Marking Time

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A few years ago, I stood in a sandy, dry creek bottom in northern Nevada, not far from the Black Rock Desert, a hundred miles from civilization. With me were two rangers from the Bureau of Land Management’s Reno office. It had taken us several hours to reach this place, and it was now late afternoon; the shadows were long, and a chill wind muttered through the clumps of sage and creosote bush that dotted the land about. On either side of us jumbles of huge, dark boulders rose perhaps forty feet to the lip of the flat above the creek bed, like walls constructed by gigantic, incompetent stonemasons. On the boulders, along a stretch of perhaps a hundred yards, were messages from another time.

The messages were prehistoric Indian pictographs (drawings) and petroglyphs (carved incisions), curves and circles and geometric patterns, primitive human figures, stylized animals. They were put there God only knows how many hundreds and even thousands of years ago by God only knows what peoples or groups of peoples, and today we can only dimly guess at their meanings—the propitiation of various gods, signs to bring good hunting or healthy children, talismans to ward off the murky forces of evil, perhaps nothing more complicated than signs to establish this as their country. Whatever the messages were, they spoke to me in that lonely little gulch; I almost turned to look behind me, half expecting to see peering around some bush a small, dark man with ancient eyes.

I reached out to touch one of the pictographs. “Don’t,” one of the rangers said, and he was right: however primitive, it was a work of art as well as a mark of time, and to corrupt it with the touch of our own time would have been to diminish its meaning. Furthermore, he pointed out as we were leaving, I was sworn to secrecy about the precise location of the creek bottom.

He had his reasons. The 150,000,000 acres of public land in the contiguous United States under the supervision of the Bureau of Land Management contain uncounted thousands of such pictographs and petroglyphs, and none of them are safe. Under the provisions of the Antiquities Act of 1906, it is a federal offense to tamper with them, but the act has had little effect. Given access by various off-road vehicles, some denatured souls have made it a practice to mutilate them with rifle fire, spray-paint, and chisels; others more profit-minded have broken them loose from their home rock (sometimes using dynamite) and hauled them off for sale to “collectors.” Such people are by no means typical of offroad-vehicle owners, but there are enough of them around to suggest that there are certifiable Visigoths loose in the world.

Until very recently, the BLM was almost powerless to control such mindless vandalism. Given no enforcement authority, a ranger who encountered someone in an act of desecration had only one choice: he could hop in his jeep, go to the nearest sheriff’s office, tell the story, and hope—assuming that the officer had the time for it—that they got back to the scene of the crime in time for an arrest. It was not exactly an efficient form of justice. But in October, 1976, President Ford signed into law the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (otherwise known as the BLM Organic Land Act), a measure which, among other things, gave BLM rangers police powers similar to those of the National Park Service and the Forest Service. If Congress follows the mandate of the law and provides the BLM with the money for the necessary manpower, a solution may be at hand.

Is it all that important? I think so. These scratchings are among the oldest of all our legacies, the most purely human contact we have with ages long gone. The men who etched them were artists, and we may assume that like all artists of any time they were reaching out, mutely but eloquently, to express something beyond themselves and their own present. They were speaking to all of us just as they were speaking to me in that tiny slit in the Nevada earth, and that, it seems to me, is reason enough to protect their work from those who would steal from time.