Ancient rock art and modern spirituality

Hidden Thunder: Rock Art of the Upper Midwest, by Geri Schrab and Robert F. Boszhardt (State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 2016)

hidden-thunderAmerican religion began long before the Spanish missions in Florida and the Southwest or the Pilgrims and Puritans of New England. As archaeologist Robert F. Boszhardt shows, it can be traced back some 14,000 years in the rock art that can still be seen in the Upper Midwest. Yet, as water color artist Geri Schrab affirms, the Spirit that inspired the ancient ones still “flows through all life’s invisible veins” (90).

The primary focus of the book that scientist and artist have created is the Wisconsin Dells, an unglaciated region in the southeast part of the state and close to glacial Lake Wisconsin. Although the existence of Native American rock art had been known much earlier, serious attention was not given to it  until the early 1980s.

During the relatively short period since then, explorers, scientists, artists, and native peoples have identified nearly 200 sites in the Upper Midwest where ancient rock art exists. Much work has been done to inventory, interpret, portray, and protect this art. Because it is subject to vandalism, the locations of most sites are not reported to the public.

Hidden Thunder is unique in the way it portrays and interprets this art. The coauthors have chosen twelve sites and each writer contributes an essay describing their experiences with these locations and their ancient treasures. Interspersed throughout the volume are viewpoints contributed by members of the nations whose ancestors created the art.

As archaeologist, Boszhardt describes what scientists are learning about these locations, the art, and the peoples who created these paintings and carvings. He also describes how people today are desecrating some of these sites. His photographs appear throughout the book.

In her essays artist Schrab describes the emotional and spiritual dimensions of her experience with these ancient images and the caves and rock walls where they can be viewed. She gives attention to interpretations by social scientists and native peoples, but more important is the time she spends at each site.

As she senses the ambiance of each place, Schrab becomes aware of the spirit that she encounters there. Only then can she withdraw to her studio and create her own artistically enhanced portrayals of this art. Many of her images appear in the book.

Some people today describe themselves as being spiritual but not religious. When asked to say more, however, some of these same people often give only vague comments about experiencing god in nature.

Artist Schrab, however, confesses a deeper sense of communion with Spirit. In her essay on Roche-A-Cri State Park in Adams County, Wisconsin, she describes Spirit as “that tantalizing, sparkly, sticky, divine substance we can’t pin down but that flows through all life’s invisible veins” (90).

Describing her experiences in Tainter Cave in Crawford County, Wisconsin, she reports that here she has “a rare opportunity to immerse myself, sync my heartbeat to that of Mother Earth, and glean information that I hoped would translate to watercolor on paper back at my studio” (171).

Later in this essay she continues: “Entering Tainter Cave, facing my fears and working through them, seems analogous to my entire journey through rock art. I leave the comfort of my middle-class life to venture into the unfamiliar, risking missteps along the way, hoping to bring back spiritual riches” (175).

A few weeks ago, I was reading personal correspondence in which John Muir describes his experiences in nature, in Wisconsin and in Yosemite Valley. Although he says nothing about rock art, he expresses sentiments similar to Schrab’s as he describes the way that divinity seems to infuse the natural world, in the flow of water, the wild power of wind, the womb-like character of mountain glens, and the intricate texture of ferns and lichens.

In his biography of the young John Muir, Steven J. Holmes writes that earlier in his wanderings Muir had described God “as a landscape gardener whose power and love consists in protecting and caring for the things of the world.” Later, however, “Muir understood divine presence as existing in and through the world itself: ‘The warm blood of God through all the geologic days of volcanic fire & through all the glacial winters great & small, flows through these mountain granites, flows through these frozen streams, flows through trees living or fallen, flows through death itself’” (The Young John Muir, 237).

The naturalist long ago and artist in our own time have much to teach all of us we seek to become more spiritual.

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