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On the Trail of Signs and Wonderss

Visiting with the spirits of people whose 5,000-year-old rock paintings survive in preserves along the Rio Grande

February 21, 1999|PATRICIA LEE LEWIS | Patricia Lee Lewis conducts creative writing workshops from her home in Westhampton, Mass., and in Texas and Mexico

COMSTOCK, Texas — Where three rivers come together, spirits must abound. I think this as I leave Big Bend National Park and head east toward los tres rios, the confluence of the Rio Grande, the Pecos and the Devils on the Texas-Mexico border.

The cliffs and canyons above these rivers are alive with paintings of fantastic figures, part human, part animal, part bird. They are believed to be ceremonial images 4,000 to 5,000 years old.

It is an April day at the end of the 20th century, and I am searching for holy places. I am here on a journey to honor the life of my eldest son, to make peace with his death by his own hand and to lay down, in the stark and sacred land of the state where we were born, my 20-year burden of guilt and sorrow.

Members of the Rock Art Foundation, which has been instrumental in preserving the images, or pictographs, have offered to guide me. I meet Greg Williams and Patrick McCaffrey at a gas station outside this wide spot in the road called Comstock. As we drive the mile or so to the foundation's private preserve, my eyes focus on a white statue elevated on rocks. At this half-mile distance, it looks for all the world like Jesus. As we draw closer across the flat desert, I see that it is an abstract shape of a man, pierced by an empty space.

Greg says the recently erected statue commemorates "the spirit of oneness" of the Lower Pecos River people, who lived here for 10,000 years, until the 2nd century. It's in the shape of the White Shaman--the shaman being both religious and community leader--painted on a nearby rock shelter wall, and it is oriented to mark the sun's first rays on the summer solstice.

There are some 300 documented rock art locations where the Lower Pecos people lived, an area that stretched from the northern Mexico state of Coahuila to about 60 miles north of the Rio Grande in Texas. One-third of the sites were destroyed by rising waters when the three rivers were impounded in 1968 to form the Lake Amistad National Recreation Area. Others have been defaced by vandals, pollution and weather. Shelter floors containing thousands of years of artifacts have been looted with pickax and shovel.

Photographer Jim Zintgraff of San Antonio came upon some of the paintings while hunting with his father in the 1950s and proceeded to photograph every piece of rock art he could find. Ten years later, he almost literally stumbled upon a University of Texas archeologist, Solveig Turpin, who was documenting pictographs in one of the canyons. They teamed up and eventually produced a photographic essay, "Pecos River Rock Art," which inspired the creation of Seminole Canyon State Historical Park and the Rock Art Foundation.

I first stopped at the park just to spend the night. I'd heard about the rock art there, and I'd made arrangements to meet up with Greg and Patrick on my way back from Big Bend and to "camp out" in a primitive cabin in the foundation's Galloway White Shaman Preserve. Now this unimaginable world was about to reveal itself.

We set out on foot down crumbling limestone cliffs until we reach a path of tailings. Tailings are pieces of limestone burned and cracked into small pieces in cooking or ritual fires and tossed out of caves and shelters. Many thousands of fires created this path, which leads to the shallow cave. We walk up stone steps, recently mortared, and are immediately in the presence of the White Shaman.

I seem unable to stand. This is a place for kneeling or lying on your belly on the rocks, or putting your face down and weeping. This is a place where a mother's grief is at home.

On the rear wall, facing out over the Pecos, figures of life and death are inseparable. A monster of fear undulates like a giant centipede across the rock, faced unflinchingly by the great shaman and his smaller dark, mortal self. Spirits dive and rise all around. An atlatl, a hunting weapon, throws a stone into the air, releases earth to sky, body into spirit.

This clearly is a place of worship; I see the pictographs as color and lines, but I also see the narrative of living souls.

The solid stone floor bears dozens of holes, created perhaps by hands twirling sticks or grinding pebbles for hundreds of centuries. My palm fits perfectly on the edge of a hole six inches deep. I feel the patina of silky-smooth stone and wonder: How many times did hands like mine touch this stone in ceremony? How many heads bowed to the powers represented on the wall?

Across the river canyon is a cliff from which you can hear everything said in this shelter. Was that where the "congregation" watched and listened?

There are many types of rock art in North America. Pecos River rock art is not only among the oldest; it is also distinctive for being primarily spiritual. It is centered on the experience of the shaman as the one who, on behalf of the people, overcomes death to communicate with the spirits of nature. The paintings, perhaps drawn by the shaman, are powerful images of what he experienced.

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