We were all still covered in brown paint and dirt from the activities of the previous days when we met with Mark Sorensen in a dimly lit school room. Mark is the founder of an off the grid charter school near the Navajo Reservation called the Star School, where students are not only taught mandatory U.S. curriculum but about Navajo language and culture and the importance of environmental thinking. We stood in a circle in the middle of the room and passed around a small bag of corn pollen. Our fingers that had painted outbuildings, constructed a cob oven, and shaped rock gardens dipped in to take a pinch of the delicate powder. They brought fine gold to touch the tips of our tongues, the center of our foreheads, and the crown of our hair. The remaining pollen that stuck to these fingers was sprinkled in front of us as we spoke the Navajo words “Hozho nahaste.” We were told to think beautiful thoughts about the path that lay before us during this process as the ceremony is a blessing for safe and happy travels.
Hozho Nahaste roughly translates to beautiful pathway, but there is much more implied when this phrase is spoken. As Gary Witherspoon explains in his paper “Creating the World through Language,” hozho expresses such concepts as beauty, perfection, harmony, goodness, normality, success, well-being, blessedness, and order.” Witherspoon uses the next four pages to discuss the cultural frame of reference that is expressed through a single word. To a speaker of Navajo, hozho evokes all of the meaning and emotion that builds up over the centuries it takes for cultures to evolve.
The path set before me led to the Dark Canyon Wilderness in Southern Utah. As the weight of my pack pulled on my body, thoughts of the weight single words can carry were on my mind. We made our way down canyon and passed through clouds of vanilla wafting off of ponderosa pines that towered over blankets of purple, pink, and orange wildflowers. It wouldn’t have felt like the Colorado Plateau of not for the sandstone cliffs creating the backdrop for this vegetation. Beauty. Perfection. Harmony. These words are Dark Canyon Wilderness just as much as they are hozho.
The word wilderness was once used to describe places of danger and fear. It was a place where brave folks went to conquer the land and tame it for human use. Presently, the word is given a capital “W” and describes land that are pristine and remote. Humans are considered visitors here with the thought that their permanent presence will disturb natural systems. People enter the wilderness for healing and peace of mind. We found this in clear deep plunge pools and fossil-filled limestone over the next few days as we descended into Dark Canyon. “Did you guys notice when we crossed the wilderness boundary?” our instructor asked on day four. None of us had. We never would have known that the land we walked across was defined as something besides wilderness id we hadn’t been told. I still felt hozho on this path.
What does this human-made boundary mean? As far as I could see, it signified an arbitrary sense that some lands are more worth protecting than others, a sense that can be justified through creating a distinction between the human and non-human world. My path led me to the fiery blossom of a claret cup cactus in the wilderness. It led me to the vibrant green of moss that carpets the sandstone stream bed. It flourishes under the glossy finish of sunlight on shallow water, and it lies outside of wilderness. I walked along my path as a part of the Dark Canyon system, as my steps compacted the soil where plants might have grown and my breath contributed to the carbon cycle. Definitions have warped our views on what is worth saving. Where do you experience hozho? Is it worth preserving?
Our second day in the backcountry was our first day hiking in the bottom of Horseshoe Canyon. Within the first hour of our trek, Ben stopped in his tracks and stooped to grab something half buried in the sand. Amid a mosaic of stones and pebbles, the shiny red glint of a small specimen had caught his eye. It was a flat triangular thing, maybe an inch from base to tip, and it had clearly not achieved this form through the forces of nature. All eight of us crowded around for a show and tell that would spark a whole new topic of intrigue in canyon country. “It’s the tip of an arrowhead! Ancient people made them out of chert,” Ben informed us. He pointed to the once razor sharp edges and drew our attention to scalloped ridges indicative of human handiwork. We passed the artifact around and each took a turn imagining the prehistoric person who had created it. At this point, we realized that frequently scanning the ground was just as important as gaping at the immense beauty of the canyon surrounding us.
During this first section of our course, we read Singing Stone by Tom Flieschner. At the end of this book, he asks, “How do we live here? How should we live here?” in reference to the high deserts of the Colorado Plateau. Initially, I thought that maybe we shouldn’t live here. Maybe the delicate soils of the desert can’t tolerate our impacts. Perhaps the water sources in this region are too scant to support any sort of human population. But people lived here before. They lived here for thousands of years! The Colorado Plateau harbors a great deal of evidence supporting the notion that the Ancient Puebloans and the Freemont people utilized an intimate knowledge of the land to support their civilizations.
Our next encounter with the area’s past inhabitants occurred on the fifth day of our journey down Horseshoe Canyon. We entered an area that has been incorporated as a satellite unit of Canyonlands National Park. Not long after passing into this new territory, we came across a large alcove. The walls of this sandstone overhang were covered with dark red paintings of long-bodied humanoid shapes with short little limbs. Some had horns, some held spear-like objects, but my favorites were those that had intricate patterns of zig-zags and animal figures covering the interior of their bodies. One that caught my attention in particular had two goats on either side of its chest.
There is no way of knowing what message, if any, the artists of these pictographs were trying to convey, but it is always fun to speculate. Perhaps the goat-covered man was symbolic of the connection people had to goats as a source of food. There was another image that was a horizontal oval with small vertical hash marks attached to its bottom side. They then continued down the wall for about a foot. I supposed that it was a rain cloud , and that this panel praised the rainwater necessary for the crops these people grew. Maybe the intention of these painting was to tell the tales of how to live within the means supplied by this landscape.
On the fourth morning of our trip along the Dirty Devil River, we had class in No Man’s Canyon. As we wrapped up our session for the day, Katie pointed out a rather large alcove in the canyon wall. The eight of us wandered over to check out a pile of strategically placed flat rocks held together by some sort of cement, the remnants of an ancient structure.
The alcove was high above us and we were unable to scramble up to it, so we were unable confirm its purpose, but it was likely a dwelling or a place for storing food. At the foot of this aged structure, we spent some time thinking about what life was like for these people. I reflected on how they might have interacted within their families and within their communities. I imagined a father taking his son for a walk to find perfect pieces of chert for making tools. He would spend hours teaching his child the tedious process of chipping away tiny pieces of the red stones in just the right way. During one instructional session, a neighbor may have come over to ask the father for help with building a new grainery, as the corn he had planted was doing very well that year. I imagined that these people were close to the land, their livelihood depended on it, so they taught each other to be very intentional, to take great care in the things they did.
A couple days later, we were hiking up Larry Canyon. We followed a creek bed, the sides of which were eight-foot high vertical walls of dirt. Horizontal lines of sand, decomposed organic matter, and pebbles told us the history of the movement of sediment and water through the canyon. Amid the layers of strata, we saw a bubble of charcoal and ash. We were lucky enough to have stumbled upon a prehistoric fire ring! I approached the dark oval, which was set about a foot below eye level. The top of the terrace it was embedded in was several feet above my head. It takes a very long time for an inch of new soil to form in this dry climate, so the layers of sand and pebbles I looked up at served as a perfect visual for the 800 years that have passed since this fire ring was used.
The desert is a place where I have experienced profound silence, unlike that I have known anywhere else. There are times when no breeze rustles through the trees, no flowing water babbels, and no creatures chitter. Have these moments always existed here? Has this landscape changed in the last 800 years? How will the things we leave behind affect the landscape 800 years in the future? I like to think that the ancient people of this region did have these silences, and used them as a reminder that life-giving resources are not in abundance, but rather, can be carefully reaped to support civilization. I like to think that we can contemplate the lessons of the past and interpret these silences in the same way.