Heritage, Volume 7, Number 3, Summer 1989 Page: 16
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insects when meat became elusive. And
because the spirits of the earth must be
propitiated, the humans of that later time
pecked symbols of the mountain sheep, the
deer and all the others into the iron-red
sandstone of Alamo Canyon.
The women gathered the seeds of the
wild plants and grasses in that time of little
rain, pounded them with stone pestles in
bedrock mortars, ground them to flour on
their stone metates. Life went on.
It wasn't an easy life by any measure you
might name. But there were compensations
in knowing everything had a spirit,
and that the spirits of the mountains and
the mesas, of the thundercloud and rain,
were ever present. Properly respected they
would give protection, or at the least make
life a little easier.
Humans were only one life form among
many, and each had its place in the general
rhythms of the earth, in the general scheme
of things. Humans then were much more in
touch with the rhythms of the Earth
Mother. They had to be-their very wellbeing
depended on it. They pecked symbols
of all the things that were important;
pecked through the protecting iron-red
patina of the sandstone at Alamo Canyon
the symbols of their life and their beliefs.
Here is the rake symbol asking for or
telling about rain falling from the sky. Here
is a spiral telling you to go up or downhill,
where other symbols will be found. An
atlati sign, a bisected circle, will lead you to
water in the driest of our deserts. Everywhere
the mountain sheep, marching
across the mother rock in every shape and
form, each pecked in the fashion of its
peculiar place in time.
These are not doodles by any manner or
means. Every single symbol has significance,
religious or mnemonic, and some of
them are provably directional markers,
messages from that other space and time.
Perhaps "rock art" is not the proper term.
"Rock writing" defines these messages from
yesterday a little better.
We haven't learned to read more than a
handful of them yet. Given our entrapment
in our own particular space and time,
it's moot we ever will. We patiently record,
we learn a little more each season, we try to
protect these messages from yesterday
because they are in more danger of destruction
now than they have been in all the
long years of their existence.
That danger has grown more swiftly
than a wind-fed prairie fire in the last, short
16 HERITAGE * SUMMER 1989
20 years. It was bad enough before, when
strangers passing through this ancient
landscape had neither thought nor care for
the ancient ways. They carved their names
into the rock beginning in 1581, many
times obliterating the symbols of that older
time. And that was all right. These were
explorers coming into unknown territory
filled with mystery and danger all around.
They left their names as reassurance of
their existence, hoping to leave their mark
for other men to read.
But there came a time when the explorers
all were gone, when North Americans
found themselves with more leisure time
than they knew what to do with. The curse
of recreation came to sit heavy on the land.
Hordes of them, relentlessly bent on what
one writer termed "the witless pursuit of
happiness" streamed forth from the cities
every weekend, destroying as they came.
Not all, though; it's a relative handful
who cause the damage. But the desert is a
fragile place, ill-equipped to withstand the
onslaught. We've seen petroglyphs used for
target practice. We've seen chisel marks
where some idiot with more greed than
common sense-or worse, a commercial
looter-has tried removing the symbols
from the rock. We've seen others, all too
many, where "JB" professes his transient
love for Lisa or Mary or whomever.
Each act of vandalism is an act of desecration,
making one sad and angry at the
same time, because these things are sacred
treasures which should be saved for passing
on to the generations yet to come, part of
our common heritage. Worse than the
passing vandal, whose destructive acts are
often the product of thoughtlessness, is the
official state or federal agency that willfully
ignores these treasures from the past as it
staggers blindly on under the illusion it is a
standard-bearer of "progress."
One such agency, at least in our neighborhood,
is the "Low Level Radioactive
Waste Disposal Authority." These atomic
garbagemen have plans to install a low
level dump for atomic trash smack in the
middle of the Alamo Canyon area, threatening
one of the richest concentrations of
rock art in the Southwest.
How the sites came to face their present
danger is instructive. The agency originally
had recommended the atomic trash
be stored in the area where most of it is
produced, between Houston and San
Antonio. The feeling that motivated the
subsequent legislation seemed to be: "That
stuff may be safe, like they say, but it'll play
hob with my property values. Let's just put
it somewhere far away, somewhere where
there's nobody around, just in case." Legislative
action decreed radioactive materials
were not to be dumped within 20 miles of
So where do you go when you have a lot
of atomic garbage you have to dump? West
Texas, by George! The Low Level Radioactive
Waste Disposal Authority found
what it thought was the ideal spot, way out
in Hudspeth County, in miserable godforsaken
countryside where you were lucky
if you could feed eight cows to a section.
The agency conducted a "survey." We
put that in quotes because the archaeological
survey of the area in which our main
interest lies was worth less than the cheap
paper on which it was printed. "There's
nothing of archaeological value," said the
agency's survey report.
Many times you'll read an archaeological
survey report and realize that whoever
did it hadn't even bothered to get out
of his vehicle. People who knew the area
screamed to the skies, and El Paso's county
judge, Luther Jones, came up with funds to
pay for a survey a bit more realistic than the
one the agency had commissioned.
Eleven sites were already known, recorded
by the writer. The survey teams paid
for by El Paso County found nine more in
a short three weeks. Twenty sites are now
known, with many more yet to be found in
an area the agency surveyor found to be of
no archaeological value.
Even so, the agency seemed to believe
that no possible harm could come to them.
They were far removed from the area where
the atomic garbage dump was planned.
Tunnel vision is a curse too often met with
in our grand planners. Cause and effect is
an alien concept. The site is in the middle
of nowhere, so we'll have to pave eight and
a half miles to it. That will attract idle
sightseers to the immediate area of the rock
art, most of which lies less than a mile away.
Trucks will make the run from Houston
using that eight and a half miles of new
pavement. And what about the site itself?
"Oh," the man assures you, "it will be
perfectly safe. Everything will be stored in
concrete barrels underground. It will be
totally non-polluting." And where will the
concrete come from to build those barrels?
"Oh, we intend to build a concrete plant
right there on the site." Ever seen a
concrete plant? They're one of the worst
Here’s what’s next.
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 7, Number 3, Summer 1989, periodical, Summer 1989; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45431/m1/16/: accessed April 30, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.