My idea and understanding of landscape has changed considerably since I began this project two years ago. The word itself is problematic in that it brings to mind a certain kind of European painting of a natural setting and Turner or Friedrich or the Hudson Valley painters who all painted in near perfect perspectival space exercising the scientific measure of their age. But I do not mean landscape in this lush, green and alluring senses, I mean it more as the shape of the land or as a place the falls away from where we stand. And in the desert the word implies duration and being, monotony and patience. Landscape has an inner course as well as outer, which unfolds slowly and surely. This relationship to our notion of landscape is the key that either unlocks or conceals the land from us.
My perception of the land changes depending on the season and the weather, my previous knowledge of a place, what I see and touch and feel on site, who I am with, who I meet, my mood and how long I stay in one place. This day I planned to spend entirely in one spot in order to observe the light and shadows across the rocks. We had been invited to the gap by Nal Morris, during a talk he gave at the URARA conference Leslie and I had just attended. Nal’s talk about the “solar pivot” convinced me that the Parowan Gap would be a good place to observe the trajectory of a single day. So we drove over there from out roost above Kanab by way of the Zion national park and the lovely Kolob plateau which was covered in golden Aspens, in time to watch the sun set over the Great Basin.
There are many differences in styles and forms of petroglyphs. I have tried to limit my project to the Great Basin, but in traveling to New Mexico and Utah, and seeing the contrasting “pueblo” style of glyphs I learn more through comparison than simply staring at the rocks in the basin talus or along the canyon wall. My direct experience is always bombarded with my cultural awareness and often lack there of. And approaching the petroglyphs, I am faced with the searing question of why this project? I keep asking myself how are these glyphs relevant? What can they show us? And I am arriving at a different sort of answer than I imagined. Now, I turn the question against itself. Why be so consumed with the ideas of cultural production and consumption? Those are urban concerns. Out here on the plains every act is a form of being and futility is graceful. The glyphs say nothing of the city, but they indicate our own insignificance against in time. But they surely tell about the land, the time of day and season and how one might move across the land, and what one does or did on that land. The layers of nonsense that I sift through: my own romanticism, the speculations of others, dry archeological descriptions all swirl around in my mind, an eddy of misunderstandings.
We just came from Kanab, Utah where we attended a Utah Rock Art Association conference. I met my friend Leslie Ryan there. She came out from Virginia and we were going to end up in the wilderness in Escalante. But our plans were still fairly loose at that point in the day. The first people I met in the parking lot were a couple who had met Leslie the day before. And Leslie started talking to the woman and the guy starts talking to me about Navajo witchcraft and living on the reservation by Page. I’d only heard about living on “the rez” and there wasn’t much good in what I had heard but he seemed to go off a deep end pretty quickly. He started talking about murder and spirits who knocked on people’s doors. How these spirits then knocked him on his head when he was resting one day and it spooked him so bad he had to leave his home. His story spooked me too and I wished that he would stop, but he kept going. Finally I raised my voice and told him that I cant stand superstition, black magic, and cruelty in general, because those topics don’t go anywhere good, and he quieted down, but not until he told me how to scare off a dirty smelly witch doctor, and pointed out the finger his wife has lost in some skirmish with the bad magic of one of their spells. It took me a while to get over that conversation. That night we burned a lot of sage before we bedded down, happily that was the extent of the black magic talk.
There were quite a few interesting papers given at the conference, and my favorite was by a man named Nal Morris (www.parowangap.org). He has been researching the Parowan Gap for over a decade. He argued that the Gap was of astronomical significance, and he called it “weatherman’s trail” a place of observing the sun everyday of the year. He had deduced a system based on a cross embedded in certain glyphs that pointed to spots hundreds of meters away where there had been 2 rock cairns (or piles) that marked the equinoxes (or solstices, I don’t recall). His presentation was so compelling that we headed out to the gap the following Monday to see for ourselves. So we watched the sun set on the first night, and I filmed the west facing rock. For some reason I preferred the Basin side of the gap to the Eastern side where the famous “zipper glyph” unlocked the secrets of archeo-astronomy for Nal.