Voices from the River: Message on a rock

Petroglyphs in Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. 

By Randy Scholfield

I recently floated down the Rio Grande Gorge in New Mexico—part of a trip we organized for journalists to highlight the Rio Grande Gorge National Monument north of Taos and the current administration’s efforts to review and possibly scale back places like this.

After a mile hike down the steep cliff face, our group launched rafts and we spent the day on the Rio Grande canyon. You feel here instantly that you’re in a deep place, dwarfed by soaring cliffs and long silences and the rhythms of sun, riverflow and rock.

We saw many spectacular things on the float—a hawk nabbing a bat out of midair, falcons diving at mach speed along time-sculpted cliffs, bighorn sheep lying on the riverbank, feet away, watching us with black, bottomless eyes as we passed.

But what left the deepest impression on me came during a stop we made at a place where a small tributary creek fed into the main canyon.

Here were ancient pictures scratched into black, volcanic boulders by humans who hunted and lived here many hundreds or thousands of years ago. They had long vanished into the mists of time, but they had left these untouched images for whatever eyes came after.

The petroglyphs depicted bear paws, and bighorn sheep, and turkey—and people, surrounded by this four-legged and winged panoply of creatures.

The images were breathtaking, and gave us pause.

We speculated aloud on the purpose behind the messages. Maybe the drawings were a sign left for other hunters – “Here’s a place where there is good hunting.”

After all, this would have been a perfect spot to ambush elk, deer and other animals that followed (and still do today) this same creek canyon rift down from the high mountain meadows to the river’s edge.

But the evident care and imagination in these pictographs seemed to come from a deeper spiritual place of connectedness to the natural world. These creatures were deeply embedded in the hunters’ lives and cosmology. It felt like a makeshift shrine to what was important to them. This is what sustains us, the images seemed to say. This is who we are.

Who are we? The ancient hunters who passed here were very different from us urban-centered moderns, but I think there remains a deep, visceral part of us that responds to these places and creatures in similar ways--with attention and respect and wonder. 

Today, we leave our own kind of signs about what is important to us—for instance, by designating this canyon and other remarkable landscapes as national monuments.

The monument says, this is a special place that sustains our community and helps give us our identity. We are people who value wildlife and healthy rivers and wild places.

That wild connection is part of what makes us human. If we lose it, then who are we?

Do the messages on the rocks still speak to us?

Randy Scholfield is TU’s communications director for the Southwest.


said on Friday, July 14th, 2017

I find it interesting how we are all held in awe by these ancient pictographs or even those markings left by people of the 1800's, but find appalling any of a more recent vintage.  I visit a certain rock on a mountain side above the upper Rio Grande in southern Colorado at least on a yearly basis to touch a set of initials etched into that rock by a young boy 60+ years ago and sit for awhile and remember. Perhaps he carved those letters for the same reasons the ancients drew their pictures.


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