The playa was littered with a sea of colorful shotgun shells and brass casings left behind by hunters and sport shooters, but there were no sportsmen there in March, and Lindsay had the desert largely to herself as she wandered away from the group. Part of a bird watching group visiting the Blanca Wetlands of south central Colorado, Lindsay was not there for the birds. Rather, she was there watching the bird watchers, photographing us for a magazine article.
I, too, had strayed from the group and was watching a handful of American coots on a small pond when I heard Lindsay’s voice forty yards behind me. She was talking with Chuck, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employee, and the two of them were focused intently on Lindsay’s outstretched hand. Intrigued, I walked over.
At first I thought she was holding some trinket from a gumball machine—so clear, colorless, and perfect. It must be a plastic toy replica, I thought. It couldn’t possibly be real… But I quickly realized what they already knew: the perfectly-knapped quartz arrowhead she held was very real.
The little point, roughly an inch-and-a-quarter long had no visible nicks or chips. It was flawless. In her hand, it appeared slightly milky white, but when Lindsay held it up to the sun, light passed through barely hindered. It was nearly as clear as a diamond.
I have seen plenty of flint-knapped points, and found a couple of them over the years, but never had I seen anything like this. A piece of quartz, worked by a master craftsman into a form that was, to my eye, more appropriate for exhibition as art, than for hunting.
Soon, a small crowd of binocular-wielding tourists was gathered around us, passing the wonder from hand to hand. An announcement that it was time to board the bus interrupted the show-and-tell, followed by an expected but unwelcome follow-up from Chuck: “I marked the spot with my jacket… Time to put it back.”
The three of us walked out to the spot where Lindsay had first seen the point. Chuck picked up his jacket and turned back towards the bus, trusting that Lindsay would do as instructed. Lindsay surveyed her surroundings, as I looked over my shoulder at Chuck who was back out on the dirt road and paying no attention to us. We looked down at the point, clearly thinking the same thing.
After a silent moment, she set the point back on the ground where I photographed it. We said nothing, but I was certain she was thinking the same thing I was. I looked back at the bus. Chuck was nowhere in sight. Nobody was watching.
As we walked back to the bus, I picked up a 12 gauge shell and smelled it. The sweet smell of gunpowder was still faintly present. I thought it curious that this modern tool served the same purpose as Lindsay’s point and, like that artifact, was left behind by a hunter. Yet nobody would have complained had I walked off with this one. I suspect, in fact, I would have been thanked for picking up “litter.”
The next day, I considered driving back out, parking at the gate, and walking the mile or so to find the point. I was confident I knew exactly where we had left it. After all, I reasoned, it is only a matter of time before it is found by another, and I am equally confident that when it is, without Chuck there to police the situation, it will be pocketed by someone, and taken home.
I appreciate the value of protecting archaeological sites from looting. There are things to be learned by uncovering snapshots in time from cultures long extinct, migrated, or evolved. But Lindsay’s point wasn’t part of a site to be excavated. It was a solitary artifact on a hunting ground. I could understand requiring Lindsay’s point to be turned over to the BLM for display in a visitors center or museum. But a single arrowhead lying in the desert isn’t going to serve to enlighten archaeologists about ancient life in the San Luis Valley. Left behind, it is far more likely to end up on that mantle beside a piece of petrified wood, beneath some mallard, teal, or wood duck, to be shown off to friends.
We want to honor the people who inhabited the land before us—especially after the unspeakable atrocities we committed against so many of them, but do we honor a people or a history by lugging weapons of mass duck destruction into the wilderness, and littering the landscape with hunting detritus, then leaving their ancient art in the dirt for anyone to trample, pocket, or sell on the black market?
I wish I had slipped Lindsay’s point into my camera bag, and slipped it away unnoticed, taken it home, and later, mailed it to her. Not because she has some inherent right to it, but the BLM wasn’t interested in giving it any place of honor, and at least Lindsay is an artist who appreciates things of beauty. Personally, I would rather it be on display in a museum honoring a time, a people, and a way of life long past. If the BLM hasn’t such interest, however, I would prefer that it in the hands of a photographer from NY who will treasure it, protect it, and photograph it, than for it to end up on the mantle as one more trophy harvested.
Perhaps, next time I am in Colorado, I will revisit the Blanca Wetlands and go on a treasure hunt. If I do, and if I am successful, I will not write about it.