21st Century Pictographs


Eight people stood on a wilderness overlook with their backs to the pristine lake below. Not one of them held a camera. They were seemingly oblivious to the glorious backdrop behind them. Instead, they gazed at renderings on a sheer cliff directly against the gravel road opposite the lake. “My God!”, they were agape, “Who’d have thought?”
That “thought” in question likely had little to do with interpretations of ancient pictographs found in these parts. This group stood before a wall of doodlings and text that flat out defaced Mother Nature. Though graffiti artists might disagree, it was a visual oxymoron to the unblemished majesty surrounding them. As appeasement, I try to appreciate this blasphemy as twenty-first century pictographs. Their expressive content just deciphers more simply than their timeworn counterparts and the paint doesn’t last as long.
Captivated that such artwork ventured beyond metropolitan architecture, the group absorbed this tableau as if Moses had delivered it personally. They mused on the logo for “Matt’s Racing & Auto Body” and appeared smitten with Will’s proclamations of love for Alice. If vandalism were charged, that one wouldn’t be hard to track down. But seven years later, their relationship faded like the spray-can paint that announced it and was covered by something more current.
I’m not big on defiling Mother Nature’s art gallery. But I can’t be entirely huffy. For years, I’ve spent time pondering these very graphics. The cliff stretches about a tenth of a mile and quite honestly, it’s full of upbeat stuff. There are the most complimentary thoughts on God. And according to the writing on the wall, “Jesus Saves…
“Coupons.” The coupons’ part looked to have been added later because the handwriting is different.
Colorful peace symbols are abundant. Amateur attempts at intimidation like “Who you lookin’ at?” are countered with “Love & Smiles.” One tastefully done nude is reminiscent of Picasso’s Blue Period, a stroke of genius from the up-and-coming artist who probably worked with Rust-Oleum.
I must say, considering all that artistic canvas, there’s barely a cuss word on it. I’ve given my life to language and it’s meant to be used. Unless I misunderstand some shrouded treachery in the meanings, the rare four-letter words on the cliffside are pretty mild vernacular. I admit, however, that I’m disappointed in the only use of the f-bomb. Normally, it’s one of my favorites. But this falls flat. It just hangs like a dangling participle, ineffective, as if the writer did it just to say they tagged a dirty word on public property and nothing more. What a waste. What’s its point?
Such is the nature of pictographs. They have everybody guessing. There’s a well-preserved site of genuine pictographs not far from the graffiti wall. It’s a three-mile drive back down the road, then a two-mile canoe paddle or snowshoe to a lake northward. The old pictographs are somewhat smaller compared to the roadside visuals that ambush travelers passing by the cliff. Without paying attention, visitors could overlook the ancient paintings.
Having lived in the region for approximately nine-thousand years, the Ojibwe people are considered the likely creators of this artwork. The estimated age of these pictographs is five-hundred to one-thousand years old. The immortal paint is understood to be a mix of iron hematite, boiled sturgeon spine and bear grease.
Some of the depictions are obvious: a bull moose, a human, a canine or maybe a cat, and presumably some canoes. Beyond that, only clues remain. Scholars hypothesize that they represent Ojibwe traditions, legends and spirituality. Others speculate that some pictographs are connected to constellations typically seen in winter. The human among the pictographs has been interpreted as Orion. Thus, the celestial representations could be a celebration of the hunting and storytelling season. Some people have suggested the drawings possibly served as navigational directions toward hunting grounds. An ice-covered lake would also have provided better access and firmer footing than open water for the artist.
Then again, perhaps the pictographs are an early indicator of offbeat humor. Throughout history, humankind has been populated with the exceptionally playful. On the day, week, or whenever these pictographs were created, maybe the artist was feeling a little mischievous. Weary of mapping redundant images from one cliffside to the next, perhaps this painter was an avant-garde of the time, itching to explore, break a few rules, go deeper for art, conjure laughter. That might explain why Orion’s image portrays him with disproportionately long arms stretched far out to either side, as if exaggerating the abundance of moose or lying about the size of a fish. A common bond of creative minds across the centuries—Orion is telling a whopper.


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