The Wild and the Old Places Do Not Need You

In light of recent scandalous defacements occuring near Moab, Utah—climbing bolts drilled into the Sunshine Slabs, white supremacist obscenities scrawled across the Birthing Rock—I’ve been thinking about the style, the quality, of my own interactions with potsherds, pictograph panels, and other precious Ancestral Puebloan artifacts. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about some granaries (masoned storage bins tucked up high on protected backcountry ledges) and how my encounter with them illustrates a particular attitude toward place. What I’m thinking about, really, is the question of agency, or perhaps authorship. Out in the desert, out in the slickrock, who’s doing the writing?

Years ago, during a raft trip through the Grand Canyon, friends and I hiked to the famous Nankoweap Granaries at River Mile 53. We were flying on black coffee, blathering and goofing, totally excited. The whitewater! The wilderness! The hot sun and cold beer and swooping swallows and sandy beaches and sandy sandwiches and relentless beauty! And now, damn, wow, these incredible ancient structures! Still talking a blue streak when we arrived at our destination, talking and talking and talking, celebrating the fine construction, the ingenuity and toughness of those who managed to survive in such a severe environment, the dramatic view, I extended a finger and leaned close, preparing to gently touch an alluring patch of smooth mud mortar.

Out in the desert, out in the slickrock, who’s doing the writing?

A friend stopped me. Dude, what the fuck?

My hand jumped back as if stung. A painful prick, a wincing shame: I woke instantly from the trance of self-absorbed obliviousness.

Contrasted with the countless examples of violence wrought on Ancestral Puebloan sites over the past couple centuries, this incident might seem trivial (no harm, no foul?). I didn’t rob graves, bulldoze walls, or comb the ground to within an inch of its life in the name of archeological research. I didn’t install bolts. I didn’t scratch hateful curses. Heck, thanks to that wise friend’s interference, I didn’t even grease the mud mortar with my stupid sunscreeny finger. Nevertheless, I suspect that the attitude undergirding and thus sponsoring my behavior shares a family resemblance to more egregious, blatantly gross and destructive acts.

How to speak of that undergirding attitude, that sponsoring attitude, that opposite-of-respectful attitude? What language covers the entire sorry spectrum from ignorant acts to greedy acts to outright malicious acts?

In 2018, before embarking on a two-week traverse of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, I enjoyed an afternoon with the late Charley Bulletts, then the Kaibab Paiute Tribe’s cultural resource director. Between telling tales, laughing at my dumb jokes, and offering advice on how a solo trekker can honor the parched terrain of cactuses, insects, spirits, and silence, Bulletts informed me that the familiar label “rock art” ought to be replaced with “rock writing.” There’s a lot to this terminological switch that remains beyond my understanding, a lot of significance that I’m unqualified to explain, but the point I want to emphasize is simple: the spirals, anthropomorphs, and images of wild game pecked into boulders and painted on cave ceilings were—and are—authored.

Holding that notion of authorship in mind, consider the human fingerprint (especially a stupid sunscreeny one). It’s a unique signature, an idiosyncratic mark of ownership, right? Though I’d prefer to believe that reaching toward the mud mortar at Nankoweap was an attempt to read the granary, to listen to it, to welcome its old mysterious story into my sensitive flesh, I can’t shake the icky feeling that I was actually overwriting, rewriting, imposing.

At the time of that near-miss, I’d lived for four summers on the Arizona Strip, where vestiges of the Ancestral Puebloan world abound, and spent a decade-plus traveling in canyon country, diligently practicing Leave No Trace, never once manhandling an arrowhead or crumbling foundation. Clearly, something about the Grand Canyon float—the boisterous, sociable, adrenalized, action-packed, oft-inebriated, recreational rafting experience—had given me, if only at an unconscious level, the ass-backwards idea that I was the boss, the guy in charge, the active agent, the shot-calling author.

I’m here to write MY adventure story, MY vacation story, MY vivid nature story, MY rendezvous-with-prehistory story. The plan for today—MY plan for today—involves A, B, C, then X, Y, and Z. Gonna be awesome! Gonna be great! Another beer? Yes, please!

If the wilderness wasn’t a blank page, it was at the very least akin to a found diary, the script faint, too easily obliterated with reckless black slashes from the Sharpie marker of my domineering will.

So there you have it, a story of brash idiocy, of a stance, a bearing, an insidious attitude toward place that pierced my conscience with a wicked sting. And honestly, a good number of years later, my conscience continues to sting, not because I caused irrevocable physical damage (no harm, no foul?), but because, well, who wants to admit that a part of him is such a punk? Does the punk dwell inside of me yet? Will he rear his ugly head again?

Can he be rooted out?

Ongoing, this mess. An invitation to improve.

Nowadays, I’m increasingly interested in making myself a sheet of paper, in forfeiting my privileged status as author and allowing stacked stones, mud mortar, surrounding geology, encompassing weather—the always-broader desert—to do the writing. Better than that: I’m interested in acknowledging and embracing the fact that a puny little person like me, compared to the land, hasn’t ever been much of an author anyway.

Photo: Joshua Gresham



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