Draw Down the Bighorn Sheep
by Linda Thomas
To be human, it seems, is to believe in the power of magic. And the magic is never so strong as in December when the land seems to die and the planet moves away from the sun, as the solstice arrives. People light candles, place stars in their windows, and prepare foods rich in meaning and tradition. It is these rituals that afford us the courage to continue. Such magic, it seems, has always warmed the human imagination.
At the northern edge of the Mojave Desert between the Sierra Nevada and the Panamint Range, lies a vast territory of dry lake beds, volcanic lava plateaus, and desert mountains. Within these mountains, called the Coso Range, are steep canyons, fractures in the basaltic lava when long ago the land buckled and split open. One of these canyons is called Little Petroglyph.
The basalt of Little Petroglyph is dense igneous rock, naturally light gray in color, that has been varnished red-brown by the scour of rain and windblown sand. When this basalt is scraped, pecked, or incised with a sharp stone, the lighter colored stone beneath stands out in sharp contrast to the dark surface of the rock. A drawing made by such means is called a petroglyph.
The people of the Coso Range who lived in this desert territory between 1000 B.C. and 1000 A.D. must have loved the flat expanses of red-brown canyon rim rock in Little Petroglyph, the blackened streaks against the red stone where seeping water deepened the patina, the boulders like stairsteps that rise up the red cliffs. And they must have seen magic in bighorn sheep, because of the sixty-two hundred rock drawings in Little Petroglyph, some four thousand are of bighorn sheep.
The bighorn that once inhabited the Coso Range are the Desert Bighorn, smaller than the Rocky Mountain Bighorn. Bighorn sheep live in bands, and because they do not run well on flat ground, they prefer steep, rocky mountainous terrain where their ability to climb is breathtaking. The bighorn's coat is sallow brown in color, and the hair lies close to the body, like the coat of a deer. Rams can weigh as much as two hundred pounds, while ewes average around one hundred pounds. The horns of the ewes are slender, curved spikes. The rams, however, develop tremendous broad horns that curl sometimes into full circles rooted at the brow of the head. It was these horns that captured the imaginations of the Coso people.
The Coso people were predominantly gatherers who supplemented their diet with game--rabbit, antelope, and bighorn sheep. They migrated within a twenty to fifty-mile radius in search of seeds, nuts, and acorns. Because the desert land produces little, the people foraged constantly and were dependent upon the seasons. Consequently, they had few possessions, and did not have the luxury of time to make art.
Except for the drawings on the rocks of Little Petroglyph.
Because the canyons of the Coso Range contain the largest concentration of prehistoric rock drawings in North America, many anthropologists and archeologists have studied the region and developed theories of the people and the meanings of the drawings. Their theories often disagree, for by the time Europeans entered this region, even the oldest living native people knew nothing about the drawings. Conclusions must be drawn from geological studies, oral traditions, and sheer logic. On one thing, the scientists seem to agree: the bighorn sheep held extraordinary power for the Coso people.
As December began this year, I visited Little Petroglyph, hoping to gather a sense of the rock drawings. Several circumstances astonished me immediately. First, the Sierra Nevada stands like a rigid stone wall between the Mojave Desert and the coast. Rain moves south and east, and falls in the mountains, not in the desert. Here, the Coso Range is part of vast, dry badlands, especially now in December. Productive rain will not come here again until the spring.
Second, of the 1.8 miles of canyon, Little Petroglyph contains gorges where the canyon suddenly drops off into deep, narrow chasms that form natural corrals. Into these gorges, the Coso people, working as a group, could have herded antelope or bighorn sheep. The bighorn, however, could easily have bounded up the cliff stones and climbed to freedom.
Third, the drawings portray the sheep as lively--leaping, tails erect, the curved horns predominant.
And last, the bighorn often accompany drawings of human figures, though the humans usually do not appear to be hunters. Instead, they seem to be companions of the sheep, and because the figures are dressed in decorated clothing or adorned with head feathers, they seem to be attired for a ceremony.
These observations suggest what some anthropologists conclude; that is, the drawings were part of a ritual--for us humans, magic. The ritual might have involved drawing the bighorn sheep as a way of visualizing the animal, wishing it within range of a dart hurled from an atlatl. Or, the ritual might have involved honoring the spirit of a killed bighorn in the hope that he would return to be killed again. Or, the ritual might not have pertained to hunting at all. The bands of bighorn sheep descended from the mountains in the spring, their arrival coinciding with the onset of much needed rain. In this case, the ritual of incising the figures of bighorn sheep into the red rock surface would have been near-sacred and intended to restore the land, renew the food sources, and allow the people to continue.
I contemplate these thoughts with a certain solemnity, remembering that I and others in this modern world of technology and scientific evidence--perform rituals, keep charms, and place around us pictures of the things that reassure us. A man I know hangs a rabbit's foot from the rear view mirror of his car. My friend Elaine decorates greeting cards with photos she takes of her cat. My mother hangs paintings of landscapes colored pink, yellow, and green in her bedroom, and she says that the colors make her feel like springtime. In December now, my neighbors place cardboard cut-outs of reindeer on their front lawn. We are, none of us, descendants of the Coso people, but we are human, and we make magic.
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Linda Thomas has been writing poems, stories, and essays for over twenty-five years, and her work has appeared in numerous print journals and magazines. She is a native of southern California, and though she travels frequently, she finds the Pacific seashore, inland deserts, and local mountains of her home territory endlessly fascinating. When she is not traveling, teaching writing, or writing, you can find her online as Lou. All photographs accompanyingRambles are taken by Linda herself.