The curves and browns of canyon walls lifted on the wings of butterflies to play at the drying vegetation in Horseshoe Canyon this weekend. On shallow, gravel terraces the cottonwoods were well committed to fall. Each had at least a fringe of yellow. I was glad to rest in the cottonwood shade. The sun was sharp. My shadow was cast behind me on the rippled and pocked bottom of the sandy wash as I walked through the morning.
We see ourselves first as shadows, rendered by light into an elemental human form. While distorted by the lay of the land, we are also enlarged by the lengthening day. Cast on a canyon wall, one’s shadow can stand tall—taller even than one’s self just before darkness.
At darkness, we make gods of our shadows, ghosts of our memories. Those are transformations Nietzsche made into philosophy. Some thousands of years ago, people in Horseshoe Canyon made an iconography of the shadowy human form. Seen from a distance they look like little more than pale red slashes painted on the slickrock—as if someone were keeping count—but as you near the painted rock panels the figures take form. A populace of shadows. Shadows framed by snake and bird. Shadows bearing beasts in their breasts. Shadows bearing humans. The powerful dead attended by shadows.
Art is a will to persist. Transforming the elements at hand from a slurry of pigment into the shadow of being must have seemed a viable alchemy for people who hunted and gathered and lived against the overhang of canyon walls. They could see the abundance of animals in the narratives of hunting. For nomadic people, returning periodically to the painted canyon, the persistent shadows must have reinforced the continuity of clan and their community with birds and snakes.
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