Saturday, April 02, 2005

The previous people

(In the comments to a previous post I mentioned dogshit cactus. Below I say a little more about their home, and hopefully explain a little of my nostalgia for inhospitable places of the desert.)

In August near Ft. Hancock, Texas, halfway between El Paso and the Quitman Mountains, it would be in the early 1970s— I found myself sweating in a landscape that shimmered in the heat and looked like it had been unloaded from a dump truck—sand, gravel, and dry, barren arroyos. There were occasional low spiny plants; everything under the radiant cloudless sky was either too hot to touch or too sharp to get close to. The only visual relief was the dark range of mountains to the south, in Mexico, and a distant ribbon of green along the river. And the parallel ribbon of noise and smoke of I-10.

I was there to look at prehistoric Indian rock art. For a few years, when I lived in El Paso, these remote cryptic statements on the dark stone seemed to me to hold some promise that if I came to understand them I would thereby understand some important secret of the desert.
There at Ft. Hancock you take an unpaved bare road north, bladed off into the sand. Hidden in the distance, 15 miles away at the foot of the great scorched rimrock that forms the south end of the Diablo Plateau, was a sort of time capsule, a vast outdoor gallery of time-hardened and heat-sealed records of people who have now vanished, but who lived there for thousands of years. It was a desolate place, full of ancient Indian drawings chipped into the stone of the barren cliffs.

You could--with some difficulty-- drive right up to it. What was noticeable as we parked our car below the rimrock was the stillness. A car is civilization; the noise never stops in a car. But there, we would step out into a groundswell of silence, penetrating as the heat, a wide screen silent movie of hawks in the summer thermals. Far above drifted the endless dynasties of floating vultures. The tall shadowy serpentlike columns of distant dust-devils swayed as if charmed by some inaudible flute. You would hear a little bit of wind and a few animal noises, cicadas and ravens.

But most of the noise was made by me and the people with me, scrambling up the rubble toward the dark sandstone cliff. The Cox Sandstone was laid down in a warm shallow ichthyosaur sea a hundred million years ago, a pale sand that has hardened, over millions of years, into rock with a rind the color of weathered iron. The almost-black iron/manganese surface of the stone is called desert varnish. The rock is pale when you chip below the surface, and you get a fine contrast; a hammerstone was the only tool the Indians needed in order to draw or express their thoughts.

Some past moment of time was thus seared onto the burnt desert rock. We spoke of it as "rock art" but it seemed to have little to do with art as we know it. Out here it was more like geology than art, outdoors where it was done. All around was the smell of creosote bushes, the hiss of the winds. Rattlesnakes dreaming under their rocks. Small opuntias that break off when touched and cling to the side of your shoe and hence are called, locally, dogshit cactus. Toxin tipped lechuguilla agave spines which had waited in this desert for your ankle since the dawn of time. Not a user-friendly environment.

A large boulder, maybe 20 feet across, blackened with millennia of layered manganese, bore hammered rows of pale elongate triangles, about 8 inches high. When I looked at them closely I realized that they represented spear points, attached to wavy lines that seemed to represent both the shaft and the throw, and were stuck through mountain sheep which were depicted as boxes with legs, heads, and horns. One shaft originated at the crotch of a triangular man, a cock-spear. Sometimes the shafts meandered around the rock before sticking the sheep, harpoons attached to the slain animals by ropes. The triangular men and the triangular dart points were sometimes hard to tell apart. We saw a horned man with a huge projectile point emerging from his head, between the horns. He was holding a spear in each hand. We saw what may be a snake whose head was a spear point. Everything was crudely done, concept more valued than execution.

Nobody knows very much about the people who hammered these figures into the stone. I know it took them a day, the time we need to fly from El Paso to Rome, to walk from the river to the rimrock, a twenty-mile slug through sand and mesquite and creosote bush, carrying water in leaky skins, or perhaps in resin smeared baskets. Carrying food, tools, and weapons. Carrying small children. Wearing yucca-fiber thong sandals. A man would have an atlatl and some spears with barbed flint points, and maybe some replacement points and sinew and crude string made by twisting agave or yucca fibers on his own sweaty thigh. Some feathers and pieces of flint. A woman would have a sack and a digging stick, and maybe a mortar and pestle. They had their medicine bundles, and their knowledge of land and the sky and the spirits of the desert, their skill and luck or supernatural guidance in the hunt. The women knew where the roots and pods and beans grew that provided most of the band's food.

Yet knowing this got me no closer to knowing what those mysterious drawings really meant. What you see is enigmatic drawings which have to me become emblems of a remote and almost forgotten way of being human, signposts I can't read, pointing backwards to somewhere our own forebears were a very long time ago. What you see is what you get.

No comments: