Cave of forgotten dreams

Image by J, taken near Henderson waves

The filmmaker Werner Herzog describes the 1994 discovery of the 32,000 year old cave drawings in the Chauvet cave in France as one of the most important cultural discoveries in human history. Indeed, the care of the caves come under the  French ministry of culture. 

Over the weekend, J and I watched Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog's 2010 award winning documentary (available on iTunes). The film haunted our weekend and sent us back to the Macritchie nature reserve on an incredibly hot and sticky afternoon.

"Cave of Forgotten Dreams" official trailer on Youtube

The drawings of mammoths, rhinoceros, lions, cave bears, bisons, antelope and horses in herds, singly or locked in battle are large, some 6 feet long. The bodies of animals are often drawn in one elegant, sinuous line. Their faces, however, are shaded in - and display surprising detail and animation. There is only one drawing of a human figure, of what looks like the lower half of a female body, juxtaposed against a bison's head. From this comes the film's title. Herzog explains - in Picasso's series of drawings of minotaurs one sees this prehistoric drawing, as if man's eternal visions had visited Picasso; from one artist to another, a ghost of a dream.

The cave is closed to visitors. So we know we are getting through Herzog's documentary a rare and precious 2 hour glimpse back into 30,000 years. The camera moves your gaze across these drawings countless times. Once with a palaeontologist's voiceover. Once with the cave's "curator" giving her personal tour. Another time with Herzog's crew. You see these drawings as if they were recurring visions.

The landscape that surrounds this hidden cave (hidden because a massive rock wall had collapsed and covered its entrance for thousands of years) is itself hauntingly beautiful. A massive arch, carved by nature, frames an emerald water body. On either sides the limestone (?) walls are ragged and pale, harsh and soft at the same time.

Image by J, taken at MacRitchie

You are drawn into this timeless landscape of nature and art. Your mind wanders and sees mammoths, wooly rhinoceros, lions and bisons roaming the high plains, the limestone turned into ice.  And in that landscape there are these human figures.

In the documentary, Herzog finds and interviews one of the archaeologists. Herzog has a knack for finding the odd ones (and it is lovely to find so many dedicated professionals in the film!). The young archaeologist was previously a circus performer who shared that after a week in the caves he had to take a break because he is haunted by dreams of lions. Then there is a master perfumer (President of the French association of perfumers, no less!) who has retired and so walks and sniffs the earth, and he is invited to sniff the cave for the traces of bear and to record the scents of time. Another interviewee talks of culture.

And so culture. We are taught to think of archaeology and all the technology that allows lasers to map the inside of the cave as science. And hence, not of the arts. But culture is broader. It is the sum of what makes us human. Our choices. Our creations. Our relations. Our expressions and projections of who we are.

Image by J, taken at MacRitchie

In the cave there are also prints made from a a red pigment thrown on the stone walls against a hand. There are multiple handprints of someone with a crooked last finger.

Who is man? A print. Hands that make. The bottom half of a woman's body - from where we are born. Knower of animals. Hunter of animals.

That weekend I read also magazine articles of forgotten genocides, 100 years old; and today's wars, with already forgotten deaths. What defines human culture in time, as much as the works of art we create and leave behind, are our acts violence against one another, our violence against the animals we are given to live alongside and our violence against the environment we live in.

We don't always have to make and invent - the fecundity of our imagination, laboratories and factories, oh enough already - we sometimes just need to cherish and protect, and not destroy.

So friends, if you have not taken a quiet ramble across our lovely MacRitchie nature reserve, do so. And you will know why it must be cherished and protected.


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