(HOST) When we think of ancient cave and rock paintings, we usually think of the American southwest, but one of commentator Alan Boye’s recent walks took him to the site of some right here at home.
(BOYE) I am standing near the old bridge just east of downtown Bellows Falls. I lean over an ancient railing and peer over the edge. Straight below me the Connecticut River plows through a narrow, icy gorge…but I barely notice because I am in search of Vermont’s oldest and most bizarre work of art: the Bellows Falls Petroglyphs. Anthropologists believe the Petroglyphs have been here for over a thousand years.
I take a deep breath and then carefully scramble down a slippery, steep path into the deep gorge. This would not be a good place to fall. I step gingerly from one rock to another until I stand at the edge of the roaring cataracts just below the falls.
Faces leap out at me from a pale slab of bedrock. A dozen, life-sized faces are carved into the granite. Twenty feet further away is another panel of skull-like faces, each highlighted by a set of deep, dark eyes. What frightens me the most are the strange horns that rise up from some of the faces. Some are crowned with odd-shaped bulges, others are toped with strange antennae-like protrusions. Anthropologists say these probably represent individual shamans of unusual power.
What I am looking at, however, isn’t exactly what the original artists carved. In the 1930s there was a sincere, but misguided attempt to preserve this rare art. A stonecutter was hired and he re-carved many of the petroglyphs. Still, anthropologists agree that some of what is here are the original carvings. I lean to the rock and see that the drawings are covered with a series of dots punctuating the sea of faces. Anthropologists William Haviland and Marjory Power speculate that the dots mean this was a very powerful place where an unusually high number of spirits dwelled.
I gaze back over my shoulder to the thundering water that rushes through the icy gorge. I cling to a boulder, shuddering against the cold roar.
Ancient people believed that at certain places on this earth you can stand at the threshold the other world; if you were pure and had the right guardian spirits, you could enter the place where the grandfather people existed. Here, for a short while, you could descend into the mythical reality, into the world beyond our own. I think of people, coming here for centuries. Each seeker would sit right here, staring at the rock record of other visions until they, too, entered the underworld. Then – one by one – each person would record a silent message from the world beyond.
Something tells me to leave. I turn and climb up, and up, and up. I finally emerge into the world above, staggering against the cold damp air.
This is Alan Boye just walking the hills of Vermont.
Alan Boye teaches at Lyndon State College. He spoke from our studio at the Fairbanks Museum in Saint Johnsbury.