Tracing Time, Childs brings the rock art of the Colorado Plateau Canyon country into a rich and moving focus.
I have read most, if not all, of Craig Childs’ books about the American Southwest’s red rock country. Tracing Time is my favorite! Childs has masterfully blended his personal observations with careful research and countless conversations with knowledgeable people. The result is my idea of a powerful book of nature writing. Not only did I learn about rock art from reading Tracing Time; I also spent hours vicariously hiking the Colorado Plateau Canyon country, revisiting favorite spots and discovering many new ones.
Childs has a keen descriptive eye. Part of his authorial charm is his obvious love for the landscape. He conveys that affinity in leisurely fashion, often taking hours to observe a single rock art panel, sometimes revisiting a special place day after day after day. He picks his times carefully, too, coordinating with the sun’s path. Some rock art is best seen at dawn, others at sunset, by starlight, or even at the precise moment of winter solstice when a spiral uniquely reflects the sun’s rays. The whole point is to look and to experience. Childs explains, “I am not offering a guidebook to places, but a guidebook to context, meaning, and ways of seeing.” Thus, he gives no directions to particular spots, and he offers no particular textbook interpretations. He simply assimilates.
Tracing Time isn’t egocentric, however. Childs interacts with dozens of other people, sharing their expertise while adding their wisdom to modernity’s understanding of ancient petroglyphs and pictographs. He hikes with ranchers who live on the land, with Hopi and Zuni and Navajo keepers of indigenous stories, with artists, with archaeologists and ethnohistorians, with other rock art obsessives (as he calls his tribe). Some he mentions only once, while others reappear in several places, especially when Childs wants to refer to their research or their special “take” on a set of peckings or paintings.
He organizes Tracing Time into visual modes. Spirals, of course, but also processionals, hunting, fertility, the passage of time. I appreciated the way he expands rather than contracts his readers’ visions. He never posits a precise interpretation of anything. Rather, he speculates, he daydreams, he consults others and expresses how he might agree or disagree. I often use the term “moving meditation” for such writing (see my Bookin’with Sunny” reviews of two recent Susan Orlean books), a term that perfectly describes Childs’ achievement in Tracing Time. He is on the move, his mind is on the move, and he encourages the reader to join the dual procession imaginatively.
There is one more notable aspect of Tracing Time that isn’t crucial to its success but that adds a parallel subtext to the stories Childs tells. He is doing his field work during the time of Covid. So, his forays with others feel like moments stolen from the plague. His distancing from others mirrors his distance from the people who created the rock art multiple generations ago. His presence, or his exclusion, from the native gatherings give a window into the havoc Covid wreaked in the Four Corners country. His candor and his empathy add to the contours of his writing.
For all the reasons mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, I highly recommend Tracing Time. This is a book to be savored, to read and reread, to carry along when gazing at rock art up close or when simply imagining panels in the mind’s eye. As I read, I recalled specific hikes and specific rock walls, the magic of a first encounter, the re-encounters in subsequent years, my frequent timidity clamoring up and up and up, my relaxation while sitting still and simply savoring what native artists depicted countless years before. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Craig Childs: Virga & Bone; Atlas of a Lost World; Apocalyptic Planet; Finders Keeper; The Animal Dialogues; House of Rain; The Way Out; The Desert Cries; Soul of Nowhere; The Secret Knowledge of Water; Grand Canyon: Time Below the Rim; Crossing Paths; Stone Desert; House of Rain.
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