Happenings June 2005
Staff of Life
by Rory Tyler
is the time of year when Indian rice grass is at its
most beautiful and fruitful. It’s a classic Western bunch grass - a perennial
about two feet tall that grows as a distinct individual,
rather than joining with its neighbors to create a sod
cover. While it doesn’t form sod, it can be a prolific,
even dominant species in some areas. In late June, rice
grass seeds ripen. Each black seed, about half the size
of a grain of rice, has the distinctive cereal flavor.
There are typically scores of seeds on each plant’s
many graceful stems. To gather seeds, run the stems through
your fingers as you walk along. It’s easy to see
how Indians could have stuffed baskets full. Not only did
rice grass provide food for the ancient peoples, it was
also primary forage for over a million big horn sheep,
not to mention the innumerable deer, elk, bear, mice, birds,
and bunnies that have lived here since the end of the last
Ice Age. On the Colorado Plateau, Indian rice grass was
the staff of life for over ten thousand years.
were places in the Four Corners region where the hay
from these plants was inches thick - a mother lode of
hay. And, when the European impulse arrived in the 1870’s, this sealed
its fate. Colorado’s silver bonanza drew tens of
thousands of miners; hungry miners who fed on cattle fattened
on rice grass. By the 1890’s, southern Utah’s
rice grass colonies were no longer sufficient to sustain
the herds. That’s why many ranchers began raising
sheep. Cattle nibble their feed to ground level. Sheep
will tear the plants out by the roots, an especially bad
idea in a place that gets a mere eight inches of rain a
year. To make a bad situation worse, cheat grass arrived
at the same time. It’s an annual plant from the steppes
of western Asia that is not nearly as attractive to grazers
as rice grass. And it competes effectively for the same
food, water, and light as the native plants. It was a one-two
punch. Eighty centuries of rice grass culture on the Colorado
Plateau hit the deck in twenty years.
Your mind’s eye can easily take you back to those ancient days
by walking in the beautiful Bartlett Wash - Hellroaring Canyon area.
The entire area is administered by the Bureau of Land Management, so
you can take your dog. Bartlett Wash is well known to mountain bikers
for its exceptionally smooth, elegant expanses of Entrada Slickrock.
The head of Hellroaring Canyon, a few miles away, is a wide shelf of
white cap rock that’s very easy and fun to walk on. It drops precipitously
into a magnificent canyon that was once a major Indian route to the Green
River. The views here are fantastic. And, forming a triangle with these
two is the Bartlett Rock Art Panel.
The Bartlett Panel, an Archaic Indian painting roughly two thousand years
old, sits quietly above a wide expanse of rice grass rippling in the
soft desert wind. (The other bunch grass is Needle-and-Thread and the
cheat grass is doing quite well, too, thank you.) Most rock art panels
face south. The Bartlett Panel is unusual in that it faces north, but
I think there may be a reason for this. Rice grass, remember, ripens
in midsummer and the Bartlett Panel, out there among the native crops,
provides the best shelter from the sun for a long way around. It’s
easy to imagine that the ancient spirits are there with you. Imagine
grandmothers, children, and little babies waiting in the cool as the
harvest proceeds on the sun-baked prairie below. Imagine all the labor,
ceremony, and socialization that went with this bounty for thousands
and thousands of years.
To get to the Bartlett Panel take Hwy.191 north to Hwy 313. Follow Hwy
313 for 4.5 miles, then turn right on the Spring Canyon/Dubinke Wells
road, directly across from the viewpoint. ¾ of a mile down there
is a sandy, two-track on the left, leading to a sandstone ridge. Take
this road to the panel. To get to Hellroaring Canyon stay on the Spring
Canyon Bottom Road. When the road splits after a mile, take the left
fork and drive straight another 2.5 miles until you cross a cattle guard.
The two-track on the left goes a hundred yards to the edge of this spectacular
canyon. To get to Bartlett Wash drive north on Highway 191 for 12.5 miles,
then turn left on Mill Canyon Road and drive west for about 3 miles.
There are some signs out there, but it’s a good idea to take a
map as this area can be confusing.
Call me old-fashioned…even archaic, I love walking through ripe
rice grass. I think of ancient Indian paintings where spirits sprout
rice grass their fingertips, pictures of worship and respect that transcend
time and space, binding all of humanity in its single love for the gifts
of life. It’s a feeling worth remembering.