Grotte Niaux

Contagious Magic

Sunrise, Hopi Point (MB)
Who knew it was National Fossil day, a Wednesday right smack in the middle of Earth Science week? This is a day I don't normally celebrate, but it was extra special to learn of its existence at the Shrine of the Ages in Grand Canyon National Park. Extra special because if there was ever a place to consider the science of the earth, it is on or below the rim of the famed canyon formed by the Colorado River in northern Arizona. "Raked and blistered by beautiful conflict," as was said of the California painter David Park's work. Carved, pushed, cut, molded, thrust, eroded, split. Time has sculpted stone and the record of the ages is grand as promised.

National Parks Service photo
The special fossil day speaker was a parks paleontologist, Robyn Henderek, who studies bent twig figurines, sheep and mule deer-shaped willow or squawbush figures, that have been lying inside Grand Canyon caves for more than 4000 years, preserved intact by the arid atmosphere. Ms Henderek and other scientists believe that the desert people of the canyon used these effigies  as a sort of offering to the animals they needed to capture. Contagious magic, she called it. Contagious magic is based on the principle that things or persons once in contact can afterward influence each other.

Like most things in North America, what's old to us is relatively new, because far away in southwest France, in the limestone Grotte Niaux, hunters had the same idea about 14, 000 years ago. They painted on the cave's walls images of the animals they wanted to catch.

First Nations people have spirit animals. Catholics wear crosses.  Hockey fans don jerseys on game day, to help their team win. Walking towards the train station from the beautiful Flagstaff, Arizona library, I encountered a pumpkin seller from Utah, J.T.
He told me about a couple who bought a ghost pumpkin from him last year, then took it to the Grand Canyon, where they carved it and carried it down Bright Angel trail to Phantom Ranch. On the banks of the Colorado, they lit a candle and fixed it inside the pumpkin, and set it afloat on the river in memory of a friend who had lost his life there. Contagious magic, a kind of praying.

The Funny thing about graveyards...

The funny thing about graveyards, at least some graveyards, is how they extend the popularity contest that can so dog the living. At Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, for example, crowds ignore the tombs of men and women who must have mattered to some extent, considering the size of the monuments erected to their memory, size being another marker of importance; but who are they now, to anyone but their descendants or, perhaps, followers? Most visitors head right past them, searching for the graves of the famous.

I went to Père Lachaise because friends had universally recommended it, and I was not disappointed. It is a lovely place to walk, to admire the sculpture, to read the sentiments etched into stone, some partly weathered away, to think about life and death and fame and impermanence.  At Lachaise, the biggest draw is the "Light My Fire" man Jim Morrison, whose grave is reportedly the most visited in the world. The second most popular in the cemetery tourist trade is that of the voodoo queen, in New Orleans. That one I saw and thanks to the commentary of an unofficial and colourful guide, I enjoyed it. Morrison's I missed, not intentionally -- who doesn't love a curiosity --  but because I didn't feel like going back to track it down after somehow skirting it on my first try. There was so much else to see. Oscar Wilde's grave may be the next most renown at Père Lachaise. This wit, playwright, novelist, poet was very popular before he was arrested for "indecent acts with men," imprisoned, and died destitute at 46. Another bad boy, like Morrison: nothing like the allure of fallen stars. Whatever is left of Wilde remains far up the hill from the main entrance, but I persisted, again out of curiosity, and found it by spotting the throng around it.  The modernist stone angel that adorns the stone lacks the romantic grace of the figure on Chopin's tomb, for example, or the grandeur of La Fontaine's and Moliere's, contemporaries and French literature greats whose memorials share the same plot. In fact, according to one American tourist who was deciding whether or not to pose for a picture at the Wilde grave: "It's not even cute, but since we came all this  way...."  A more amusing encounter occurred chez Bizet, where I found two fans whistling tunes from "Carmen" at the composer's grave. Made me want to revisit the wonderful duet from The Pearl Fishers

Things that live after us. The quest for immortality. We want at least some part of ourselves to endure... in a graveyard, a diary, a foundation bearing our name, a book, a painting, an opera.  It may be why some 14,000 years ago, hunters who looked like us and had our same capacity for intelligence walked deep into Grotte Niaux to leave paintings whose significance we can only guess. Why determined and ambitious humans in the neolithic period went to immense trouble to align mammoth stones in fields near present-day Carnac, in Brittany, monuments that have no names and no certain meaning, except to show that those folks, like Kilroy, were here.