Category Archives: Ancient History

Roque-Gageac, Beynac, Rouffignac

I woke up this morning to a brave calling of swallows echoing across the cliff face, greeting the dawn. It is the same cliff that forms one wall of my room, the other wall of pine sloping sharply up to meet it with a cross bracing of huge and ancient beams cut square. It is very cold. The swallows move in and out of crescendo and light comes in through the two small triangular windows.

Last night I was kept awake by the irony of a rock-pop festival in this tiny medieval village, and then I was kept awake by the cold. I wore my down vest under the covers for a while, then wrapped it around my feet. In between wakings I dreamed of James Crumley, big and shaggy and alcohol soaked, I dreamed he had hired my dad to rebuild and redecorate his record and auto-part store. I dreamed we walked in the desert and I tried to explain just how beautiful it was, just how much I loved it. But I almost never write about the desert, I don’t understand. But I suppose dreams aren’t for understanding.

Maybe it is just that I have found no inspiration beyond photos, I don’t find words hidden seamed up in time’s folds the way I do in London. So I shall work on my dissertation. It is ridiculously beautiful here of course, ancient villages of mellowed golden limestone and narrow winding roads. They are all fortified, on hilltops, castles crowning outcrops and defensible walls blocking cavern faces high up in the cliffs. It was on the edges of the hundred-years war with England, the castle of Beynac-et-cezenac in French hands, that of Castelnaud in English.

We went to see the grotte de Rouffignac yesterday as well. It is a huge cavern, huge. And regular the way most caves are not, carved out by an underground river through stone that must have been very regular. There are no stalactites and stalagmites, though my french did not quite reach to understanding why. The walls are mostly smooth, with a layer of what looks like a conglomerate just above the level of my head, strange rounded multi-armed shapes embedded whole into the walls, grey near the opening, stained a deep orange-red with iron ore deeper inside. You ride a small electric train very deep inside, following where ancient people walked with only torches. Large openings branch to either side, you wonder how they found their way. Past the hollows where ancient cave bears dug their holes to hibernate for the winter, into a rounded cavern where beautiful mammoths and bison were drawn across the roof, only a few feet from the floor, emerging from the deep hole of a cavern to the left that goes far beyond seeing…

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Petroglyphs!

I found them! Eureka!

Well, my dad found them first…and took me too see them out in the desert, we drove and drove, walked and walked…I’m being cagey because I doubt that their exact location should be public knowledge. Because they are just there, you can touch them

It’s extraordinary to touch them, to stand in front of them in the middle of the desert, to search for them under stones. Here’s another, this motif could be seen several times, I don’t know what it means but it has sent my mind imagining of course, mysteries…

There were many more, if you click on the above images you’ll get to my flickr page where you can see all of them, they were truly extraordinary. At one time there were a great deal more, but the rock face is splitting off and falling away, I am sure myriads lie hidden, face down on the earth or crumbled into shards of rock. I happily climbed the cliff faces (not that I need an excuse to climb cliff faces). And the good news is that I can still do it in chanclas, to the right is a steep slope of scree, and myself showing off my powers in flip flops. I suppose I could have more grace and poise, but I am glad I’m still half wild, I worry sometimes that I face incipient and total domestication. Not that sensible footwear means domestication. I hadn’t actually realized the kind of hike we were going on or I might have been tempted into trainers, but I really hate wearing socks if the climate does not absolutely require it.

My brothers and I spent quite a bit of time looking for petroglyphs back in the day, we searched every cliff face within miles of our house I think…little did we know that the internet would soon be along with every location noted, as I have now found out. Still, there’s no real information there on the ancestors who carved them, and no knowledge of what they mean, I suppose they would have had to have been done by the Tohono O’odham, or those who came before? I remember reading a book by Frank Waters years ago about the ancient migrations and how they were tracked on the stone, but it’s been too long for me to remember properly. It was pueblo myth anyway, I doubt the folks down here would agree with it.

It was truly a gorgeous day in the desert today though, and one of the prettiest washes I’ve seen I think. It must be spectacular after the moonsoons, and full of deep pools perfect for swimming.They would collect below the pyroclastic flows of Rhyolite Tuffs like this one

My dad, and my fount of all geological knowledge is at the end of it, an ancient lava flow. The rock is beautiful

There was water there today, left from the rain over Thanksgiving, but there’s definitely more seeping through the rocks in several places. We continued walking down the wash back towards the car

Final views of what I love about this place, saguaros:

Barrel cacti growing out of a rock face

And ocotillos against a blue blue sky

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The Dinosaurs of Toronto

The wind bites like fall, the buses throw up whirls and swirls of dead leaves reaching above me as they pass in the street, my black wool coat is warm and my scarf snug about my neck. I forgot how much I love fall. How I love the chill of it, the change and trembling in the air, the tingle in my cheeks, and the feel of snuggling under the warm cloud of a down comforter. I got into Toronto last night and met up with Dawn after her writing class, we went to eat and then walked the long way back to the streetcar, through Kensington market which was lovely…empty but lovely. And great graffiti, which is always enough to warm my heart if narrow streets, cool pubs, tiny little neighborhood stores, coffee houses and such were not enough.

I spent the night feeling like a small woodland creature curled up in a little nest between the radiator and some shelves, an old mattress bundled with extra blankets and a sleeping bag on top for softness, with a sheet on top of it all, and then me, and then…I said it already I think, a warm cloud of downy warmth. And I slept deliciously, glad that I am too long for the couch.

Woke up late…for Toronto. Early for L.A. Spent the morning chatting over coffee and omelet with Dawn into early afternoon, and then headed out into the fall…I had a bit of work to do, a bit of wandering to do, so I mixed both and enjoyed myself thoroughly. I still have to take some good city photographs, but here is one from outside the Royal Ontario Museum which is where I ended up.

I used another friend’s card to sneak in…the woman asked me for id and I said I didn’t have any (!), she looked at me funny, I thought I’d probably have to cut and run, but then she said she could look me up. I was imagining my friend’s picture coming up and seriously thought of cutting and running. Then she asked my address and I confidently gave it to her, I suppose the right street allayed her fears? She said oh dear we have the address wrong, upon which I pulled the little card where I had it written down out of my back pocket and confirmed that no, I was the one who had it wrong. Upon which she handed me an entrance ticket. She was beautiful. Because I don’t think I really pulled it off, but i am staring incipient poverty in the face and that ticket was golden.

And I didn’t even know it, but they have the most marvelous collection of dinosaur skeletons I’ve seen in ages, bits of originals, some casts, but all around extraordinary. They had a 90 foot Barosaurus, one of only two in the world, it has a hugely long razor thin tail that some believe they cracked like a whip. I believe it, I think that makes them much more interesting:

They had an original triceratops skull, a stegasauros, a tiny little compsognathus in a glass case…my dad used to tell us stories about compsognathi when I was little, one day you’ll be reading about them too in the adventures of Osa and Aggie (and me, Michael, Daniel and Tristram. And some of it is even true). They had this enormous fish thing with sharp pointy teeth

and this amazing knobble headed dinosaur that I tragically did not record the sumptuous latin name of:

It’s perhaps my favourite photo of the day. And possibly my favourite dinosaur. And I don’t even know his name. But they also had a rare type of hadrosaur…this one is crested and looks like it pranced about rather joyously and is called a parasuarolophus walkeri. The name rolls of the tongue. and looked very cool

And finally the stuff of nightmares…highly recognizable and always strikes fear into the very heart of me, the one, the only, Tyrannasaurus Rex

But pictures can’t do him justice really. He towers over you, his teeth are huge, even the bare bones of him are big and ravenously hulking. I’ve actually had family discussions about whether T-Rex or Allosaurus was scarier…some say allosaurus was smarter. As if we know. Still, this is the one that scares me.

Other things that scare me are lifesize painted representations of people and animals…like the mechanical cartoon figures at Chuck E Cheese and Disneyland’s Splash Mountain, and apparently Chinese wooden temple statues beginning from the 13th century. Fear is too strong a word perhaps, I’d prefer to think of it simply as a deep unease. But one of them had real human hair as his long beard. Painted statues are really popular in Catholic Churches as well, and the blood is never skimped on, and in fact I remember the crypt of a church in Bahia with mummified bishops still wearing their sacramental robes sat upright and staring down at you. Fear is not to strong a word for that experience, I suppose this “deep unease” has been building for some time. There was also a large section of stuffed birds…creepy, definitely creepy. I really wonder who first thought it was a good idea to kill something alive and beautiful and stuff it.

Anyway, that’s enough proof of my nerdiness for one evening. After the museum I had dinner with dawn and then we went out and did some more work and had some quiet drinking with a tasty piece of Canadian apple crumble which apparently includes dates and raisins and is a wee bit chocolatey…I wasn’t complaining, it was deliciously unexpected. And now I am headed back for the nest after kicking Ozzie the giant half husky sort of dog out of my room. She snores.

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Art, gods and stone

Creation awes me, the act of it. And what we have the capacity to create. And both the time span and scope of humankind’s run on earth. I love how things are so much the same and yet so very different…we all love, but the ideal of love is different. We all fear, but the form of our fears is different. We all speak, but language is so different, and I wonder how much we are shaped by these things, how much of them we shape, how the shaping happens.

I went to the British Museum the last day in London, I’ve been there before but every time I go I see new things that I fall in love with, that remain in my memory. Though I know they are stolen. And this visit I found several panels like this, that I know I have seen before but never loved

Figures drawn from stone, once alive, and now disappearing. And they linger as they go, they would have been already gone if they had not been stolen. And to me their true beauty lies in this return, this state halfway between sculpture and stone…they remind me of Michelangelo’s slaves escaping from the marble, unfinished. But the slaves are an emergence and these represent a death and I find both hauntingly beautiful. And they fascinate me with the confusion between rock and flesh.

The British Museum is overwhelming of course, after a short time the mind stops taking in things really, overburdened with beauty in glass cases. There was also a stunning display of American prints and etchings from Hopper to Pollock…I love black and white drawings and etchings as well and their collection is fantastic. Go see it if you can.

The other things that stood out this trip? Hawks. I love them in their beauty and purity and unconscious cruelty, they are ultimate predators and represent freedom in a way that few other animals can…and I found this

from ancient Egypt, and this:

from ancient assyria, and this

er…from China perhaps? China I think, or possibly Tibet. And each haunting in its own way, showing something deep rooted to be found across such space and time, something profound. I’ve been trying to write it but my words erase its profundity so I shall just leave it for the now.

Still, I have never been to the British museum when the sun was shining, and that itself was beautiful, the architecture is cold and neo-classical, but the light made it beautiful.