Category: On nature

The Lascaux Cave Paintings: A guest post by Jean Ryan

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s post is courtesy of Survival Skills author Jean Ryan, whose blog you can find on her website. Enjoy!

The Lascaux Cave Paintings

The hands. That’s what I keep thinking about. Not the exquisite horses and oxen and stags, but the hands, offered singly or in groups, some with truncated fingers—frostbite, scientists say.


Photo credit: Matt Northam,

Were they signatures, the manner in which cave artists took credit for their work? It does not appear so. The prints were made by everyone—men, women, children, even babies. Some are positive, meaning the hand had been covered with paint and pressed onto the wall, and some are negative, the hand laid on the wall and paint blown around it. Perhaps the prints functioned as a sort of calling card, a way for humble ancients to introduce themselves to their deity. Self-portraits and full body renderings are nonexistent. The only human image in the Lascaux caves is a bizarre stick figure—a presumably dead hunter beside a speared bison, its intestines spilling out, and just beneath them a bird on the end of a pole. The hunter has an avian head and an erect phallus. I’ve tried to interpret this painting, to fathom the significance of the beaked head, the tiny bird, but the show-stealing phallus throws me off.


The Stone Age. I see people clothed in pungent, matted pelts, hunched inside cold caves, their lanterns sputtering with animal fat, their wide foreheads glistening with effort. I see shaggy black hair, large brown teeth, bruised arms bunched with muscle, dirty feet with toughened soles and horned toenails. Some of the tribe, balanced on crude scaffolds, are painting the upper walls; others are crouched on the floor, mixing pigments, hollowing out bones. They have a language of sorts and their strange words echo through the caverns. They did not live in the caves; they used them only for artistic and, possibly, ceremonial purposes. Maybe they considered the caves too hallowed, too potent, for basic use. Maybe they preferred the changing skies to constant clammy darkness.


The caves were discovered twelve months after the start of World War II, the year Germany invaded Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, and France. Bombs fell, tanks rolled, grenades exploded, and below this mayhem, a prehistoric silence, beauty on hold for 17,000 years.


On September 12, 1940, four teenage boys were walking in the woods near Dordogne, France. One of them carried an oil lantern, having heard legends of a secret tunnel that ran under the Vezere River. They had a dog with them, Robot, who darted ahead toward a depression in the ground caused by an uprooted tree. The boys cleared away the overgrowth and discovered a hole into which they tossed rocks to determine the depth before deciding to explore it. One by one they slid through the hole and down a long shaft that led them into a dark cavern. They raised their lantern and shone it on the walls and white ceiling, discovering a panoply of animals, larger than life, which appeared to be in motion. Stunned, the boys ventured to the end of the cave, peering at more and more creatures: lines of horses and aurochs, stags, bulls, a headless stallion, a unicorn, a bear. The colors—mauve, reds, yellows, browns, black—were vibrant, as if they’d been painted the day before.


The boys swore themselves to secrecy, but their thrilling news did not stay bottled long. They invited a few of their friends to see the splendors, charging them a small admission price, and soon the whole village was lining up at the cave’s entrance, which the boys widened for easier access. Aware that this was a rare find indeed, the boys finally asked their schoolmaster, Leon Laval, to have a look. Initially dubious, as soon as he saw the paintings, Laval knew they were thousands of years old, created long before the written word. No one, he advised, should touch the artwork, and the cave should be guarded at all times from vandals. From then on, Jacques Marsal, one of the four discoverers, set up a tent at the cave’s entrance and committed himself to protecting it, work that would last his lifetime.


The Lascaux caves contain over 2,000 images comprised of two main categories: animals (equines predominate) and symbols. The entrance leads directly to The Hall of the Bulls, which is 62 feet long and varies in width from 18 to 25 feet. The first image encountered is a horse’s head with a fuzzy mane; the second is the “mysterious Unicorn,” followed by many other pictures and friezes. The next cavern, the Axial Gallery, is even longer than the first, and contains a magnificent swirl of animals, along with the largest work in the cave: the 17-foot long Great Black Bull. Many of the paintings in this gallery have been created using the contours of the wall to boost depth and perspective. The Passageway is a narrower portion of the cave and includes hundreds of figures—animals, indeterminate images, and signs. The Apse, a semi-spherical cavern, is considered to be the most sacred part of the cave, owing to the ceremonial artifacts found there and the abundance of petroglyphs. Nearly every square inch of its limestone walls and ceiling are covered with overlapping designs, some 500 animals and 600 abstract markings. In the floor of the Apse is a hole that leads to The Shaft of the Dead Man, a small area in an underlying cavern. This room contains the aforementioned painting of the dead hunter and bison along with just a handful of other images. It is the deepest and most cramped part of the cave. The two other illustrated caverns are The Nave, which is filled with engravings as opposed to paintings on account of the soft rock walls, and The Chamber of the Felines, which is long and narrow with a steep gradient. Viewers, who must crouch to see the artwork in this chamber, are reminded of the difficulty involved in creating it.


Aside from a small area near the entrance, there is no light in the caves. Artists used stone lanterns or flaming torches to illuminate the walls as they worked. They needed to determine what preparatory work was required—cleaning, scraping, preliminary sketching—how best to apply their colors to the various surfaces, and what combination of pigments were needed. The pigments were obtained from local minerals—powdered metallic oxides of iron and manganese. Drawings were done with edged chunks of minerals, while swabs of hair or moss were used as brushes. Hollowed bones functioned as paint sprayers through which artists blew their colors onto the walls. Engravings, the most common technique used in the Lascaux caves, entailed scratching the surface rock to reveal a different color beneath; the gouged lines mimic drawings.


The signs and symbols include straight lines, parallel lines, branching lines, convergent lines, four-sided images, club shapes, V-shapes and dots. Some of these signs occur in repeated groupings and thus may indicate communication between the artists, though we have no idea what any of the symbols mean.


The animal images are equally inscrutable. It does not seem likely that the paintings were created strictly for art’s sake. There are no trees or mountains or rivers, no suns or moons, no shrubs or flowers. Some suggest that the paintings were used as “hunting magic,” a means of either invoking more prey or dominating the animals by putting a spell over them. Paintings of wounded animals might have been a form of visualization, the artists hoping that the imaginary scenes would actually take place. If this theory is true, then why did the artists depict dangerous animals—wolves, lions, bears—as well as herd animals? Bone piles indicate that the mainstay of the Upper Paleolithic diet was reindeer: why is there just one image of a reindeer in the entire collection? Another argument to the explanation that the paintings were employed for hunting purposes is the presence of animals that have no link to hunting, like the swimming horses. And how do all the signs fit in?


A more plausible theory centers on the spiritual element. Studies reveal that most of the footprints found in the caves were left by adolescents. As this is the typical age for initiates, some scientists believe that the caves were used for initiation ceremonies and religious rituals. What function the signs and paintings played in these rituals is anyone’s guess.


A distinguishing feature of the Lascaux cave animals is the sense of movement they convey. Artists achieved this using various methods: sketching bold lines around the figure; superimposing one image on another to add depth and intrigue; and painting the animal in successive images, as in early comic strips. Stone Age humans would have walked through the caves carrying torches or primitive lanterns, the light from which would have traversed the walls in such a way that a stag with multiple heads would have resembled a single animated creature. As the light moved, a story developed.


These illusions were lost entirely when the caves were exploited by the family of the Count of LaRochefoucault, who owned the property. Artificial light was installed in the caverns, and by 1948 daily tours brought up to 1,000 people a day, an enterprise with disastrous results. Carbon dioxide, exhaled in copious amounts, built up in the caves, causing toxicity and condensation. A green growth attacked the paintings, followed by “The White Sickness,” a build-up of calcite that steadily spread over the cave walls. In 1963 the Lascaux caves were closed to the public. To appease would-be spectators, a precise replica of two of the caves was created in 1983; “Lascaux II” is situated not far from its namesake and it is this version that visitors see today. Other problems, like the appearance of black mold in 2006, continue to plague the original site.


In attempting to understand their drawings, I try to envision how the Stone Agers lived. The average lifespan was 30 years. Europe was exceptionally cold during the Upper Paleolithic Period, and food was becoming scarce. People lived a nomadic existence, following their prey and sheltering in temporary structures built of wood, thatch and stone. The first Homo Sapiens, they were stronger than us and had bigger heads, though their brains were not as specialized. They knew how to make fire and so were able to cook meat and keep warm. They fashioned a wide variety of stone tools and were adept at using them. They also made jewelry—necklaces, bracelets, amulets—out of shells, stone, bone and mammoth’s tusk. In addition to these personal items, people of this era carved what are known as “Venus figurines,” faceless statuettes of mature, full-figured women with exaggerated breasts and hips. Obesity and longevity would have been a rarity back then, so the statues may have been created not to depict beauty but to represent fertility, nourishment and survival.


There must have been chosen leaders, customs, certain rules of behavior and punishment if these rules were not adhered to. I can easily imagine fear, desperation, conflict and confrontation. But what did love look like? Not the love of a mother for her child, which is timeless, but romantic love. Stripped of convention and artifice, of deodorant and toothpaste, love between adults must have been, beyond all else, forgiving. Love in its most primal, urgent version.


In this time before roads and settlements, before agriculture and industry, before thunder and lightning could be explained, early man must have felt very small. There he somehow was, a naked biped in a vast frigid land ruled by beasts.


I think there are no self-portraits in the Lascaux caves because man did not consider himself worthy of them. The world belonged to the animals, who were perfectly equipped for the seasons and weather, who moved over their land with grace and purpose. The challenges faced by the cave artists were the measure of their respect. In painting these animals, man hoped to emulate them, to imbue himself with their power and beauty. To become, as he walked alongside the paintings with his stone lantern, as fine a creature.

  Category: On animals, On nature
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Finding Joy in a Bowl: A guest post by Jacki Skole

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s post and photos are courtesy of Dogland author Jacki Skole, whose blog you can find on her website. Enjoy!

Finding Joy in a Bowl

My ten-year-old stood in the school library cradling a green plastic bowl in her right hand. That morning I’d filled the bowl with cut-up strawberries, but despite being covered, I could tell that strawberries were not what filled it now.

“What’s in there?” I asked.

“A fish, a snail, and duckweed,” she answered, as we weaved through fifth and sixth graders rushing toward the buses that snaked around the school.

About a week or two had passed since I’d been in the kitchen slicing tomatoes, and Dhani had asked if she could bring home a fish or a snail. She was learning about ecosystems in science, and her class had created several of their own in plastic soda bottles. Now they were going to see what happens when you pollute an ecosystem, so her teacher sought caretakers for the class “pets.” When my older daughter had asked that same question two years earlier, I’d said no. This time, I passed the buck and told Dhani to ask her father when he came home from work.

I figured she’d forget.

I have a vague recollection of having a goldfish or two when I was young—I think I won them at local fairs—but I don’t recall them living very long. What I do remember is begging for a “real” pet, a dog. Finally, at thirteen, to cushion the blow of my parents’ divorce, Sammie, a high-spirited West Highland white terrier, moved into our house after my father moved out.

My daughters have never known life without a dog. They spent their early years growing up with Gryffin, a Retriever/Chow mix, who Kevin and I adopted before we married. When Gryffin passed, we adopted Galen, a quirky Lab/Aussie mix, who jumps on the girls’ beds each morning to wake them and who brings us all a joy I assumed could not possibly come from creatures whose living space is limited to a bowl.

“What do they eat?” I asked, slightly annoyed that before heading home I would have to squeeze in a stop at the pet store.

“They don’t need anything,” Dhani said, with a tinge of exasperation at my ignorance of ecosystems. “The fish eats the duckweed, and the snail eats the fish poop.” Once home, we poured Fred (the fish), Martin (the snail) and the duckweed into a glass vase that had previously held flowers my husband gave me for my birthday. Then I placed the vase on the corner of our kitchen island where, for a few hours each day, its new inhabitants would be bathed by the sun.

Over the next few days, Fred and especially Martin mesmerized us. We would peer into the vase to see what they were doing (and if they were still alive). Martin, who resembled a tiny black pebble, was in constant (slow) motion, trudging up and down the side of the vase, under and above the water line, sometimes ascending so high we wondered if he would climb out.

A little more than a week after Fred and Martin joined our family, I came home to find an empty vase sitting on the kitchen counter. Our cleaning lady, thinking the vase contained the detritus of my birthday bouquet, rather than a budding ecosystem, had dumped its contents down the sink.

Dhani took the news better than I expected. What upset her most was the possibility that Fred and Martin might have endured painful deaths. What surprised me most was that we actually felt their loss. It was by no means the same as when Gryffin passed, though that, too, came suddenly and unexpectedly. One day he was playing fetch, the next day a tumor we didn’t know he had burst, filling his belly with blood.
Gryffin’s absence echoed throughout the house; Fred’s and Martin’s echoed throughout the kitchen. It had become routine to walk into the kitchen and before doing anything else, to check on the duo, to marvel at these hearty little creatures, who survived life in a soda bottle, a plastic Tupperware-like bowl and now, a glass vase.

Two days later, our cleaning lady stopped by with gifts for Dhani: a vibrant blue betta fish, a snail with a lemon yellow shell, and a plastic “Pet Keeper” fish tank. I got the sense she saw the tank as a more appropriate aquatic home.

“What will you name them?” I asked Dhani.

“Fred Jr. and Martin Jr.” she answered.

I have to confess that Fred Jr. and Martin Jr. are even more fascinating to observe than their predecessors. For example, Martin Jr. traverses the tank as actively as Martin scaled the vase, but Martin Jr. is larger, and he comes out of his shell more often and more fully, so we can view his extraordinary little body from foot to tentacles. And because we feed Fred Jr. tiny food pellets, we watch him swim to the surface as soon as the pellets fall from our fingers. His tiny mouth surrounds one at a time, and he seems to chew it as tiny air bubbles float from his mouth.

I had been quick to dismiss the idea that a fish or a snail could bring value to our lives, but my ten-year-old daughter knew better. For Dhani, adopting a fish and a snail from school was no different than rescuing Gryffin or Galen from a shelter. To her, all were creatures who needed homes and who would, in their unique ways, bring us joy.

I like to think that as a parent, I am the wise one—and most of the time, I am—except when my children are wiser than me.

Fred, Martin

Images of wildlife and road ecology

By Midge Raymond,

As many of us know, living among wildlife can be as dangerous as it is wonderful, due to the fact that, at some point, animals need to cross our roads. Fortunately, people like Marcel Huijser are working toward making our roads safer for all of us, with a special eye for helping out the animals.

A quick glance at Huijser’s website might seem, at first, a bit distressing — you’ll see gorgeous images of live animals, as well as those who have been killed by cars — but you’ll also see photos of mitigation measures designed to reduce the number of wildlife-vehicle collisions…and this (along with the abundance of phenomenal wildlife images), make this site and blog well worth a visit.

Huijser is both a photographer and a road ecologist; he works toward finding safe passages for wildlife among the highways and bridges among which animals live (learn more in this profile published last year in High Country News). On Huijser’s website, you’ll find a fascinating collection of photos of road ecology at work —  wildlife overpasses, wildlife fencing and “jump-outs”  to allow animals to escape from fenced areas, high-tech animal detection systems that detect large animals on the road and provide alerts, and more.

Visit Marcel Huijser’s website to learn more — perhaps you’ll find an idea perfect for your own community. We’d certainly love to see some animal detection systems to help protect the beautiful deer in Ashland.



The Resplendent Quetzal: A guest post by Jean Ryan

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s post is courtesy of Survival Skills author Jean Ryan, whose blog you can find on her website. Enjoy!

The Resplendent Quetzal

There are six kinds of quetzals in the cloud forests of Central America, and while they are all attractive birds, just one species is known as “resplendent.” Imagine being such a stunning specimen that you are classified in terms of your matchless beauty.

Definitions of resplendent include: “shining brilliantly,” “richly colorful,” “dazzling in appearance.” So why aren’t peacocks deemed resplendent, or butterflies, or poison dart frogs? What makes the quetzal so special?

This bird sports sumptuous colors, to be sure. Scarlet body, golden beak, emerald head and back, streaks of azure running down the tail feathers. The male has a wondrously long tail that floats behind him as he flies through the rain forest canopy. His head is crested and his eyes are large and glistening.

To see this legendary bird in flight must be transformative. You might think you imagined the vision, and you might be right: The quetzal is endangered, as are many exquisite things on this planet, our admiration for them causing more harm than good.

In Guatemala, the quetzal is the national symbol; even the currency is called the quetzal. The word is taken from the Aztec word ‘quetzalli,’ meaning precious or beautiful. Mayans worshipped the creature and used its tail feathers in their headdresses. While killing a quetzal was punishable by death, one could trap it, pluck its feathers and let it go. Over time the feathers grow back, but meanwhile, how does the damaged male charm a female? How does it soar through the jungle with only the memory of its glorious tail? The Mayans can be credited with many things—humanity is not one of them.

Quetzals mate for life. Solitary and quiet most of the year, they come together only in the springtime. Their nests are confined to dead or dying trees, where they use a hole made by a previous tenant or peck out one themselves. For eighteen days the parents take turns sitting on the two blue eggs, and though both care for the chicks afterward, the female departs early. In just three weeks, the young can fly. They eat a range of food, from insects to small frogs to certain fruits, particularly miniature avocadoes, which they swallow whole, spitting out the seeds.

Deforestation is limiting the quetzals’ nesting options; this and poaching are the biggest reasons for the decline of the species. Poaching is illegal, but the laws are ignored or unenforced. The birds are captured for their feathers or for display in private museums.

As these birds do not mate in captivity—most die after being caught—protecting their forests is the only means of saving them, and there are two areas in Guatemala where efforts are underway. We have put ourselves in a terrifying position, having created a world in which wild things must depend on us for their survival.

The resplendent quetzal cautions us with its name. There is no replacement, nothing quite so wonderful. Saving this bird is our only hope.

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  Category: On animals, On nature
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Gone: A guest post by author Jean Ryan

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s post is courtesy of Survival Skills author Jean Ryan, whose blog you can find on her website. Enjoy!


Today I came across a photo of a thylacine, commonly known as a Tasmanian Tiger, owing to the stripes on its back and rump. Native to Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea, and largest of the carnivorous marsupials, thylacines were considered a threat to farmers and were hunted to extinction. The last one, a lone female, died of neglect in the Hobart zoo in 1936. Unlike the Dodo, we have plenty of photographs and footage of Tasmanian Tigers, which makes their disappearance even more harrowing.

When a species slips into oblivion, I think there must be an earthly acknowledgment, a sort of hush or shudder that travels over the planet and outward into the universe. Each time I read of a creature we have lost, I am more frightened than sad. I do not want to be left alone on this planet, cannot imagine my life without the succor of animals. There is a terror in the loss of a species through human folly, a wrong for which there is no right. In allowing the attrition of wild things, we steal from ourselves. Confident that we can afford the consequences, we borrow funds we can’t pay back and ignore the growing list of damage.

How many more animals will we permit ourselves to squander and which do we imagine we can do without?

The thylacine was an impressive-looking creature. It resembled a large short-haired dog but was related to kangaroos and Tasmanian devils. Up to six feet in length, with a stiff two-foot tail, the animal could stand on its hind legs for brief periods. Tasmanian Tigers was not particularly fast or agile, but they were formidable hunters with no predators of their own. Nocturnal creatures, they traveled and hunted in groups and were believed to ambush their prey. The female birthed up to four pups at a time, which stayed in her pouch for three months. Thylacines had yellowish brown coats with dark stripes that faded somewhat with age.

Attempts have been made to clone a thylacine, but these experiments have not been successful, and scientists admit we’re a long way from resurrecting the dead. For now we must wait for another sort of miracle. There have been reports in recent years of thylacine sightings, one from a reputable game warden, and while these accounts are beguiling, so far there are no corroborating photos or video. Generous rewards have been posted and the search continues.

If given a second chance to behold a living thylacine, I hope we will save it from ourselves, that we will spare it our tests and our studies and our cages. I hope we will pause in admiration and quietly move on.