Canyonlands Journal
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Our Soul in Things

I've been wandering alone in Utah’s canyon country for a week while waiting for friends to join me. Today’s remote canyon has no tracks but mine and those of a variety of critters. And then I come on a rock art panel.

Sometime during the 100-year drought, the aboriginal puebloans were forced to seek other places to farm their corn, beans and squash. An artist-ancestor of the Hopi and Zuni stood where I am, painting a message on the rust-colored sandstone wall. The composition is one few others will see.

An owl commands the center with four figures surrounding it. Who would not be drawn into the owl’s light orange eyes staring straight out at the place a viewer would be standing, where I am now. Is it you, painter-of-owls communicating with me? What would you make of this strange visitor wandering through your deserted lands?

No one knows the true meaning of the pictographs left by these early inhabitants – they’ve left no oral or written records, nothing but the remains of their dwellings and art and a scatter of arrow points and pottery shards. So it’s left for the occasional visitor to this desert museum to muse about meaning.

For some current North American tribes, the owl is a symbol of death, and for others, of ghosts carrying messages from beyond the grave or to deliver warnings to those who have broken tribal taboos. God knows, I’ve broken a sufficient number of my own tribe’s rules to warrant a warning. That’s one reason I’m wandering about, alone.

The insubstantial figure to the left of the owl seems to be floating upward. A dark-rust figure above the owl is being lifted toward the sky by winged creatures – dragonflies? Dragonflies live the first year of their lives in the water as nymphs. In the Navajo tradition, the dragonfly is the symbol for pure water. Was the artist depicting those who perished during the drought? Or is the figure being being lifted toward a new homeplace with abundant water?


Two figures to the right have animals – deer, mountain lion, rabbit, coyote? – connected to their arms and heads. In these high desert canyons with their sparce flora and occasional rain, I don't often see the creatures that live here, but I find their tracks. Once I followed a mountain lion’s track in a remote canyon, relieved that it was ahead of me instead of behind.

One figure holds what might be a snake toward the floating figure. It’s all zig-zags, like the faded midget rattler I saw slithering across a dry wash earlier today or like the twisting canyons I’ve been walking through. Perhaps it represents the offer of a lightening bolt’s power to a departed kinsman for use in the afterlife? Or power for the difficult move that the tribe will have to make? Like the one I've recently made from the family home to my own place.

And so I too am lifted, buoyed up, touched emotionally, if not into the sky, at least released from this aloneness that haunts me. Here's a message maker with whom I can mind-speak, about whose work I can muse. But I don't delude myself into believing that I have anything right.

And now a raven has flown in, landed and waddled near for a look at me – the strange beast, the invader. It speaks to me in a deep throaty, “Cr-r-ruck, Cr-r-ruck, Cr-r-ruck,” perhaps wanting company, or perhaps urging me to go back to my own homeplace.

And what will that be like?

drifting through
an empty, yet
not empty place

Note: The title is from Henri Amiel’s adage: “We are all visionaries, and what we see is our soul in things.”


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