History on the Rocks

New Mexico may not have America’s highest literacy rate, lowest rate of infant mortality, an intelligent method of dealing with drunk drivers, or really any sort of a plan at all for its sometimes reckless and sprawling growth—but there is one heavy subject it’s got literally tons of: rocks.  

In New Mexico, there are entire mountains made of granite.  There are angry, razor-crested seas of blackening lava rock.  And there are sandstone buttes and mesas, slickrock canyons and cliff-sides, and the dusty, sunburnt, boulder-choked beds of long-dry creeks and rivers.  

Many such rocky scenes serve as the quiet sites of prehistoric and historic rock art—the settings for petroglyphs, made by chipping away the sun-darkened surface of desert rocks, and the settings for pictographs, made by painting on rocks using mashed-up plants or minerals as color.  These rocks are home to hundreds of thousands of petroglyphs and pictographs—aging pictures of faces and animals—pictures made by ancient cultures such as the Ancestral Puebloan and Mogollon Indians, by Apaches and Navajos, by early Spanish explorers, and by Anglo frontiersmen.  

Much has been written about these historic images—in tourist brochures and in magazines and in books such as Rock Art in New Mexico by Polly Schaafsma, Karl Kernberger, and Curtis F. Schaafsma—but such writings typically address only older carvings, and seem to imply that somehow, sometime before the invention of cars, history worth wondering about suddenly, inexplicably, stopped. 

Though of course it didn’t.  

For as long as there are people, there will be history—and there will be rock art.  Much of today’s rock art is, of course, little more than crudely scratched vandalism, but there are a number of mysterious post-1900 petroglyphs and pictographs in New Mexico worth taking a look at. 

One such modern petroglyph hangs incised into a natural rock wall in the north-central New Mexico city of Los Alamos—a city most famous for the work its scientists once did in developing the world’s first atomic bomb.  

“In Los Alamos Canyon, just below Trinity Drive, an old trail used by 1940s-era Girl Scouts winds its way through the woods near the site of a former nuclear reactor,” wrote James Rickman of Btno.blogspot.com, a popular Los Alamos-area blog.  “Just beyond the Girl Scouts’ old latrine area, you can find a rock inscribed with Einstein’s famous equation describing the relationship between matter and energy….”  

This inscription reads simply, “E = mc²,” but it is cut clearly and deeply into the rock, as if it held great significance to its inscriber, and it is speckled with lichen, as if it has been there for years.  (There are actually two such inscriptions in the area, but the other was made with much less care.)  

The inscription is rumored to have been chiseled into the rock sometime in the 1940s and, if that’s true, it was very likely carved by a Los Alamos scientist—by someone well aware that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared, that without that knowledge it would be impossible to estimate the energy in a nuclear reaction, and that without that knowledge he would have been unable to help create the bomb.  

The inscription is undoubtedly modern, and yet it is undeniably historic. 

Other historic and unusual instances of rock art can be seen all around New Mexico—from the actual white-painted rock of the town of White Rock, to the rumored Boy Scout-made forgeries hidden throughout Petroglyph National Monument, to numerous well-known names scratched into formerly wet cement across the state.  Such rock art and inscriptions are not always intelligently conceived, but they will almost certainly have a little something to share with future generations, and will serve as a little bit of commentary on who we were today. 

On a rocky ridge along the southwest end of the Sandia Mountains, there is a modern pictograph painted on a remote boulder high above Interstate 40, near the east side of the Albuquerque.  The pictograph is of a large eye—the Eye of the Sandias—with a Zia symbol filling its iris, and tears streaming down from it.  

“The Eye appeared sometime in the 1960s, but the originator is unknown,” wrote Mike Coltrin in his Sandia Mountain Hiking Guide.  “In the spring of 2002 it was freshly repainted by someone.  Urban legend has it that the Eye represents a symbol of sadness and protest at the encroachment of the city on the mountain.” 

The Eye of the Sandias can be reached by parking at the end of Albuquerque’s Copper Avenue, hiking up around a stand of utility poles, and following a nameless trail over numerous stony hills above the freeway for about two hours or so.  It’s a simple enough painting, and a fairly recent one, but perhaps because of its picturesque and remote locale, its mysterious origins, or what it seems to say about an increasingly urban New Mexico, people seem to love it, to regard it as something significant, and to be moved by it almost to poetry.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.