Monday, January 14, 2013

Cave Bears

  Cave Bears

It's 3:00 a.m. and I can't sleep. I get up and look out. There's a bright moon shining on Lake Michigan. A few stars are twinkling. I take a deep breath and think. What to do at 3 a.m.? I take down a book I had been intending to read: "Chauvet Cave-the oldest paintings in the world," a book I pulled off the shelf at the library a few days ago. It was a great choice. I am astonished by the gorgeous cave paintings, the oldest found yet--they are some 30,000 years old. The shapes and colors of animals awe me: mammoths, rhinoceros, lions, horses, bears and one owl. Maybe just like the owl I am listening to right now.  

When the cave was discovered in France in 1994, its location and the beauty of its art astonished specialists. Who would have guessed that people that long ago could be so sophisticated in their drawing. They used contours of the cave to dramatize the shapes of animals. The unknown master artist used perspective to show great herds of animals running and used shading on their bodies. There were a few handprints outlined in red and the imprints of a pair of hands in the clay on the floor of the cave.

Even more astonishing were the huge footprints of cave bears and mixed in their tracks were paint pigments used on the walls. Imagine painting a masterpiece and having huge bears tracking through the paint. How distracting. In some places, the bears had incised the paintings on the cave walls with their huge claws.  

Cave bears are now extinct. They were larger than even the largest bears we know of today. Chauvet Cave was littered with many bear skulls and bones. If the bears had died while hibernating, that might explain part of it. But one bear skull had been deliberately set on a huge stone that had fallen from the ceiling as if it were an altar.  

What had these early people been thinking to paint running herds of animals, bison, and ibex, all beautifully, poetically rendered, and solitary bears in a cave stunning in its beauty with calcite stone draperies and ocher colored walls. All of this remained in pristine condition for 30,000 years and then not very long ago expert cavers discovered it. The government of France is making sure that none of it is destroyed by eager tourists or even research teams who may inadvertently destroy the evidence of early man and the animals they obviously admired.

The work is still being carried on and there is a lot to learn from the cave. I was thrilled to find the book, even though it is not a brand new book. The book is wonderful, but now it's getting light outside, my eyes are tired and my foot has gone to sleep.  

I take my bike out of the garage and head for the boardwalk. There's a nip in the air, but the lake is warm. And I see there are a few fishermen out all ready. Maybe one was there all night--he seems to be sleeping. The river smells of fish. There are a lot of carp, but a few white fish have started biting. Soon there will be tons of them and fishermen and women and children will be flocking like seagulls - or cave bears - at a picnic.

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