more sophisticated adventure stories of Tony Hillerman. But my boyish fantasies were probably not far off. There is hardly a corner of the Southwest that has not been inhabited, probably multiple times, and what strikes us as pathless and unwatered malpais was for thousands of years hunted, farmed, fought over, loved and lived in by countless humans.

The more tenaciously we cling to a landscape, the more likely we are to leave our marks on it, and in the arid Southwest those marks take a long time to fade. Next weekend I will once again strap on a backpack and scramble to the top of a sunblasted scarp, hoping to find something I will probably never understand, but grateful for the chance to wonder.


Childs, Craig. House of Rain. New York: Back Bay Books, 2006

Patterson, Alex. Field Guide to Rock Art Symbols of the Greater Southwest. Boulder: Johnson Books, 1992


About Brendan McKinney

Brendan McKinney teaches high school in New Mexico. He graduated from St. John's College and Bond University and is a former Peace Corps volunteer and record-store manager, among other things. He lives with his wife and an indeterminate number of incessantly prowling quadrupeds in Santa Fe.
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