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) archeologist, 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, most of the milk melted away. It looked so clear, my first thought was, 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. This piece of quartz, was 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. I looked back at the bus. Chuck was nowhere in sight. Perhaps he walked away so quickly, to give Lindsay the opportunity to keep it, I thought, but kept to myself. Perhaps I should do the same as Chuck, so she can pocket it without anyone knowing. I turned away and took a couple steps. Lindsay was immediately by my side. I looked over my shoulder to see the arrowhead lying there in the sun.
As we walked back to the bus, I picked up a 12 gauge shell and smelled it. The sweet scent 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 modern artifact. I suspect, in fact, I would have been thanked for picking up litter. I tossed the shell aside.
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 was only a matter of time before it is found by another. And, without Chuck there policing the situation, it will be pocketed.
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. And leaving things intact allows that learning to continue while honoring those who came before.
But Lindsay’s point wasn’t part of a site to be excavated. It was a solitary artifact on a very active hunting ground, trampled every fall by countless hunters, at least some of whom clearly have little respect for the place. I would have been pleased had Chuck confiscated the point for display in a visitors center, or turned over to a university for study. But lying in the desert, that artifact is not going to enlighten anyone about ancient life in the San Luis Valley. Left behind, we all know where it will end up–on a mantle or in a shadow box–another trophy displayed beside a piece of petrified wood and a plastic-eyed wood duck.
We want to honor the people who inhabited the land before us, and by studying what is left behind we have the opportunity to learn something about ourselves. But seeing that land littered with so much modern hunting waste, I have to wonder how much we are learning. I also can’t help wondering what those who come after us will learn from our detritus.
Honestly, I wish I had slipped Lindsay’s point into my camera bag, taken it home, and mailed it to her. Not because she has some inherent right to it, but because selfishly I would rather it be in the hands of a photographer from NY who will treasure it, protect it, and photograph it, than for it to end up on a mantle as one more trophy.
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, Lindsay will receive an anonymous gift in the mail and if that happens, I will not write about it.