Petroglyphs in a Desert Canyon – Interpreting Ancient Symbols for Personal Insights

Petroglyph Canyon Wall

Petroglyph Cliff in Sonoran Desert Canyon

“Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear-the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break….I sometimes choose to think, no doubt perversely, that man is a dream, thought an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun.” ~ Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness

Deep in a canyon in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, the cliff walls transition from red and gray striated rock to a giant wall of petroglyphs, figures pecked and carved into an ancient layer of the black desert varnish which covers many of the rocky surfaces.

Scientists estimate that many of the petroglyphs were carved from about 300 A.D. until 1300 A.D..

The Hohokam may have pecked these petroglyphs while on hunting and gathering expeditions, or during religious or other ceremonies. Perhaps they are solstice markers, tribe symbols, decorative art, or even an ancient form of graffiti.

 Studying these mysterious symbols, I began to wonder at the message as it was intended, nearly a thousand years ago. A message whose meaning has disappeared just as the Ancient Ones disappeared from these lands almost overnight, back in the 1300s. Some of the markings do align with the solar calendar – one spiral in this canyon is precisely half-illuminated by a slit of light as it shines through a split rock, This happens only twice a year – at the vernal and autumnal equinoxes.

I viewed the spiral on the vernal equinox and watched as sunlight illuminated exactly half the spiral. On the March day when it is half light/half dark. Twelve hours of day and twelve hours of night. Halving the spiral into equal parts of light and dark.

Snake Petroglyph

Snake Petroglyph in Desert Canyon

Each thing in its way, when true to its own character, is equally beautiful.”  ~ Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

What messages might you take from symbols as they appear in your daily life?

After researching these petroglyphs, I realized:

  • things are not always as they seem
  • that sometime, in the mystery, lies the unexpected answer
  • that I see/study symbols and may incorporate meaning as I understand it into my life

For example, the snake petroglyph is geometric and prominent amidst the other carvings. There is no way to know what the snake symbol meant to the ancient Hohokam. Yet I can make my own interpretation of the snake and its message, as it pertains to my life, today.

Snakes become dormant in colder months, expending little energy. They are summoned by the lengthening days, by the sun’s longer appearance each day, and they move towards warmth and the life giving powers of the sun. Snakes move in rhythm with the natural cycle, the natural forces of nature. I, too, am drawn to the longer days and tend to slow down as the days shorten. Or I seek places of sunshine, places and spaces that provide warmth.

The snake is of the earth. It crawls upon the earth, burrows into the earth for shelter, warmth, protection. I feel grounded when I stand upon the earth, and focus my energy downward, anchoring deep within the earth.

Snake is ruled by instinct for survival. I, too, live by instincts – some of which I follow, often finding my way; some which I ignore, sometimes to my detriment.

Snake is powerful, often feared, and sometimes is killed or hurt unnecessarily by people who are frightened and do not understand the ways of the snake. How does this relate to me? When I follow my passions, and insticts, take risks, do the unexpected, how do others respond to me? How does this affect my forward movement?

What might snake’s message mean to you?

Prickly Pear in Bloom

Prickly Pear in Bloom

Prickly Pear in Bloom © 2013 Bo Mackison

“If you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for a moment.”
~ Georgia O’Keeffe

Not that I would want to take a flower from a cactus in my hand, but I understand Georgia O’Keeffe’s remark about having the world for a moment. When I stop on a desert path or in a desert garden, I feel as if the world opens before me and I see the beauty, the complexity, the order of the Universe.


Bo Mackison is a photographer and owner of Seeded Earth Studio. She is beginning a time of transition, and collecting the beauty of the desert – in her memory and in photographs.

The Essence of Desert

Yucca in Bloom

Yucca in Bloom ©2013 Bo Mackison

“I seek out places where it can happen more readily, such as deserts or mountains or solitary areas, or by myself with a seashell, and while I’m there get into states of mind where I’m more open than usual. I’m waiting, I’m listening. I go to those places and get myself ready through meditation. Through being quiet and willing to wait, I can begin to see the inner man and the essence of the subject in front of me… Watching the way the current moves a blade of grass – sometimes I’ve seen that happen and it has just turned me inside out.”
~ Minor White

There is a transformation that takes place when I sit in a place of solitude and wait.

In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps did construction projects in the Sonoran Desert. They built several picnic areas in the Tucson Mountains, tables of concrete and stone, each in a private space, each table protected from the heat of mid-day sun by an overhead ramada. One of these picnic sites, tucked far from the road, has become my perfect office space. I gather the requisites necessary for spending a day writing and taking photographs in the desert – camera, a few reference books, my old notebooks, but also water, protein snacks, a wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen, my hiking stick.

I bring my writing office to the desert. I choose not to bring my computer or other devices that might tempt me with an immediate, continuous connection to the rest of the world. I choose  solitude instead. I write by hand, pen to paper, scribbling, crossing out, adding words, sensing the connection between brain and hand. I compile notes from a dozen notebooks, unravel bits of my life from words written during the past decade. I pull inspiration from these worn pages and curate them into the skeletal beginnings of my Desert Wisdom Cards.

I take frequent breaks to hike – a favorite trail begins fifty paces from my table and winds through saguaro-studded desert, in and out of several washes, then half-way up the side of Brown Mountain. There I stop and memorize the desert scene, burn its landscape into my mind – again. In a few weeks I will be in a far away state, and my heart will linger here in this lush desert stretching beyond the beyond.

Minor White’s quote struck a deep chord in me. I do connect with the world beyond my sight, I feel the essence of place seep into my cells. Sometimes I feel as if this sacred desert space turns me inside out, and exposes my innermost being to the desert in exchange for bits of desert wisdom.


Bo Mackison is a photographer and owner of Seeded Earth Studio LLC.  She is beginning a time of transition, and finding strength and inspiration in the desert. Her office, at least for a few more weeks, is in the Sonoran Desert.

Arizona Dust Storm

Dust Storm

Dust Storm, Hidden Mountains © 2013 Bo Mackison


Such fierce desert winds.
Dust devils spinning.

The mountains, peaks ten thousand feet
above the desert floor,
vanish in the dusty clouds.

Yellow ochre granules, desert spit
in frenetic dance, rise like mini-tornadoes,
slam into Santa Rita’s rocky face.

Desert powder settles on
the bristling Ponderosa pines.

Broad billed hummingbirds, in defense,
fluff to twice their size
and burrow their faces in their feathers.

Prickly pears cast faint shadows in the arroyo
through cloud filtered sunlight.
And pollen drops, like yellow rain.


Bo Mackison is a photographer and owner of Seeded Earth Studio LLC.  She explores the desert with her camera, and occasionally is inspired to add poetry.

Courage – A Desert Wisdom Card

Mission San Cayetano de Calabazas

Crossing the Threshold © 2013 Bo Mackison

We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face . . . we must do that which we think we cannot. ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

When experiencing disappointment or loss, it is natural to seek a counterbalance, a positive action to balance the negative.

The counterbalance of fear is courage. Crossing a threshold into a dark unknown space can evoke fears. But even in the darkest of spaces, we have an ability no one can take away. The choice of how we react, what we think, what we choose to say.

The courage to imagine the otherwise is our greatest resource. . . ~Daniel J Boorstin

Even in the darkest of spaces, we can imagine a star-filled universe, the constancy of waves sweeping a sandy beach, a window with a view of a fruit-filled orchard. We can appreciate the light because we have an understanding of the dark.

Courage and perseverance have a magical talisman, before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish into air. ~ John Quincy Adams

COURAGE offers questions/reflections for journal, art prompts, and calls to action:

  • Crossing a significant life threshold takes courage. When the choice is happily anticipated, enthusiasm for the change lessens, though doesn’t alleviate, fear of the unknown. When crossing a threshold brings about unwanted or unplanned changes, courage and determination help balance our fears. Consider thresholds you have crossed – a job change, new responsibilities, a birth, a death, a move. How do you respond to changes in your life?
  • Once fear is identified as a limiting factor, action can defuse this emotion. Courage is answering the questions: “Why am I afraid?” “What can I do to face my fear?”
  • Though John Quincy Adam’s refers to the invisible “magical talisman” of courage and perseverance, it is often helpful to have a physical object as a reminder. One of the simplest talismans to create is a small rock inscribed with a message. Examine your environment for small rocks until you find a rock that feels right. Paint it a bright color or leave it natural. Use a permanent marker to inscribe the word COURAGE on its surface. Carry it in your pocket or place in your work area or bed side table as a reminder.
  • Practice courage in small doses by doing an activity that is not routine. Take a different route to work or the store. Shop in a local market rather than your nearby mega-grocery store. Eat a sack lunch on a park bench instead of eating from a fast food drive-through. Say hello to strangers, meet them eye-to-eye, and smile. These small acts may not seem courageous, but by moving out of your comfort zone, you will stretch the muscles that feed your courage.


Bo Mackison is a photographer and owner of Seeded Earth Studio LLC.  Bo is creating a deck of Desert Wisdom Cards for self-exploration and discovery using her photography and the Sonoran Desert theme – its myths and stories, cultures and history, and the desert’s remarkable natural beauty and resources.