Updated: Mar 29, 2021
A unexpected sighting of ancient handprints creates a bridge of respect across time.
There are moments and places in everyone’s life that have an unexpected resonance. Understanding why certain situations are more emotionally impactful than others is not always easy, but articulating it is even more difficult.
Natural bridge overlooking Butler Wash. Photo:© Donald J. Rommes.
My visit to this little natural bridge was one such moment. Hiking alone on a sandstone ridge overlooking Butler Wash, I noticed a short but deep channel in the slickrock. The channel—dry at the time—funneled water from intermittent rainstorms down a side drainage and into the main wash. Thinking there might be interesting water-sculpted sandstone forms to photograph, I scrambled into the gully to have a look around.
The presence of this little natural bridge took me by surprise, as it had been completely hidden from above. Butler Wash was nicely framed by the passageway. I thought it would make a nice photograph, so I went back for my camera bag.
When I returned, I studied the scene, placed my camera on the tripod, and worked to fine-tune the composition. That’s when I noticed the red handprints.
Those red handprints not only inferred the presence of ancient people, it provided the ineffable element of time.
Enlargement of the previous photograph. The area with the red handprints has been lightened.
Photographically speaking, the natural bridge was a wonderful geologic feature to work with all by itself. But the fact that I could frame Butler Wash with the opening added another element of interest. And those red handprints not only inferred the presence of ancient people, it introduced the ineffable element of time.
A little further up Butler Wash, visible by anyone standing under the bridge, was a series of large alcoves. They held a number of structures, indicating a fairly large prehistoric settlement. When I noticed those handprints, the recognition that people actually lived here suddenly came home to me.
Minutes before, I was simply photographing a pretty scene. I was intellectually aware of the structures across the wash, but I hadn’t been fully cognizant of the human reality. With the first sight of those handprints, I was involuntarily transported back in time, and felt an immediate and potent emotional connection to the people who made them.
My feelings were unbidden, unplanned, and transcendent. That sense of connection across time, of shared humanity, awakened an empathy in me for the lives of these Ancestral Puebloan people, these direct descendants of the original North Americans. It also imbued in me a sense of respect for them.
All around me was evidence of who they were, how they lived, how they died, and the art they chose to make. They may have left this area more than 800 years ago, but as fellow human beings, they and their culture are worth knowing.
In a way, they entrusted their cultural legacy to us; to protect, preserve, and comprehend. We are fellow human travelers in the high desert. What life solutions did they invent to thrive in such a challenging environment? How did they deal with the climate change and social turmoil they were experiencing? How did they understand their world? Familiar problems then as now; familiar questions.