Saturday, December 18, 2021

Seminole Canyon State Park

It so happens that about four thousand years ago on a rainy Sunday afternoon a cave dweller in West Texas was losing his mind with boredom and he picked up a piece of charcoal and started drawing yesterday's catch on the wall.  Pretty soon Prehistoric Michelangelo figured out he could get different colors and longer lasting pigments by mixing melted fat and crushed berries into what he called paint. Most remarkably these extraordinary works of art from a time unimaginable are still there and the state of Texas will let you get a work out to go and see them and learn a little about them.

If my description of the creation of the pictographs at Seminole Canyon sounds facile that is rather the point: no one knows who exactly made the paintings in the caves, no one knows exactly what they represent or what they mean. Essentially they know when they were made and what materials were used but everything else is up for grabs. 

Rusty wasn't allowed on the guided tour and for good reason as it is a bit of a hike and it is too fascinating to be distracted by a dog as lovely as he is. I walked him first and we left him in the van. Had it been summer he'd have had air conditioning but this time of year he was snug with the back sliding windows open. I liked the dog hypothermia warning. Pay attention:

I can't imagine this place in summer with no shade and no relief. Air conditioning on the roof of the van was prompted by our life in the Keys but out here it would be just as critical. Our battery bank is big enough to run it all night without plugging in. We tested it in the Everglades in August.

This is desolation of a different sort:

The sculpture overlooking the canyon is a 13 foot tall statue called the "Maker of Peace" by its creator the late  Bill Worrell commissioned by the State of Texas. 

I mentioned to Layne I had heard of Mormon Tea and she asked me about it and I had to admit I couldn't remember a thing...but luckily we have Google to help us out and I learn it is a natural astringent and the next time you get the clap it could be helpful. I'd go for penicillin myself but in the good old days they had to use was they had.

I counted eighteen people in our party including an incredibly tough well behaved little girl who walked in and out with the adults.  She has definitely inherited pioneer genes because the tour, rated as moderately strenuous started with a downhill walk on a neatly made cement path followed by 225 vertical steps and the tour returned the way it came.

These amazing works of art were the point. 

In the one below I could see a wiggly frame, a line of paint around the figure in the middle. 

The caves are named for the rancher who donated the land, via his widow I believe, and his was the rather odd name of Fate Bell. 

Our guide, one of those incredibly well informed treasures of state park systems everywhere explained that under Texas law land cannot be expropriated unless there are taxes owing to the state (not Federal) government. This means Texas depends on the kindness of its residents to donate worthy lands for preservation. She did allow that ranchers in the area who own  land with pictographs are careful to preserve them but these have been in the state's care since 1977 and opened in 1980. 

The history of this area is actually quite bizarre. Scientists say people arrived fully 12,000 years ago but left no artwork. They say the land was more moist with trees and grasses that supported large mammals like bison and mammoths. Slowly the desert took over and only 4,000 years ago did the people still living here start painting. No one knows why.

This is the stuff you read as you carefully tread the mats to avoid mucking up the paints with dust. But to be there and see these paintings three feet away is quite awe inspiring.

These are decidedly desolate lands but the ranger told us she has seen the canyon in full flood from some distant rainstorms and she says waters can reach a death of fully 14 feet. Mind boggling on a dry day like the one we saw.

I was walking next to a couple who look after similar pictographs in northern Nevada and they were quite fascinated by what they saw. I couldn't translate what they were saying as the language of scientists is dense, but they showed me a phone app that has been developed to highlight such faded artwork. The study of this stuff is one huge sub culture I had of course never heard of.

There they were:

This one below os the most famous of the Fate Bell pictographs, a shamanic figure with antlers on the head and arms supporting wings spread wide. We had a lively discussion about the figure.

The ranger told us Hopi Indians had been brought to the site and they say it has absolutely nothing to do with their people but they pointed out one thing of interest. The Hopi noticed the ceremonial robes were straight at the bottom. In their culture she said such robes are worn by women. Men wear robes that come to a point at the lower hem. 

I thought the shaman might be a man owing to what appeared to be antlers from a buck on the figure's head. This was a five minute discussion among members of the public staring at these paintings. I can only imagine how scientists talk about them after a life time of study. There is so much that is unknown that the detective work to unravel any clue is endless. 

If you want to see them you'd better get a move on. Their life span is running out, mainly because wind, water, dust and sunshine are wearing them down and in twenty years they may be gone altogether.

Apparently scientists have tried to figure a way to preserve them and no one has come up with any ideas that might not end up ruining them prematurely. So they sit, mostly in the shade, but some also exposed to early morning sun, fading slowly away, unexplained and unknowable.

Back up the 225 steps..! Well worth the effort.

We let the party go on ahead and sat for a while staring at the countryside imagining what it must have been like to come across the canyons in the desert, finding shelter where none was apparent thousands of years ago. 

If like me you enjoy eating yucca now you know where it comes from. It doesn't look appetizing to me.

The black and white pictures put me in mind of the late 19th and early 20th century explorers of the western lands who brought  home pictures of what they had seen to the politicians and the people in the civilized eastern states.

The park headquarters has a short film of the various pictograph sites as well as boards explaining the natural and human made fathers of the area.

A word about the name of the park. Apparently the government hired Seminoles from Florida in the 1870s to come to Texas to assist in Indian suppression and protection of the settlers and the border. They were stationed at what is called Fort Clark and gave their Florida name to the canyon lands. I mention this assuming you know the story of the Florida Seminoles who were taken from their homes in the plains and relocated to the marshlands of South Florida, watery land that white settlers at first didn't want to know.
Of course the Seminoles were later found to be in the way of development and several Indian wars followed, based from Fort Myers. At the same time runaway slaves had been fleeing south and joining the Seminoles where they could live free in the Everglades. So when the Army formed the Seminole Scouts African Americans were among their ranks. 
And they have given their name to the Pecos River style of Pictograph painting found close by the enormous body of water flowing through here.
We had lunch in the parking lot, a tuna fish wrap and a cup of tea, hot for me cold for Layne with chicken strips for Rusty and off we went toward the Pecos River and a date with justice as dispensed West of the Pecos. Thus far West Texas has been anything but boring as the landscape is so often stereotyped.