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By Judith Wolinsky Steinbergh
Moab and the red-rock wilderness—
a land of writers and riders, a story so visible
we read what is written everywhere we look:
Layered deposits, the uplift, the fault line,
anticline and arch inscribe a geologic tale. The silent script
of the Green and Colorado Rivers carves the canyons.
Wind moans and wails, battering rocks;
water seeps, freezes, thaws, eroding fins of sandstone,
prying great chunks and slabs from the cliffs to fling down on talus.
Rock art of the ancients pecked and chiseled into Wingate cliffs
depicts their passage through the valleys where granaries and dwellings
blend into caves and alcoves of the canyon walls.
Mines abandoned, mounds of tailings,
rails and truck roads web the land, and still
potash settles in surreal blue ponds beneath red bluffs.
Mule deer, coyote, kit fox imprint the soil under cottonwoods;
we humans, our words and whims, our footprints and tire treads,
track the red-rock expanse with our permanent stamp.
Scrublands dotted with saltbush, blackbrush,
rabbitbrush, gray-green now in spring,
stretch out over valleys and hills to the horizon,
leap over the dry washes.
Old junipers with frosted berries twist their silvery trunks,
piñon pines clutch fatty nuts in rose-shaped cones,
brittle thistle tumbles, and sage, sage,
ubiquitous dusty green, its pungent scent
hovers over the desert.
Bright dabs of color stain the pastel mesas: prickly pear sprouts
its saffron flower, and claret cup wears a blood-red bloom,
locoweed, scorpionweed, curly dock, desert holly,
Mormon tea, spiky yucca, and poison datura—
a garden for the cautious.
Black Angus graze like dark cutouts against blue sky.
A road sign shows a cow, says Open Range. Bullet holes
let the sun shine through.
Written on Rock
News over news over millennia.
Ghostly scarlet figures,
prints of hands repeated
on the sheer walls, petroglyphs
pecked into the sheen
beneath rock overhangs.
We are drawn to them. Face-to-face
with bighorn sheep, antelope, and snakes.
We are inches from six-toed footprints,
bear tracks and centipede, the shaman, his headdress,
shields of warriors, odd humans holding hands.
Spirals and circles of power or population?
Zigzags of rivers or lightning?
White dots carefully spaced to show
how long they stayed, how far the water?
A large bear is chiseled
far above the road;
men on horseback aim arrows
at its belly, back, and nose.
Boys' names are scratched
nearby; bullet holes pierce
the bear's body, shattering rock.
So many passing have left a mark.
Who, though, shoots at art?
sling of biners
she reaches, fingers
a narrow ledge,
toes a foothold,
wedges her body into
the mesa's face,
stretches to an old bolt,
its webbing dangles,
a prayer flag.
Below, her friend belays.
the rock will give,
a mortal visitor
to feel its
Three hundred million years
of the Earth's making
are written here on red rock,
faces smooth or swirled,
streaked, striped, or banded,
creased and creviced, scoured and pocked,
sculpted into figure, frieze, and phallus,
tower and spire, chimney, mesa, bluff and butte,
rust red against Utah's cobalt sky.
Red rock scarred, or stained black
and silvery slate with "desert varnish"
by microbes grasping minerals from the air.
Rocks reddened by traces of iron,
fissured and finned, eroded into shapes
named mushroom, goblin, hoodoo,
evoke a sacred space. This stark,
vast, dry, and fragile place
is slow to change, impossible to repair.
Red rock stretches away to the horizon
or falls sharply to the secret canyon floor,
presses in, blots out patches of azure sky,
slices off light, forces our thoughts inside.
We humans have never been so small as we are here.