March 22, 2010

Parsing petroglyphs

Often on a trip small things make the biggest and most lasting impression. Simple, human things that need no explanation. You come upon them, consider and absorb them, and leave with a gentle, satisfied fullness.

Petroglyphs are such things -- bare, spare expressions of life's joys and challenges carved into a stone face a thousand-plus years ago by someone who needed to document his year, his month, his day.

I love petropglyphs. I've seen them where I'd expected to, in places like Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, New Mexico. And I've seen them where I didn't know they'd be: Bronze Age depictions of Viking ships carved into rocks in a field in Norway near the Swedish border; a riot of figures etched into a wall at Sand Island, a no-frills campground on the San Juan River near Bluff, Utah, where the kids and I spread-eagled ourselves across our tent to keep it from blowing away in a sandstorm; and in White Tank Mountain Regional Park in Arizona where Dana and I went for a day hike during a family visit to see Phoenix relatives.

Simple, silent voices that say, We were here.

This post was inspired by a poem I read today in The Atlantic by Michael Chitwood, who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:


He worked for years on the tablet,
deciphering the pictographs. He knew
it was a kind of language, those images.
An eye. A bird, maybe a crow.
A basket of wheat. A ladder.
Did the order of the images matter?
He cross-referenced similar texts.
He studied the history of the region
and satisfied many hours in the tablet's service.
In a cousin language, a ladder
was the word for happiness, to rise up,
to be lifted above the ordinary.
After years of work, he sorted it out.
It was poetry, bad poetry, adolescent.
It read: "Today I am happy,
happy, all this day, today."