The earth beneath our feet is rock. Rock provides durable shelter. From rock we can make tools. Plants grow from beneath the fine sands of rock. Rock is patient. Rock contains the power of endurance. Rock is sacred.
Native Americans have always treated rock with a tremendous amount of reverence and created a spiritual union with it. On an atomic level rocks are as alive as anything else on earth, being manifestations of the elements. Humans are made of earth, eat food of the earth, and will return to earth at the end of the journey. It is not hyperbole to say that, from the Native American perspective, the earth is its people.
To carve a spiritual image into a boulder, scrape a sacred trail into the desert pavement, or to align stones into formation with the intention of prayer is to massage the body of the mother in hopes of melding the humble human spirit with rock’s magnificent power.
As we continue to follow the efforts of the Native Americans at Standing Rock to save their sacred land from being defiled by American corporate oil enterprises, we must remain mindful that it is not a unique fight. The native people of North America have been defending against American imperialism and greed since The United States government was founded. Around the year 2013 the Ocotillo Express Wind Facility belligerently bulldozed a clearly documented Native American ceremonial site, sacred rock alignments, and relocated the disinterred bodies from an ancient cemetery to San Bernardino.
The nearby “Spoke Wheel Geoglyph” was saved from destruction because it had already been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, but it was cold comfort to the local tribes. Location and context is as much part of Native American ceremonial art as the art itself. The Viejas tribe chairman said that “Protecting the geoglyph while allowing it to be surrounded by turbines amounts to ‘destroying the outside walls of the tomb of Jesus but avoiding the dirt from within.'” (East County Magazine, April 2013)
This is a remarkable and inspiring story about the efforts to save the land from a wind farm. Several unusual animal visitations to one small brush ramada was seen as visitations from spirits. http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/tribal-members-hold-vigil-ocotillo-wind-site
Some other geoglyphs and burial sites have been preserved merely by accident of their remote location, but still have not survived the impact of recreational off-road drivers. Tire tracks mar the burial site of one of the most important archaeological finds in the Southwest, the burial site of Yuha Man. (See this post “Yuha Man” for more about that site and its intriguing story.)
There’s so much more going on at these geoglyph sites than meets the eye, and once you know a little bit about how they are constructed it makes you want to tread much more lightly on the desert pavement.
Geoglyphs (also called “intaglios”) are trails scraped into, and rock formations placed on, the crust of the desert pavement. Some are foot trails to be travelled within the constraints of a particular ceremony. Some are images meant to be viewed by heavenly beings. From the ground they don’t look like much, but when viewed from above you can see that they have intention.
The Blythe Intaglios near the town of Blythe at the California/Arizona border famously represent identifiable images like this one of a human.
The geoglyphs at Blythe are radio carbon dated to be about 1000 years old and feel easy to digest because they represent shapes that we think we can identify, like a human, a horse and a snake. Something about how accessible they are as identifiable images makes them seem sort of quaint. But not all geoglyphs are so user friendly. What can we make of the wildly esoteric, seemingly nonsensical, line meanders and circles out in the Yuha Mesa above the badlands near the California/Mexico border. They are dated to be thousands of years older and therefore a thousand time further buried in the spiritual psychology of the ancient shaman.
What could possibly be the meaning behind an image that snakes along the desert plain, stopping at a small cleared circle, then terminating at two larger concentric circles with a rock mound at their center? Yet an image like the Power Geoglyph on Yuha Mesa, which is the length of a football field, may have taken weeks to conceive of, plot, and then ceremonially carve.
Just because we step across the threshold of an unfamiliar religious temple doesn’t mean we disregard its sanctity. These geoglyphs can be thought of as open air temples whose marble cherubs are unostentatious piles of carefully selected stones, whose stained glass windows are etchings in the desert pavement.
Yuha Man’s grave site, for example has six humble stones placed together in a ring. A careless passerby may kick them over or lay a fire amongst them thinking its a fire ring. They, instead, should treat that rock ring with the same sanctity you would treat a Christian cross carved into the headstone of a grave. A rock ring is an important alignment at a prehistoric grave such as Yuha Man’s. It was likely placed there to protect the grave from evil powers. It is a loving and peaceful prayer for god/s to protect the resting place of the dead, just like the anglo practice of putting a cross on a grave.
There is also a small cleared circular space nearby. Something like this can be thought of like an anglo pulpit where a priest may stand to conduct a service/ceremony. There is no natural high place on this flat space of desert, but the circle represents a pole upon which a shaman stands and is elevated to pray amongst the spirits in the heavenly realm.
The famous Yuha Geoglyph is a couple of miles away out on the edge of the Yuha Mesa. It was destroyed by ATV drivers good and proper. Someone went out there and did doughnuts all over it. The Imperial Valley College tried to reconstruct it. I think they weren’t very successful. The reconstruction is barely visible, but hats off to them for trying.
The Spoke Wheel Geoglyph is a sun alignment wheel a few miles away from the geoglyphs on Yuha Mesa. Sometimes a rock alignment like this one is called a Medicine Wheel.
At the terminus of each line is a white quartz rock. Quartz is a power stone that is thought to give a shaman clairvoyance to the spirit world. Some ancient shamans would swallow a quartz or place it inside their body in some other way in order to infuse their body with the power of the quartz.
A rock alignment like the Spoke Wheel Geoglyph could help a hunter gatherer tribe know when important annual events should take place, like harvest or migration, that would ensure survival. People could quite literally owe their lives to a well made orientation of rock.
We take rock a little bit for granted, but how many of us live in houses made of brick or drink water channeled from a cement dam. These technologies are magnificent manipulations of rock that ensure our survival, yet are executed and used with so little gratitude.
Maybe just once today, take a moment to notice how rock in your environment is helping you survive. Just touch your hand to it and spare it a moment of thanks.
A few weeks ago I spent a frustrating half a day wandering around the desert looking for the Spoke Wheel Geoglyph. I didn’t find it and came home pouting. In conversation with my pal N-Search I mentioned that I’d gone on an unsuccessful search for it. He offered that he had a friend with a vacation home in that area and he’d ask him if he knew where it was. About a week later N-Search returned with photos of the geoglyph, which he had visited, and coordinates for me to follow. I was so happy!!!! I’d been in the right place, just ever so slightly off, which was more than enough unless you have a helicopter, which I did not. I thank N-Search for helping me finish this story with the big important ceremonial site that I really felt completed my geoglyph exploration on the Yuha Mesa. Instagram: @_nsearch_