Messages on a Rock: How Our National Monuments Help Define Us

By Randy Schofield of Trout Unlimited

I recently floated down the Rio Grande Gorge in New Mexico—part of a trip we organized for journalists to highlight the Rio Grande Gorge National Monument north of Taos and the current administration’s efforts to review and possibly scale back places like this.

We met at the Wild Rivers campsites on the rim of the gorge, a sudden deep gash in the sagebrush-dotted tablelands of the high desert. From here, the river is a mile hike down rocky switchbacks, with occasional glimpses of the ribbon of river below and a muffled roar growing louder with each bend of the trail.

Our group straggled in at the river’s edge, where rafts had been packed in by mules. We launched the rafts and spent the day gliding between the soaring walls of the Rio Grande canyon, going with the river flow. You feel here instantly that you’re in a deep, timeless place, dwarfed by skyscraping ochre cliffs and long silences and the rhythms of sun, riverflow and rock.

We saw many spectacular things on the float—a hawk nabbing a bat out of midair, falcons diving at mach speed along time-sculpted cliffs, bighorn sheep lying on the riverbank, just a few feet away, watching us with black, bottomless eyes as we passed.

We fished for trout in the pocket water along boulder-strewn banks and brought several to net.  At lunch, we had discussions about how important the monument was to nearby towns like Questa, which after years of dependence on a now-shuttered mine is reinventing itself and tying its future to sustainable, natural resource-based recreation economy. This national monument is a key part of that shift.

One of the guides, Taos Fly Shop owner Nick Streit, talked about the campaign a few years ago to designate the Rio Grande del Norte monument and how important public lands are to providing access to world-class outdoor experiences like this and ensuring a sense of place.

The people of northern New Mexico have deep roots in the landscape—they hunt, fish and gather nuts and firewood on these lands. The monument is a recognition of that connection and an effort to preserve it in perpetuity.

But what left the deepest impression on me came farther down the river, during a stop we made at a sand bar where a small side tributary creek fed into the main canyon.

Here, among black, volcanic boulders, were ancient pictures scratched into the rock by humans who hunted and lived here many hundreds or thousands of years ago.  They had long vanished into the mists of time, but they had left these untouched images for whatever eyes came after.

The petroglyphs depicted bear paws, and bighorn sheep, and turkey—and people, surrounded by this four-legged and winged panoply of creatures.

The images were breathtaking, and gave us pause.

Petroglyphs in the canyon rock wall. Photo courtesy BLM

We speculated aloud on the purpose behind the messages. Maybe the drawings were a sign left for other hunters – “here’s a place where there is good hunting.”

After all, this would have been a perfect spot to ambush elk, deer and other animals that followed (and still do today) this same creek canyon rift down from the high mountain meadows to the river’s edge.

But the evident care and imagination in these pictographs seemed to come from a deeper spiritual place of connectedness to the natural world. These creatures were deeply embedded in the hunters’ lives and cosmology. It felt like a makeshift shrine to what was important to them. This is what sustains us, the images seemed to say. This is who we are.

It’s a good time to ask, Who are we?

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently visited New Mexico and toured the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument as part of the administration’s hostile review of monuments in the West (the review ends Aug. 23). He remarked that the monument had “beautiful ground” but that some of the lands felt “disconnected.” He’s playing it close to the vest as to whether he will recommend changes.

I wish that Secretary Zinke had toured the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument as well, and taken the time to hike into the canyon and float this river. I wish that he had seen these rock images. The ancient hunters who passed here were very different from us urban-centered moderns, but I think there remains a deep, visceral part of us that responds to these places and creatures in similar ways—with attention and respect and wonder.

I hope he will listen to the many New Mexicans—from tribal leaders and ranchers to local mayors and business owners—who strongly support this monument and see it as part of their cultural identity.

In the modern age, we leave our own kind of signs about what is important to us—for instance, by designating this canyon and other remarkable landscapes as national monuments.

The monument status says, this is a special place that sustains our community and helps give us our identity. We are people who value wildlife and healthy rivers and wild places.

That wild connection is part of what makes us human. If we lose it, then who are we?

Do the messages on the rocks still speak to us?

Randy Scholfield is Trout Unlimited’s communications director for the Southwest.

Founded in Michigan in 1959, Trout Unlimited is a national non-profit organization with about 300,000 members and supporters dedicated to conserving, protecting and restoring North America’s coldwater fisheries and their watersheds. Our staff and volunteers work from coast to coast to protect, reconnect, restore and sustain trout and salmon habitat on behalf of today’s anglers and coming generations of sportsmen and women who value the connection between healthy, intact habitat and angling opportunity.

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