Seeing Without Sharing

Petroglyphs Provincial ParkPhilosopher George Berkeley asked, “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” What if you went to a tourist attraction that allowed no photos? Could you still enjoy it without a selfie or photographic proof for your Facebook feed? I faced that dilemma at Petroglyphs Provincial Park, 55 kilometers northeast of Peterborough.

Six to 11 centuries ago – an era when the Vikings were first arriving in North America – aboriginal people were carving images for ceremonial or spiritual reasons into white marble rock of the Canadian Shield. These 900 rock carvings are now known as Kinomaage waapkong or ‘the rocks that teach’ and the largest known single concentration of Aboriginal rock art in Canada.

They lay undiscovered until 1954 when three prospectors stumbled onto the carvings of people, snakes, turtles & other creatures, and told a newspaper. By 1967 there were the same number of annual visitors as today – approximately 12,000 – but no protection. Some tourists wanted to share the glory and carved their initials into the stones; experts feared even the best behaved visitors would wear away carvings with their footsteps.

In 1976 a provincial park was created and in 1984 a glass-sided building erected over the petroglyphs. Now a visitor enters via the Learning Place (Visitor Center) before walking three hundred meters to the ‘glyphs’ while putting their cameras away.

First Nations “believe drawings are a spiritual being and taking a picture diminishes its spirituality,” explained Park Superintendent, Andy Nicholson. Park Warden, P.J. Fife is Mississauga Ojibway and has worked at the park for eight summers.

Curve Lake First Nations is closest to Petroglyphs Provincial Park and shares management of the site. “These carvings aren’t just a place to see, it’s a spiritual place, sort of like a church,” said Fife, in a rapid-fire explanation, pointing to an interpretive sign in English, French and Ojibway. “Ojibway is not traditionally a written language but that’s changed in the last fifty years.”

So could I change? My first instinct at seeing a special place was to whip out my smartphone for an Instagram photo. The Algonquin speakers who carved here had an oral tradition, sharing knowledge through storytelling. I belong to a somewhat narcissistic culture, sharing fleeting impressions through selfies and Facebook posts. Without a picture how could I convey this special place? Would anyone know I’d been here?

“You should take your pictures in here,” suggested Ojibway Russell Dokis as he greeted me at the Learning Centre, pointing to his head. “If we see people enter the building with a large camera,” Nicolson explains,” we can ask them not to take pictures. There can be some tension there.” Added Fife, “We stress the spiritual aspect and get people to reflect on that. There are some First Nation’s people who don’t think we should have the site as a tourist attraction, so people are lucky to see them.”

I had to agree. Pointing to a carving with a small person linked to a bigger person by a snake, Fife suggested it could depict a young man becoming an old man. “The large triangle over the larger man’s head could be a hat or it could depict the knowledge gained.”

Perhaps I too was gaining knowledge. Stripped of my social media lifeline, I was relying on my senses to capture this experience, but I was pretty sure that even without a camera, I would not forget my time here.

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