“Our place is part of what we are. Yet even a “place” has a kind of fluidity; it passes through space and time… A place will have been grasslands, then conifers, then beech and elm. It will have been half riverbed, it will have been scratched and plowed by ice. And then it will be cultivated, paved, sprayed, dammed, graded, built up. But each is only for a while, and that will be just another set of lines on the palimpsest. The whole earth is a great tablet holding the multiple overlaid new and ancient traces of the swirl of forces. Each place is its own place, forever (eventually) wild.”
-Gary Snyder, as quoted in Noss and Cooperrider, 1994.
A classmate read this quote aloud on one of our first days in the backcountry under the shade of a boulder. We sat in a circle in the sandy wash of Horseshoe Canyon, eating snacks and resting on our overpacked backpacks. Our instructor, Joe, explained that “palimpsest” meant an image overplayed on another image, as in a painting on a canvas, or the markings on a landscape. Yet the landscape that I found myself in, the desert of the Colorado Plateau, felt so unfamiliar that I could barely grasp my immediate surroundings, let alone the history and layers of the place.
In our first few days on course, I felt out of place and uncomfortable. Everything was overwhelming and I was intimidated, despite the kindness of my classmates. The first few nights were mechanical, getting to know the swing of things, understanding how we would get along. There was excitement, but it was mixed with nervous energy that made the days seem to last forever. But as we got to know each other, this nervous group dynamic dissipated and became an old work on the palimpsest. As we learned about history on the landscape, our group became familiar with each other and we created a new dynamic through our classroom discussions and our conversations on the trail.
A few days into our backpack, we laid over at a campsite perched in a side canyon and went on a day hike. The mornings were still cold and rain rolled in, so we bundled up and began walking. It was on that hike that I started to see the land as less of a mysterious place and more of a canvas, a system of parts and histories laid over each other to create a whole. The rock layers themselves stood exposed and told their own geologic history of sediment and erosion, the water carving its way through the history of the rock. We walked through these layers, and our instructor Katie stopped and asked us to look around to see if we noticed anything. We all sat stumped for a while until Sara pointed at the ground at our feet and asked, “Are those dinosaur tracks?” Turns out, we were standing on dinosaur tracks preserved in the mudstone, a mark from the previous canvas in time that had not yet been painted over. It was hard to grasp the time that had passed since this dinosaur had roamed the canyon. I only came close to understanding that a dinosaur had been there when I placed my hand in the print and was able to feel such a tangible connection to a specific moment in time millions of years ago.
We continued walking and reached another layer in the palimpsest. I walked up to a canyon wall and realized there were petroglyphs staring back at me. Bighorn sheep and human figures stood etched in the rock, and Katie guessed that they might be from the Archaic age, which was about 8500 years ago. These people added a human element to the palimpsest of the landscape – a mark of art and culture, of a thriving society. Around the corner was a cave, and etched into the red rock was a name and date: Marius Bosk 1910. I was surprised to see this more recent human addition to the rock face, which had been made more than 100 years ago. Prior to that, I had been seeing the canyon as a place occupied thousands of years ago and left untouched until today. I had forgotten about the years in between, the layers that were constantly being added to the landscape.
There are the ancient additions to the landscape, and then there are the more recent ones, those changes that we can witness on a day to day basis. When we first arrived in the canyon, the cottonwood trees were bare. Yet each day, the trees changed and added to the landscape as our group came together to make a new creation over our awkward beginning. When the catkins on the trees began catching pollen, we were getting in our tent groups, becoming familiar with each other as quickly as it took to get cold in the nighttime (which was pretty fast). As the leaf buds came out, our group became close enough that we could be comfortable in silence, there was no need for forced conversation if it wasn’t the time. The bright green leaves on the cottonwood trees got bigger, our hair got greasier, our lunch containers (and lunches) got messier, and “On the Road Again” by Willie Nelson was constantly stuck in our heads. The trees were dense with young leaves, Nick fell into a smelly puddle of water, Lucia got stuck in quicksand, we had beautiful poetry read to us during dinner, and we hit our groove. All of these experiences were adding to our group landscape. We are creating our own palimpsest. “But each is only for a while” (Snyder) – the trees will continue growing; soon the canvas that we have created will be touched up, added to, given more detail. I am excited for the lines that we will keep adding to our palimpsest in this beautiful desert.
Noss, R. & A. Cooperrider. (1994). Biodiversity creation and destruction. Saving Nature’s Legacy: Protecting and Restoring Biodiversity. 30-65. Washington, DC: Island Press.