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Hiking Happenings June 2005

Staff of Life
by Rory Tyler

June 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.

There 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.

Cryptobiotic soil garden


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