I live at the edge of the continent, where an elbow of the world’s largest ocean juts into the far western side of North America, where ocean is trying to become land and land ocean. I live where elephants once roamed, where mastodons and mammoths ranged the southern edge of ice sheets.
They lived, literally, in my back yard. Thirty years ago mammoth bones and teeth eroded from the cliff just a half mile from my house.
Last night I had a dream, born, I guess, from the days when I lived in Seattle. As if my clock radio had gone off, I heard the voice of a male announcer in my ear.
Traffic Alert! The 520 bridge is slow, slow, slow this morning. Mammoths are beginning their annual migration from the Cascade Corridor into the Arboretum for salal berries! Let’s take a look at the traffic cams. Yep, cars are really creeping, trying to get a look, as the mammoths cross the Wildlife Bridge at Montlake. And now we’ve got reports of a couple of herds at the beach near the old Pier 51 site.
Female voice: Wow, Clark, look . . .at. . .that! Ferry commuters are gonna get a great view from Coleman Dock. Isn’t that something!
Male voice: Well, that’s the latest traffic update. Expect major delays into downtown this morning. Now, back to our top story . . .
It’s dark, 4 a.m., and I awaken laughing and crying, wondering where dreams come from. Wondering if I’ve imagined an alternative present where mammoths and mastodons still migrate through our daily routines, safe from the closed door of extinction. Wondering what I would see if I rose in my dream and looked out my window: mammoths in the grass, in the moonlight, plucking the heads of dandelions one by one, mastodons stripping the bark of the cedar tree in my neighbor’s back yard. Elephant ghosts reclaiming their land.
There is comfort in keeping what is sacred inside us not as a secret, but as a prayer.
- Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds
There are certain things that can only be learned from a different perspective.
Pushing aside the darkness, a tiny, flickering lamp in hand, our ancestors crawled into the caves of Europe to paint the animals important to them. Still alive on those walls, mammoths with high, domed foreheads and a hump over their shoulders face two-legged stick hunters. Their humps held fat reserves, making them coveted prey, and dangerous prey make great stories.
Caves are potent, resonant underworlds. Tallow lamps held in a hand cast a low-level light, shadow each curve of the rock wall, suggesting a hump over there, the curve of an antler here. With red, brown and yellow soils dampened by egg white, blood, animal fat or plant juices, our ancestors recorded the vocabulary of the hunt on wall after wall. They made their brushes of hair and their sponges of moss or leaves. They inhaled the dampness of the earth that receives all, both those who eat and those who are eaten.
Escape, exhaustion, success, death, galloping bison and herds of antelope, squared jaws of lions, the arched necks of horses, and outlines of cave bears – painted by generation after generation of artists, who left their signatures in an outline of a hand or a couple of dots, who left only stick representations of themselves.
After etching the outline of a mammoth on rock and storing its spirit forever in darkness, the crawl back to light perhaps gave the world a new appearance – as if it could be conquered, controlled, illuminated, literally brought alive by an artist. Life stories painted under the ribs of the earth. Hidden knowledge. The past the present the future recorded on rocks deep in caves.
Was the crawling to light a prayer?
We are the progeny of ancestors who lived with, hunted and ate the great ones. We are the result of their lives intertwined with those they knew in the belly of the earth.
I carry in my veins a longing for turquoise-blue glaciers, a blood-red night sky and breath I can see as I breathe. Ancient memories flicker across my mind, casting shadows against cave walls. I press my hand against rock, blow pigment between my fingers. This is my signature. Look, I was once here. See how your hand fits into the outline of mine? See these hairy elephants? They were here then, too.
Imagine the smell of air freshly born from retreating glaciers, a sky cleared by melting snow. Imagine the scent of an earth newly thawed. Out there, just like you painted, a mammoth driven by a hunt has fallen over a cliff and bellows arrive in waves.
Our palm prints on cave walls, carvings on bone, the exposure of light on glass plates full of chemicals, digital cameras, electrons arranged in display across computer screens, voices tumbling through the air – is it the destiny of the human race to remember and record? Is that our place on earth?
There is a cave of light from our eye to our brain; but it is the corners of our eyes that perceive the most light; the corners of our minds where we begin to understand.