Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Love Song for the Cave Painters

My grandmother had books in every room. She read at night, at the dinner table, right in the middle of the day – non-fiction on art, geography, history – new and old fiction. She subscribed to dozens of magazines, as well.

One branch of my cousins lives in the southwest, and I’ve only seen them a few times. After I’d grown, we caught up once at a wedding in the Midwest. They were telling me that my grandmother felt she had influenced me. I laughed and waved them off. No, no, no influence there.

But that isn't true. I remember one lazy, adolescent summer when I was visiting my grandmother. She’d been complaining about my resistance to reading. She took up a slim book, and, hovering near me, every now and then interjected a commentary. “Hmmm… this is an interesting story about a girl in high school.” Pretty soon she was fanning herself and exclaiming, “Oh, my! This book is so steamy, I can hardly get through it!” Dear reader, I stole that book. Well, I ‘borrowed’ it. Without asking. I took it back! and after she died, I found it in one of her many bookcases.

I inherited from her many books, including several by my favorite naturalist, David Attenborough. I’m working my way through The First Eden: The Mediterranean World and Man (1987), a compelling human and natural history. It’s excellently visual, with photos, drawings and maps. I wouldn’t have realized how much humans altered the land. I mean, that sounds so obvious, but, for example, northern Africa was once lush and life-sustaining, and only became desert after the citizens of the Greek empire had cut down the trees, which allowed the topsoil to wash away. This plays out over and over. Sometimes people had logical reasons and something they didn’t. They were as prone to greed and weird obsessions same as we are. By that I mean, we haven’t learned a thing since the Crusaders marched into the Holy Land, fell in love with the greenery, gardens, fruits and spices, and then clear cut the trees to wage continuous war. The Crusaders also brought back the tropical rat whose fleas spread the bubonic plague, wiping out one-third of northern Europe.

But it’s more complicated than that, of course, and more beautiful. The ones who left their art on the caves led me to the documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), about ice-age cave art in Chauvet, France. This cave was more recently discovered than Lascaux, so it’s more pristine, so dreamlike, so artistically accomplished. And cave bear tracks criss-cross the floor. Man would eventually kill them all, along with many other species, so their prints are even more poignant.

This is where religion, mythology, was born. Filmmaker Werner Herzog interviews a paleontologist who says there are two things to remember about our cave-painting ancestors: the firm categories we use, like man and tree and animal and sun, were more fluid, and the barrier between man’s world and the afterworld was permeable.

We can feel connected to and learn much from ancient people who can be forgiven for not knowing their actions would diminish the land for all future generations. (We will not be forgiven.)  But the impulse to make art, to tell a story, to make meaning, is in our collective DNA. It  changes the landscape, as well, and sets us dreaming.

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