On an autumn afternoon, Earl Wadsworth climbed up to the top of a ledge in a remote slot canyon in Nevada. With a knife or a nail or some other tool Earl scratched a large cursive “E” into the limestone wall. After some consideration the graffiti-artist gave up on the formal script and printed his full name across the rock.
Just below he added the date: “November, 14th 1920.”
Eighty-six years later, to the day, I found myself on the same ledge admiring Wadsworth’s handiwork. I had come to this canyon as a vandal myself, and a thief, leaving a less authorial record on the walls with a 616 gram Estwing rock pick and a black sharpie. But in fact my business here has less to do with writing stories than reading them.
In the annals of Arrow Canyon, Wadsworth’s chapter–and mine–are something of a post script. A few yards away from the Mormon’s studied signature is a wall covered with petroglyphs. The stories told by the intricate waves and mythic creatures are lost to me, but abundant figures with spiral horns hint that the Fremont and Nuwuvi artists probably came to this canyon in search of bighorn sheep. Corpulent caucasians on quads pursue the same quarry today.
Without ATVs or GPSs, the Paiute developed their own tools for navigating the desert landscape. Like the aboriginal peoples of Australia’s interior, the Nuwuvi used elaborate songlines to find their way between the pockets of food, water and shelter hidden in the desert. Often moving at night, “runners” would recite songs that told of the mythic deeds of gods and ancestors. Following in the footsteps of history native peoples could find their way safely across the forbidding Mojave.
Although they were a desert people, the Nuwuvi traced their origins to the sea. While making his own epic journey across the desert Southwest geologist John Wesley Powell recorded a story told by the Nuwuvi:
Si-chom-pa Ka-gon (Old Woman of the Sea) came out of the sea with a sack filled with something, and securely tied. Then she went back to the home of the Shin-au-av brothers. She delivered to them the sack and told them to carry it to the middle of the world and open it. There they would meet Tov-wots, who would tell them what to do with it. Shin-au-av-pa-vits (the elder) gave the sack to Shin-au-av-skaits (the younger) and told him to do as Si-chom-pa Ka-gon had directed, and especially enjoined upon him that he must not open the sack lest some calamity should befall him. As he proceeded, his curiosity overcame him, and he untied the sack, when out sprang hosts of people who passed out on the plain, shouting and running toward the mountain. (from here)
The ocean seems remote indeed from the dry washes of Arrow Canyon, but the rocks themselves tell a tale of the sea. Long before Wadsworth’s act of vandalism, before Powell’s trek down the Colorado, even before the first Paiute or Fremont or bighorn sheep stepped into the canyon, in fact before Arrow canyon was a canyon at all this area was a warm tropical sea.
The gray limestones of arrow canyon are studded with corals and crinoids. The irregular surface of one bedding plane resolves upon closer inspection into a reef of archaeocyaths complete with in situ brachiopods, valves slightly agape in expectation of a food-rich current that will never come.
Or perhaps it will. Regular sets of limestone beds topped with erosional surfaces testify to the relentless rise and fall of Carboniferous seas. Some beds are covered with Stigmaria–the roots of a tree-sized club moss that thrived along the shore when expanding Gondwanan ice sheets drew the sea level down. Atop one of these cycles geologists have sunk a virtual flag, marking the boundary between the Mississippian and Pennsylvanian epochs.
The club mosses have been replaced by cactus and creosote, the crinoids and corals are long gone, to say nothing of the archaeocyathids. And yet not everything has changed. Dragonflies and silverfish, or something like them, probably dwelled in the Stigmaria swamp; encountering them in today’s canyon is like running into a creature from a Nuwuvi songline. A bit of imagination can turn the brush lizards into petrolacosaurs.
The sun dips abruptly behind the canyon wall and a breeze courses down the canyon like a flash flood. The collapsing cries of swifts echo down the canyon. The desert is a songscape, past and present mingle in the shadows.
A little more than one hundred years ago, John Wesley Powell put it best:
I climb so high that the men and boats are lost in the black depths below…All around me are interesting geologic records. The book is open and I can read as I run.