Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park, near Pine Grove, is one of my favorite places in this place of places, California. Chaw'Se is the Miwok word for grinding rock. The site features some broad low rock outcroppings with nearly 1200 mortar holes that were used for grinding acorns and other grains, "the largest collection of bedrock mortars in North America." Around and between many of the holes were carved simple petroglyphs, some of them as many as two or three thousand years old and now very difficult to see, and a true rarity at grinding rocks.
The place is very quiet. It's not the most popular park in the state, especially on a hot weekday afternoon in late summer. On my most recent visit, the ranger had just closed the empty museum and was pulling out of the parking lot at 4:30, leaving me the whole place to myself.
The largest grinding rock is in an open grove of mature valley and black oaks, with some reproductions of Miwok dwellings and other structures nearby. A fairly large roundhouse is used on occasion for ceremonies by local tribes.
What makes it special? Aside from the very tranquility and simple harmony of the setting, for me it is the mystery of the grinding rock itself. Standing at the edge, I find myself trying to imagine the life and work of these people. It was not an easy existence, living off acorns. And so many holes... Were they all used at once? If so, it must have been a veritable mass production enterprise. Or more likely, were the holes worn down a few at a time over many years... many centuries? If the latter, it implies an extraordinary continuity of lifestyle, at least in technological terms: one generation could look a few feet away and see object evidence of the same work done by ancestors many generations past. Was the labor pure drudgery, or was there song and familial camaraderie, and special meaning provided by the strange markings carved into the stone?
Not far from the largest grinding rock is a grand old valley oak, a wonderful specimen, its furrowed bark riddled with the holes drilled by acorn woodpeckers. Their purpose is well understood to us, as is the utilitarian purpose of the Miwoks' grinding holes. But their place in a system of human meaning remains obscure, enigmatic.