Monday, December 12, 2016

Out of the digital mist

Images of hands, near Fort Davis, photographed 2011
Click on any image to enlarge
While searching for something else on my computer, a photograph popped up on my screen. It was a photo I thought was lost, and so seeing it again brought back so many memories.
Five summers ago, on a hot, August day, Ms. Carolyn and I followed verbal directions given to us by a friend in Fort Davis, hiking among boulders south of town and heading farther from the safety of the road and our car. The trail looked like snake country to me, and neither of us were wearing boots or long pants -- we were hiking in shorts and tennis shoes. I was concerned about this, and also concerned we'd get lost. The directions we'd received were vague, and the many boulders began to look similar, while the sounds from the highway became quieter. It felt like we were a very long way from civilization, a distance growing greater with each step.
We were looking for a rock shelter among many rocks piled high on a minor granite peak. While keeping an eye on the trail, where we watched for snakes, we also surveyed the hillside for anything which resembled a shelter. Game trails scattered in every direction, so we stayed close to the steep peak, looking upward. A thousand places looked like they could be shelter for which we were looking, and the shadows cast by the boulders made even flat surfaces look like they indented like a cave.
Finally we spied something that might serve as a small shelter, up the slope, in a tumble of boulders. We scrambled up to check it out, and saw it was covered in pictographs in the spots sheltered from the sun. This was the place.
I began to take photographs with my cell phone, an old Blackberry which I carried everywhere with me in those days. I took photos of the various walls, and focused on several of the larger figures drawn there. Carolyn looked around the rock room while I took pictures.
Pictographs, Fort Davis, photographed 2011
There were some paintings on the large rocks that made up the interior walls of the structure, but also some on a small shelf close to the floor of the shelter.
Some of the images made sense: deer (probably mule deer), people, other animals, an arrow, perhaps a dog or coyote. Others were abstract and I could not tell what they represented. The figures were mostly painted in red ocher, but there were also figures in white, black, and some in a shade of blue. Most were very faint, just hints of the image once there, but many were very clearly visible. I tried to get good photographs of all of the images, and it took a little time.
I was about to put my phone in my pocket when I noticed Ms. Carolyn patiently smiling at me.
She knew something I didn't.
"Look up," she said.
I was so busy taking photographs of the walls of the shelter, I had failed to notice the ceiling, which was covered with the outlines of small hands, and handprints in two different colors, ochre and white.
Had I gone to the shelter alone, I would have missed the hand images. I never once looked up.
Some were made by covering the hand with pigment and pressing the hand against the ceiling of the shelter; others, by placing the hand on the ceiling and splattering paint against the stone, leaving an outline of where the hand had been.
All but one of the hands painted on the walls were small: they seemed to be the hands of children. Of course Ms. Carolyn had noticed the work of children: she's a first-grade teacher!
The image that popped up on my computer was of two small right hands, outlined in white from paint sprayed against the wall, a negative image. The photo was taken of part of the ceiling of the shelter, a portion I would not have seen if it had not been pointed out to me.
Pictographs, Fort Davis, photographed 2011
It was a photograph I had thought was lost, taken five years ago, with a phone that was two phones ago. I thought the photograph had been lost as I transitioned from old computer to new computer several times. I never expected to see the images again.
The photo which popped up was not on my computer, but nestled somewhere in the "cloud," a part of the collection of my photos on Google's free photo service. I had no idea it was there. Once found, though, I could easily find the other photographs taken that day, both in the rock shelter and around Fort Davis that same day.
Leaving the shelter, we stopped and looked out at the plain below us. In the distance other rocky peaks jutted up. The air was hot and made the far hills waver in shape. It wasn't hard to imagine the view as it had appeared to those who'd painted on the stones behind us; there were few man-made structures in the expanse below.
If you find yourself in such a place, don't forget Ms. Carolyn's advice: "Look up."
Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who does not like snakes, especially the snakes he cannot see but imagines are hiding along the trail. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times December 10, 2016.

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