The Plants at Butler Ruins

Ron Singer

Butler Ruins is a prehistoric site located on Route 95, 10 ½ miles west of Route 191. Route 95 begins three miles south of Blanding, Utah, cutting west from 191 to Hanksville, which is just east of Capital Reef National Park.

The ancient people lived here from about 6500 B.C. to 1300 A.D. They used to be called the “Anasazi,” but this Navajo word is objectionable to their descendants, the Pueblo indians, because it means “ancient enemy.” So the leaflet for the site says “Puebloans,” but, presumably for budgetary reasons, the signs still say “Anasazi.”

The prevailing rock, Navajo sandstone, was probably formed from wind-blown sand. This was the basic Puebloan building block. Over thousands of years, seeps and springs dissolved the cement that bound the grains of sand, hollowing out alcoves in which the people lived and built structures such as kivas (worship pits) and granaries. Sandstone was also used to make matates (flat tools for grinding corn and other seeds), to sharpen tools, straighten arrow shafts, and provide surfaces on which to paint and peck out images.

Plants were the shopping malls for these hunter-farmers, their grocery and hardware stores, pharmacies, shoe and clothing stores, lumber yards. Difficult as it is to imagine living in this often-harsh high-desert environment, it is impossible to imagine human life here, at all, without the plants.

First, to name some: Colorado Pinyon,
Utah Juniper, Utah Serviceberry,
Big Sage, Cliffrose, Narrow-Leaf Yucca,
Little-Leaf Mountain Mahogany.

We deck these plants with descriptive adjectives:
aromatic, gray, ubiquitous,
crooked, spreading, fibrous, nutritious, stiff,
common, useful, lovely, durable, rich.

Among their uses: food, hoes, digging sticks,
arrow shafts, bows, pot and basket repair,
cradleboard padding, bonding (paint to rocks),
roofing materials, even toilet paper.

They also inspire lyrical paeans:
Colorado Pinyon: the tree of life;
Serviceberry: you shall know it by its leaves;
Yucca: the most important cultivated plant;
Little-Leaf Mountain Mahogany:
its loveliness is trumpeted by its name.

Notable among willows is Narrow-Leaf
Coyote, or Salix exigua,
so-called, perhaps, because coyotes hide
in its dense thickets, and/or because it
attracts coyote prey, such as rabbits,
birds large and small, or because it creeps,
stalker-like --though the name also evokes
its brush-like buds and catkins.
Whatever the case, cartoons and jokes aside,
Coyote is known for airiness and grace.

Coming back to the Serviceberry,
its fruit was eaten raw, cooked, dried.
The ancestors may not, ultimately,
have survived, but they certainly tried.

A final word of admonition:
if you plan to visit Butler Ruins,
I assume you respect tradition
and are habitually circumspect.
But a human footprint takes twenty years
to disappear from the crust of the soil
in areas of higher rainfall;
in lower, as long as three-hundred fifty.
So, as you enjoy the plants, watch your step!

Author's Note: The introductory information and many parts of the plant descriptions follow closely from a pamphlet I found at the site in April, 2011: D & K Ambrose, Jim Jorgensen, and John Dutcher, Butler Ruins Trail Guide, Bureau of Land Management, Monticello, Utah, Field Office, n.d.

There are many poems about this area including the Navajo Reservation, on Poetry Atlas.

Check out some other poems about Utah.

Previously published in Crosstimbers February 2013

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Main Location:

Butler Wash Ruins, Utah

Butler Wash Ruins in Utah