Into the deep past, into ourselves




                                      A bison from Font-de-Gaume (official photo)


…We draw horned cattle with broad strokes,

charcoal and ochre
outline figures dropping into darkness…
           
I was a farmer, then.
I wrote those lines as I watched cattle and deer on the hillside above our West Virginia mountain farm.
I’d never been to Europe, never seen the cave art that I referenced in the poem.
This month, I stood inches from Paleolithic art that had haunted my dreams then, and saw the bison and reindeer move.
I was on a hiking trip in the Valley of the Vézère River, deep in the Perigord region of southeastern France. For several days, I stayed in Les Eyzies de Tayac, the “world headquarters of prehistory,” and walked to a few of the shelters, sites, caves, and museums dedicated to early humankind.
This is the area where Cro-Magnon skeletons were first found, where Lascaux and the other pictured caves were discovered. Much was pillaged at the turn of the 20th century, before France locked down its treasures in 1913. Still, the area was so rich a home for Homo erectus and Neanderthal and Homo sapiens that, as one guide said, you can scarcely put a shovel into the earth and not find something.
            Across the centuries, millennia, the pictures speak to us. The grace and dignity of line, the deep understanding of animals and behaviors, seem entirely modern, beyond modern – the product of a connection that we no longer have with the natural world as well as a testament to an enduring creative spark.
            I was privileged to see the art. That word is literal, not metaphorical. Lascaux has been closed for many years because of the damage caused by so many people who wanted to see, to experience – their presence led to calcite films and mold growth across the masterpieces. A few people every day are allowed into Font de Gaume, the last original polychrome-painted cave open to visitors. (Lascaux offers a replica.) Even fewer are allowed into Les Combarelles, a nearby cave with engraved images. No photos. No touching, needless to say.
            I walked from my chamber d’hotes, through the village and out to Font de Gaume twice, hoping for tickets. The first time, I got the last remaining ticket to Les Combarelles. The next morning, I was there at 7:30 a.m. and was fourth in line. Seventy-some people are allowed into Font-de-Gaume each day. Forty-seven are allowed into Les Combarelles.

A reindeer from Les Combarelles (official photo)
                                            
             The narrow caves allow us access, for a few minutes, to the ancient mind of humanity. And they allow us access to something nearly lost in ourselves.
            I’m starting to write off that experience, but remembered this poem from 30 years ago. It has its own integrity, though it is incorrect in the colors used to make the cave art – they were ores, not pigments, black from manganese and red from iron oxide.
Here is the full poem, as it appeared in The George Washington Review and in my first chapbook, How We Live.

Deer Crossing Behind Cattle

We stand at the foot of the hill,
count black Angus and Ayrshire,
Hereford red in last light, Charolais.
Good husbandmen, we estimate
their value at fall auction.
tally hundredweight on the hoof.

The hill moves as deer cross
behind the spotted herd.
The eye rejects their supple presence:
Hills must be solid,
like the cattle, unmoved;
land must not ease with evening into fluidity.

            Beaches move at evening,
            when the tide turns back to the deep 
            Atlantic and the pale sand rolls
            toward the continental shelf.
            Among nodding sea oats that aspire
            to hold land up from the sea,
            ghost crabs levitate.

Cows and calves and steers,
our expectations of wealth, begin a slow
procession down to the barn.
Their wild shadows have drifted away
and the cattle dim, wheel down
the lightless land.

We draw horned cattle with broad strokes,
charcoal and ochre
outline figures dropping into darkness.
We capture their spirits,
while the deer go forward and forward,
coming out of light and going into it.


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