A land of stone tablets

Newspaper Rock petroglyphs near Monticello, Utah by Betsey Crawford
Newspaper Rock, Monticello, Utah

I’m still wandering the Utah desert with Moses. He’d be very used to this, but, though I love it, I’m positive I’d find forty years a few decades too many. Well, of course, he would say, with the air of a man who has come to grips with doing what his god says, no matter how capricious, no matter what the cost. I thought I was going out there for a few months.

Presumably, when you’re leading your people out of slavery, decades of wandering in the desert isn’t as bad as it seems on paper. It’s not as if Moses were thinking, I could be a CEO earning $13,000 an hour if I didn’t have this stiff-necked tribe to deal with, and this ornery God handing me stone tablets. Options were few, and they were, after all, going to another dry and rocky place. The Aztecs wandered for 200 years before finding the sign to their promised land, which turned out to be a swamp, so there are a number of demanding gods out there.

We’re walking on a day when the sky is a blue so deep and incandescent that it could easily burst into flames at any moment, and start raining stone tablets, as it apparently has been doing for eons. The tablets are everywhere. They have our history written on them. It’s even color coded, if a bit disorganized in every other way, after being pushed and shoved by millions of years of geologic upheaval.


Geological formations along the road in southern Utah by Betsey CrawfordThe great tales of long tribal wanderings speak of our own slow evolution as a human race, and also as individuals. So many of us yearn for instructions to manage our lives in this often wild and inexplicable existence. We have the most basic questions: Why? What?  How? We long for clarity. We want stone tablets with the rules for living on them.

And here they are. They’re everywhere, not just in Utah, though they’re more spectacular here than many places. They have the simplest of commandments. Tread lightly, they say.

Biological crust in Butler Wash, outside of Blanding, Utah by Betsey CrawfordThe sandy soil to the side of the path is covered with a dark brown layer, made up of broken down moss, lichen, cyanobacteria, microfungi, and other microorganisms. It’s called a biological crust, and it prevents erosion, provides nutrients to sandy soil, holds water, enables rootlets to find secure footing. If I step on it in this dry environment, it won’t recover for 250 years.

Lichen covered stone path in Butler Wash, near Blanding, Utah by Betsey CrawfordDon’t waste. Here is a rock path where you can see no rock at all. It’s a beautiful lichen painting. The lichen are slowly detaching the bonds that hold the rock together, one facet of the complex, millions-of-years-long process that creates the living soil our planet depends on.  Dirt is not cheap.

Dry wash in Mount Zion National Park, Utah by Betsey CrawfordExcept for a few hours a year, washes and streams are dry expanses of tumbled rock. Respect limits, the tablets say. If you put golf courses, shopping centers, houses in the desert, one day you will run out of water.

Dinosaur footprints in Buterl Wash, near Blanding, Utah, by Betsey CrawfordBe humble. A three-toed dinosaur walked through this mud-turned-stone 150,000,000 years ago. They were the big shots of their day.


Petroglyphs at Sand Island State Park, Bluff, Utah by Betsey CrawfordMake art. Celebrate life.

Don’t use too much, take care of all breathing things, sustain all the non-breathing things we depend on. We think it’s complicated, but it’s not. We make it complicated by what, to me, are two of the most damaging legacies of the Old Testament: that certain people are chosen, and that humans have been given dominion over the earth. These ideas weren’t new with the Israelites, but the bible helped codify them.

The stones around me hold the history of the cosmos, as do I, as does my dog, Splash, patiently sitting in the shade while I take pictures of wildflowers. In the first moments of the big bang every particle that will ever exist in our universe was already created, to meld and blend and be forged in the three billion degree heat of the earliest stars into the elements that make up this rock, that course through my veins, that hold up the stem of the flower.

Orange globe mallow (Spheralcea munroana) in Mount Zion National Park, Utah by Betsey CrawfordWhatever we call the force that exploded every bit of us into being, we are ongoing manifestations of it, the same energy, expressed differently, now a rock face  200,000,000 years old, now a woman of sixty-four, a dog of fourteen, a days-old flower glowing orange against the rocks.

This means we are made of exactly the same particles as everything else. When I really think about this miraculous, inherent relatedness, it makes it harder to feel superior because we have iPhones, Starbucks, jets, guns. Our path of evolution has given us the opportunity to reflect on our connection to everything in the cosmos, but we use it instead to fight over literal surface differences. We have made our form of consciousness a god, and have created a covenant with that god, to choose us over all other forms on the earth.

It’s not sustainable, and we all know it. Perhaps not in our vaunted consciousness, but in our earthy bodies, that know we are part of the dirt, the plants, the stars. each other. Bodies that long for reconnection, that know separation is death. We, too, are tablets with the instructions we long for.Red rock formation in southern Utah by Betsey Crawford



9 thoughts on “A land of stone tablets”

  1. You’re such an amazing writer. And photographer. And philosopher. And ecologist. And sister. And human being. And….


  2. I’m a new and quickly devoted reader to your blog, Betsy, and enjoying it so much. Your writing that brings tears to my eyes (tears of joy for the power of the written word), and arouses thoughts and a sense of curiosity that is inspirational. I passed this entry on to all my kids – because we love to talk about God, life, purpose, consciousness… and the evolution of consciousness carried through the millennia.

    1. Thanks for this lovely comment, Sue. So glad you’re here! You must have wonderful family conversations if that’s what you all like to talk about!

  3. God, Betsey you are smart and funny and hold such a powerful perspective. From ironical biblical history to technical natural history terms to devining the rules of life from the desert. Astonishing! Human hubris carries with it an enormous cost to all of creation. I can’t help but think that it’ll all come out somehow. I don’t know where I got this, but I loved hearing that Mother Nature always bats last. But, then I think: what about the evolution of consciousness as it lives in humans like you? The rocks,the flower, even Splash cannot contemplate existence as you can. I have to wonder if there isn’t some big, huge point to human consciousness. Let’s talk about it sometime, ok? Love and miss you.

    1. I love the notion that our consciousness has evolved so that the universe can reflect on itself. And I love our consciousness — that’s how we paint and write and take photographs and love each others’ work. It will be a great conversation. Love you and miss you, too.

  4. 250 years for biological crust to recover from a single foot step puts precious into perspective.

    Thank you for taking me deep in this moment.


    1. That 250 years is pretty daunting, particularly when you see how often it’s walked on. This time in Utah, though, there are signs everywhere about it, so that’s great progress.

  5. Carol Nicklaus

    Oh, my dear, something so profound has called you to her heart and soul… And there you are about to be! (With, of course, Splash the Wonder Dog, one of my most favorite sleep-mates…) And Captain George, who’s always brought his great spirit to our lives, time and time again.

    Your images of Waterton Lakes are going to allow us to see them as they have as they never have been seen before… I can’t WAIT to see them. (But, of course, I can, and will; they will arrive when they are meant to arrive…)

    May Goddess Kaliento continue to bless and support you on your beautiful journey. I’ll get there soon as I can figure it out!


    1. Thanks, my dear. I love your first line! And Waterton will be interesting. I take the best pics when I’m very quiet and alone, not with a lot of hubbub, so I’ll have to be careful to balance the two.

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