For roughly two decades now, I’ve picked a Book of the Year for my annual list of favorites. (on rare occasions, such as last December, two titles share that spot). In 2018, it was Craig Childs’s Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice-Age America (Pantheon), in which Childs tells of the gradual peopling of North America.
More than any other book I’ve read, Atlas of a Lost World gave me a palpable sense of connection with the countless generations of people who preceded us here—people whose distant descendants, alas, were displaced, harried, killed, exposed to diseases against which they had no immunity by the settlers who came from Europe. But that history doesn’t prevent us from learning more about the fellow humans who came before us and the rock art they created, the subject of Childs’s new book, Tracing Time: Seasons of Rock Art on the Colorado Plateau (Torrey House). With Childs as our guide—a guide who talks with and listens to many interlocutors, women and men, Native and not, academic and not, a wonderfully various lot—we are invited to experience both a profound sense of otherness and a fundamental human bond, neither one cancelling out the other.
Here I’m going to do something unusual: I will list the titles of the many chapters in Childs’s book. Why? Won’t that be boring? Not for me, it wouldn’t, if I were reading this column instead of writing it. I want to give you a sense of the terrain covered. So here we go: Handprints. Floating People. Spirals & Concentric Circles. Conflict. Horses. Adornment. Birth. The Hunt. Joined Hands. Rain. Galleries. Symbols. Processions. Crookneck Staffs. Ducks on Heads. Desecration. Children. Sundial.
I hope you are feeling the shiver of anticipation I felt when I first saw the Contents page of Tracing Time (confirming the buzz I felt simply from reading the title). You will want to read the book yourself and tell others about it. Childs is as much a conduit as an interpreter. His interlocutors often have sharp opinions, which he passes on to us. “Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a friend and member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, rolls her eyes at horse art when it comes up. She said her people aren’t really horse people, even though horses are widely pictured in their rock art.” We are left to make of that what we will. Childs trusts us, his readers, to listen along with him. That’s part of the reason I love his work so much.
The result of this many-faceted account of rock art is a much richer sense of our predecessors (themselves enormously various) than we were likely to have possessed before we started the book. A recurring theme is communication with the spirit world. I would love to read a piece by a first-rate Old Testament scholar and another by a first-rate New Testament scholar on this. They might consider the bedrock convictions of the diverse peoples who created this rock art in relation to biblical understandings of the spirit world—and also reflect on the unease many highly educated contemporary Western Christians feel about “the spirit world.”
“I look at myself and my companions,” Childs writes in the chapter titled “Adornment,”
and I wonder what prayers our adornment carries. We seem not to be a call for rain, but for industry, for copious exchanges across oceans. Our clothes come from faraway countries, gear born from mines and well pumps. There is no ochre or clay on our bodies, no shells ringing our arms, and most of our belongings are made from materials refined in tanks and extruded, or fibers grown in fields that stretch beyond horizons. Regardless of my mouth or pen, the devotion of my garb is to the artificial, a civilization that no longer favors feathers or snakes or clouds.
I read Childs’s book for the first time (I’ve already re-read it since then) in an old reclining chair, my “work-station” in our living room. And yet I feel I have been in the caves he visited, walked along the ancient riverbeds, and stared at the painted canyon walls. I hope some of you will travel with him as well.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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Photo by Patrizio1948 via GNU. Image cropped.