Glyph: a word that might evoke images in the mind of ancient Egyptian pictures recounting the trials and triumphs of pharaohs and their people; or Native American rock art meaningfully pecked into a sandstone wall, directing desert travelers toward water. There are others, too, all around us, hiding in plain sight. They are perhaps less noticed because they are not made by humans, but instead by the elements and the wilds. I call them wilderglyphs.
Wilderglyphs come in all shapes, patterns, colors, and forms- as varied as the consortium of elemental forces and ingredients that created them. They’re easy to spot as well because the wilderglyph hunter need only look for artworks created by the happenstances of nature. I once found a particularly interesting evergreen snag while backpacking in the Sierras. It reminded me of a demon with its glaring, fire-scarred, knot-hole eyes and menacing dreads of burnt and broken branches. Like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, this wilderglyph told a story of its place- a fiery moment in time captured temporarily in the flesh of the once-living.
My favorite that I’ve found was also the most fleeting. Searching through the snowy and isolated redrock of Canyonlands National Park for a rumored set of Anasazi ruins, I happened upon a shallow ice puddle tucked under a ledge of sandstone. The ice was something like I had never seen before- patterned with concentric rings similar to those of a tree stump. At first, I thought maybe something had fallen into the once-liquid puddle of water (a pebble perhaps), rippling its loosed energy outward at the exact moment the puddle froze; but, more likely the shallow puddle froze rapidly and contracted radially as temperatures continued to plummet, leaving concentric fractures in the ice face. I left the curious thing behind for maybe an hour to continue my search; when I returned, both the ice and its mysterious message had melted away.
There are more than just stories written into wilderglyphs, though. There is a certain science to them that, if known, can be useful to finding one’s way within the less familiar places we visit.
While descending a slot canyon, one of our party slid his hand along the water-worn wall and then back the other way. “Hey!” came his cry of discovery. He had found that, in one direction (downstream), the wall was smooth and unadorned with blemishes; but, in the other direction (upstream), the sandstone wall was as rough and coarse as sandpaper, providing us with a subtle and very general orientation of the area’s watershed. If lost in the canyons of southern Utah, one could at least know, even in the dark, in which direction he or she might find a larger, main drainage and possibly a way out.
In his celebrated book, Finding Your Way Without Map or Compass, the acclaimed orienteer and aviator Harold Gatty references many such wilderglyphs as navigatory resources. In one chapter, he discusses the useful “signpost ant” and its “compass anthills.” “When their mounds are built in open ground,” Gatty says, “they are oriented most accurately to the southeast, so much so that the native humans of the area often use them to pick up bearings when they are lost in a fog or away from home.” Perhaps more applicable to the Utah traveler are Gatty’s discussions of wind and sand. The orientation of sand dunes and the wind-blown ripples across their faces can divulge direction as readily as a compass if the direction of a prevailing wind is known.
The beauty of wilderglyphs are in their conspicuous subtlety. They are a reminder to us that despite the somewhat chaotic progress of human civilization, the Earth and its faculties persevere readily discernible to those who are able and willing to look.