Writing on Rock

Writing about the culture that has come out of aboriginal-settler relationships in what is sometimes called the Late West, is a bit  like peeling a layer off an onion, and there’s another layer, so you peel that off, and there’s another one yet, and here we are and your eyes are starting to tear up and sting and you start thinking, whoa, shoulda worn safety goggles.


The Okanagan Okanogan Blog Official Onion Crop

Drying in the August sun.

So, let’s start peeling. Got those goggles? Here we are in Oroville, Washington, and the kids are painting on the rocks.


Every Year 

It’s not just Oroville. The graduation classes throughout Eastern Washington write their names up on the rocks, year after year, after year.

It seems to be irresistible, culturally. Here’s the longer view of that…


Prince’s Department Store Parking Lot, Oroville

Complete with white rock art and artificial buffalo that you can ride around in, so you never need to leave home. Without Canadian shopping dollars, Oroville would have a hard time. Prince’s is here to facilitate the exchange of cash.

Here’s an even longer view, this time leaving White culture to the culture it replaced and seems to be stuck imitating, in a kind of diminished way…

Chilcotin Canyon Pictographs

Most of the Plateau versions of these pictographs have been long buried under the flood waters of the Columbia River dams. That’s what happens when you turn one of the world’s great cultural rivers into a lake.

Indigenous kids used to clamber up onto the rocks as part of the ceremony of turning into adults and paint their visions with salmon oil and ochre. Teenagers! There’s something universal here. Here’s what the Chilcotin kids are painting now …


Contemporary Chilcotin Pictograph, Sheep Creek

So much changes. So much stays the same. There is a caption, too, off to the side of this image of the footings of the Sheep Creek Bridge. It reads: “Roses are red, violets are blue, I like girls legs, and what’s between them, too.” Nothing like saying it with a spray can.

It’s a different adolescent ritual, and all tangled up with sex and rock and roll, but it’s a powerful ritual nonetheless. But, wait, aren’t the white kids up to the same thing? Why, yes they are…


Flume, Oroville

Leave your name, somewhere, especially somewhere it’s not wanted. That seems to be the rule. Not such a visual culture, these Oroville kids have, but, hey.

Oh, but you see, these onions have many different layers. Here we are, a long long way away, in Iceland, and …

“Please Do Not Stack Rocks” Gulfoss, Iceland

The authorities could have saved themselves the sign.

Yes, in Iceland tourists can’t help themselves and stack up rocks in human shapes any chance they get. Here’s a closer view…


Bunch of Human Self Portraits Looking Over the Falls…

…long after the biological humans who stacked them up are gone.

There’s something very, very primal here. I’d say that it says that humans make images of themselves, for various purposes, some of which are conscious, others which are not. Now, I admit to a bias. I like conscious purpose. I think you can build better societies like that. I’m not a complete fool, though. I know that contemporary North American society prefers unconscious purpose. It’s just that, well, sure, you can replace an indigenous culture and then your ancestors start repeating its forms in ways that fit in your own culture, and you wind up with RVs, instead of people actually living on the land, and you get global warming instead of a sustainable culture. We don’t all need to be hunter gatherers. That’s not going to happen. But sustainability, that needs to happen. And fast. Here’s an interesting take on rock art, reworked towards long-term sustainability. The metaphor is ancient, and appears at first foreign to contemporary culture, but it isn’t. This is at Ozette, Washington. The Makah people lived on this coast since the ice left and hunted whales. On soft boulders along the shore just south of their village sites, they left talismans, hundreds of them. This is one…

Pregnant Whale, Wedding Rocks

Think of it. You create a whale by slowly wearing away the rock with the action of your own hand until the whale is there, and then you let the sea wear it away over centuries, taking that attention away and dissolving it into the water, to insure that whales will come, rich and pregnant with calves, for hundreds of years. When the art is gone? It’s never gone. It’s in the sea. It’s in the whales.

That’s what culture needs to get at today. Not just painting grad class years on the rock, or names on the culverts, or erotic invitations under isolated bridge decks, but images less of humans and more of the earth, cuz the future ain’t about us. We’ve shown that pretty clearly. Of course, it can be about us, us humans, but if it is, it’ll likely be on a planet in which there is pretty well no other life, just people, people, people, genetically engineered corn and canola, a lot of weeds, and the animals grown in big industrial feed lots for us to eat … a twisted version of the settlement of the West, one that denies that there aren’t no cowboys and there aren’t no Indians no more, just all of us, who’ve inherited both traditions at the same time and have come to point of having to unify them. If we don’t, we’re an invasive species.

Tomorrow: an invasive species.


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