Craig Childs, “Tracing Time”

(The following was first published in the Four Corners Free Press, July 2022).

History, skeletons, and time.

Layers, civilizations, and stories.

Signals. Messages.


It’s all here in the Four Corners region. It’s literally right here. Under our feet. Around that corner. Down that canyon. Or in your backyard. Or mine.

We can go for a hike thinking today’s thoughts and hoping to shake off today’s woes, and we might glance up at the wall of a canyon and take in markings and messages that might be a thousand years old. Or ten. Or fifteen.

Tracing Time: Seasons of Rock Art on the Colorado Plateau is Craig Childs’ heartfelt guide to finding that headspace of deep contemplation for all that’s come before us.

Childs has been prowling canyons on the Colorado Plateau for thirty years. He’s written a dozen books from Stone Desert (an exploration of Canyonlands National Park, first published in 1995 and now out of print) to Virga & Bone, a 2019 collection of essays about human and animal desert icons. Perhaps Childs’ most notable book is House of Rain, on the fate of the once-thriving Ancestral Puebloan hub at Chaco Canyon. Childs has been watching rock art for decades in his nearly non-stop wanderings.

Childs’ book tour for Tracing Time started at Fenceline Cider in Mancos and it was SRO. His presentation mixes joyful wonder and awe with keen academic observations. So does the book.

Tracing Time is one part field guide (though he never mentions the specific locations of any of the panels he describes), one part memoir, one part inspirational talk encouraging us to get out there and see the pictographs and petroglyphs on our own, personal terms. Childs draws in a host of academic and cultural experts to gather their comments and perspectives. He tests theories, weighs evidence, and gives a voice to those who contemplate these works for a living.

The book, beautifully produced by Torrey House Press with art by Gary Gackstatter (who replicated the rock art with a vintage crow quill nib dipped into ink) is divided into 18 chapters. Handprints. Floating People. Spirals & Concentric Circles, Conflict. Horses. Adornment. Birth. And so on.

Childs cares about the images themselves, of course, but he cares just as much about their location in the canyons. He wants us to see the bigger picture and he wants us to learn how to move through these spaces, too.  He wants you to realize you didn’t choose a trail. Because of geology and the way a canyon flows, it may have chosen you. He wants us to watch the dawn light hit these etchings and paintings. He wants us to watch them fade into darkness, too.

Childs’ way with words is some kind of magic trick, animating the inert and enlivening stillness.

“The creek below mumbled under ice. Cottonwood trees stood bare. Frigid air roamed downhill, a stillness the canyon seems to be drifting into like a ship through fog. My perch was slickrock, my gloved hands wrapped around binoculars waiting to be used, for the day to come. I was here for dawn and sunrise, watching the last stars drift out and an inkling of light seep into cottonwoods below. I prefer this time of day, or at least this pace of waiting. The rest of the time is so much grind and go, a civilization screaming at you to stay on the ball, while here the light comes as slowly as cold molasses. A crescent moon sliced the glowing sky. Petroglyphs above me, around me, stood out through a thin broth of light and I didn’t want to lift my binoculars to focus on them. I watched the canyon instead, eyes drawn into a gray frosting of snow and trees. Nothing moved along the snowbound Creek, not an owl or fox, no breeze to stir the unfallen leaves.”

Written with all that engaging prose and a keen and inquisitive eye, Tracing Time is a remarkable contemplation on how to wonder about all that’s come before and admire the messages those peoples left behind.