I camped this weekend on old flood plain, just outside of the riparian thicket, of the San Juan River in southern Utah. The cliff behind me was a gallery of art. Pecked and painted images were thick on the rock, where the surface was smooth and the patina dark, providing a once favored canvas.
The San Juan and its broad valley must have been a thoroughfare as well as a good place to live 2000 years ago, even a few thousand years before that and for several hundred after. The area is rich in cultural sites for the people known mostly today as Anasazi. Their rich material culture, cliff dwellings, granaries, stone tools, pottery, and art, compels one’s imagination into those earlier lives.
Despite my will to understand, their old artwork, aside from the hunting scenes, remains obscure. The abstracted anthropomorphs in a mix of other symbols remind me of Jackson Pollock’s art before he began to drip or the paintings of Willem de Kooning before he became rich and, then, senile. What Pollock and de Kooning pitched from psyches primed by Freud, the early human cultures of the San Juan must have drawn from psyches pitched by nature. Their anthropomorphs can be surrounded by sustaining plants and animals. They can appear to dance ecstatically. They can be half bighorn sheep and play a flute. Be half lizard. Be the mask of what must have been myths.
The artwork on the wall where I camped was jammed together. Ages and genres overlapped—like stories learned and changed, retold for new meaning.
Since this is America, much of the artwork has been damaged by gunfire. To be American seems to require transformation by gun, through the experience of the hunt, the power of death, the threat of power, or marring by a few well-placed bullet holes.
At the site where the photograph at the top of the post was made, I sensed, one person could have made the relatively few images of the panel. The gravelly sand before the cliff was littered by small fragments of pottery, which had smooth inner surfaces and outer coils ornamented with indentations. A homestead. A small creek lay just downslope to the east, providing easy access to water. The broad floodplain to the river would have provided a place for fields.
To return north, I took a dirt road below a long escarpment. There was a narrow band of plain between the cliff and a winding wash; beyond the wash there were orange hogbacks that rose to Cedar Mesa. The plain was largely flat, with only shallow gullies, for most of its length and must have once provided a good route away from the San Juan. I tried while driving to watch the cliff face, especially where it had broad, darkened facets, for artwork. Often I would stop to scan the cliffs with binoculars, but if ancient people used this route to walk north I expected it would be boulders at the foot of the talus slopes that would have pecked images; so I also scanned the flat-faced boulders. Eventually, I spotted light-colored patterns on a prominent boulder that had tumbled away from the talus slope. I checked it again with binoculars when closer and could see clearly the designs: birds, bighorns, snake, and anthropomorphs made as stick-figures and with trapezoidal torsos. A few miles further north, I found with the binoculars another boulder with art. Here, a jumble of rocks had fallen together to form an enclosure with a stone ceiling. Images had been pecked into the inner as well as outer walls of the enclosure. The northward passage on this narrow plain was only 20 miles, but the road was seldom close enough to the cliff and slopes to examine it carefully for artwork. My urge was to return to walk it.