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Ideas Worth Carving in Stone

THE form of a human was clearly etched into the rough sandstone cliff. Nearby were carvings of birds, deer, and arrows. It would have taken a strong sense of patience, of purpose to stand and scratch long enough to make those forms so neat and detailed that they are still readily identifiable these hundreds of years later. I admired that patience and I imagined the warrior or hunter who stopped at the cliff long enough to record his story. I wondered what he might have looked like, what he might have thought as he chose the exact piece of cliff to carve. Did he have any idea I would try to relive his thoughts so far into his future?

I was visiting northern Utah and stopped to see the cliffs which had petroglyphs carved on them. Seeing such a sight is like looking at a piece of petrified wood or a chunk of moon rock. Somehow time seems contracted, more unified.

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As I walked along the base of the cliffs, I wondered if all the petroglyphs were the work of one artist who had perhaps camped in the area for several days, or even who had returned time and again over a period of several years. The figures seemed enough alike to suggest a single artist. But the forms may have been the style for a particular tribe. And the cliffs, the site of a mass effort by several artists.

I searched for more drawings and came to prefer the idea of a single artist, patiently returning to the cliffs, selecting the tools he would need and imagining the final product in his mind before he started working on a medium which would give no second chance.

I wondered if, before he came to write his vertical essay, he had practiced on smaller rocks. Perhaps in the vast miles of open country, there were piles of discarded practice rocks, tossed in a heap or lying on the bottom of a riverbed. I imagined him dropping the last practice rock and scrambling up the rocky slope to the base of the cliffs. Would he have been nervous or confident as he carved the symbols of his language on the steep face?

The symbols he scratched on the sandstone were simple - animals and angular, geometric humans mostly - dominant features in his own life. As he carved, was he recording an event in his history or predicting his life in the future? His work seemed filled with nouns and short on verbs, but surely he knew which tense he was working in. His immediate readers probably did as well. In any case, his work was published on the cliff, a kind of corner newsstand for those of us who would tread in his footsteps so many years later.

As I thought about my friend the cliff writer, I enjoyed the idea that he must have been aware of an audience. Like any writer, he may not have known exactly who would see his work, who would pause at his sandstone page and read his writings. But I believe he was carving for more than just his own eye. Perhaps his friends had seen his practice rocks and encouraged him to develop his talent. Perhaps it was even his responsibility within his family or community to be the scribe and record their lives. In any case, he was working with a belief in his material.

Many of the petroglyphs were carved in positions that would have been uncomfortable. One or two symbols were carved in a wall section that he must have gotten to by scrambling up the cliff face and standing on dangerous narrow ledges. He had felt his story was important and he had gone to extremes to do his best work.

I imagined that he came down from each petroglyph with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Would he have gone quietly back to camp or would he have been eager to share his day's work? Would he have brought his friends and family to the cliff, like an artist in a gallery or a poet at a reading, and would they have appreciated his efforts?

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Whether they did or not doesn't really matter, because I know the cliff writer took great pride in what he was doing. He was so careful. He must have felt quite good about his ability to communicate ideas. It is, after all, this ability to think and pass ideas on to each other which is our most human of traits.

We communicate through many mediums, most often through conversation. But conversation is so temporary, like smoke from the cliff writer's campfire, hanging briefly in the night air above his camp, but soon drifting off up into the sky and diminishing. For much of our communication, that is adequate. But there come times in our lives when we have ideas that are more important, ideas that we want to keep longer than in conversations.

We then search for more lasting means - prose, poetry, painting, sculpture, photography - so we can gain a sense of permanence for our ideas. It is then that we are most like the cliff writer. It is just as important to us to express our ideas today as it was to him, some untold centuries ago. Only now the methods have changed. Instead of sandstone, we are more inclined to use oil or acrylic, camera or video, typewriter or word processor to record our thoughts. But the mode is less important than the re alization that we still have, and always will have, ideas worth carving in stone as long as we exist.

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