Chips, flakes, and bighorn sheep

From where I sit writing, I can look up to a mountain that stands nearly 10,000 feet high. The peak has a few trees that straggle across the highest ridge, twisted and shaped by the wind. Here at my desk, I can see not only the trees, but also the approximate spot where I once placed a few handfuls of rock chips, carefully arranged in a circular pattern – a mineral bouquet.

The chips all came from one location further along the ridge. Each one shows signs of being worked, knapped by the original inhabitants of the land as they made their arrowheads, spear points, and scrapers. Some of the chips are (I believe) chert or jasper, others came from the petrified wood so abundant in this volcanic area. The chunks and flakes have smooth sides and sharp edges, with rich colors of caramel, cream, pastel pink, and deep rust. An abundance of chips lay scattered at that one point along the ridge, and they seemed to call out to be held. I picked up a richly colored piece, running my finger across the surface, wondering about the hands that shaped it long ago.

Then, without thinking, I filled my pockets with the chips, wanting them to accompany me on my day’s journey along the ridge, for they held the touch and voice of the ones who came before. I could imagine the group sitting on the ridge, working stone into tools, talking, maybe laughing or shouting or telling stories. Or sitting in silence, there where the view stretched out for many miles over a land of beauty and abundance. The flakes in my pocket carried weight and spirit, and so they walked with me for a ways.

I carried the chips to the peak – the highest point of the long ridge – knowing I had to leave them. Just off the summit, in a sheltered nook under the branches of the straggly conifers, I placed the stone pieces in a pattern of concentric circles, almost a spiral – large on the outside, down to small, the colors intermixing.

IMG_2750Last week I went to that peak. A herd of bighorn sheep was there, perhaps thirty adults and their lambs of this year. The group moved across the high slope, the adults running, the young playing, the eldest sauntering at a more leisurely pace. The sheep stopped at the far edge of the mountain, some grazing, others bedding down to sleep in the heat of the afternoon.

Not far away was the small cluster of rocks nestled under the tree. I suspect the Sheepeater Indians created those chips, the mountain people who once called this land home, the people who hunted the bighorn sheep.

The patterned pile of rocks is now another point in the surrounding mountains that holds meaning, a place I visit each summer. Every time I am there, I pick up one of the chips and run a thumb over its smooth surface and across the sharp edge, and think of those who were here before.

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