The processional panel in the Shash Jáa Unit of Bears Ears National Monument looms above me. This sacred cultural site is majestic, and yet, I can’t help but hold back a snort. The panel, in all its historical glory, is mocking me.
I was always very close with my father as a child. On gloomy winter mornings I would awake to the sound of his work-bound Honda Civic pulling out of our carport. With feelings of deep primal abandonment, I would leap from the warm embrace of my bedsheets and spring to the window, only to be disappointed that I hadn’t been able to wave goodbye.
Now at age twenty I stand in front of the scarlet panel, thousands of miles away from the comfort of either my bedroom or my father, and yet I feel no sadness. My eye is drawn to the largest pictograph on the wall, which is of an elk- with broad shoulders and a hairy chest. Hmm, kind of looks like my dad. I peer closer and the ungulate’s robust belly proves my musings correct- yup, definitely my beer-bellied dad. The elk’s partner is slightly smaller and significantly less hairy than its paternal counterpart. Her muscled legs and curly disheveled hair parallel those of my mom. She is turned away from my hooved father, her head held high, her tail lifting slightly to excrete large scat pellets, their delightful odor wafting up to the larger elk’s nostrils. The female’s defiance emanates from the rock canvas, and while I can almost say for sure my mom never pooped anywhere near my dad’s head during their divorce, I am sure she felt like it sometimes. The carved beasts walk on united, joining a pilgrimage of other animals and humans alike. The travelers congregate around a large circle which is believed to represent the place where all life emerged. The circle is massive and intact, infinite and all encompassing. My parents’ marriage, on the other hand, is fractured and non-existent.
I raise my head, feeling watched, as if the rock art is my diary and every spectator is reading the intimate details of my childhood. Finding I am alone in my musings, I recline into the gentle shade of a juniper tree, amused. The carvings-- the desert-- does not judge, or taunt, or expect perfection from me. Rock art allows me to make inferences about the past, while also acting as a mirror to my own life. My childhood is now fragmented. Two homes. Two bedrooms. Two families. The desert, similarly, is sliced by natural processes such as vast canyons and water-washed striations. But it is also being continually fractured by oil and gas rigs, mines, paved roads, and telephone lines. Bears Ears National Monument has been torn apart and, unlike my parents, it has the opportunity to be united once again. This land is intact. Connected. Familial. Comforting. This land should remain.
Amara Killen is from Fairfax, California and she now is studying Race and Ethnic Studies at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. She recently partook in the college's Semester in the West Program, a semester of experiential learning, traveling around the West and learning about public lands and environmental issues. She grew up climbing trees in the redwood forests of Northern California and is now beginning her exploration of the great deserts of the U.S.