Moonlight Wash, San Juan River, Utah

A couple of days prior to making this photograph, the San Juan River that traverses southern Utah suddenly surged. Its color turned from grey-green to red. The flood’s origin was from northeastern Arizona’s reddish-brown sandstone formations. Beginning as a cloudburst, a dense muddy torrent raced down Chinle Wash entering the San Juan River at its confluence. Later, downstream in the quiet backwater of Moonlight Wash, rippling patterns of mud accumulated beneath the receding swell.

On the morning after the flow subsided, the clay began to contract. The exposed surfaces formed V-shaped cracks that connected to other cracks, assuming shapes that read like incised cryptic letters. In Old English, one meaning for the word ‘runes’ is “secret conversation.” Like runes carved in wood, these cracks cut against the grain — in this case, at a right angle to the river’s course — and strung together an indecipherable message. Dried by the rising sun, later the clay would harden, cracks expand, edges curl and, inevitably, these embossed ‘letters’ would be swept away by the next monsoonal flood.

- James Baker