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What a relief to spend the last few days in a country that doesn’t have a president named Bush. The cheery Cumbrian men who stopped in to repair a leak in the ceiling listened with patience while we complained about how difficult it is to be an American abroad, and then pointed out that the UK is far from trouble free. “Grass always looks greener on the other side, don’t it?”

Fair enough, but this grass feels so good to me right now. Eckhart Tolle talks about creating space around the emotions and thoughts that cause suffering. Just be an observer of them, the watcher. That, he says, is how you can quiet the mind’s incessant chatterings.

The same could be said for the larger zone of the collective consciousness. I am far enough away from my life to see it with a watcher’s eye. And in this place where the land is an open armed welcome and the frequency gentle, I have an excellent perch.

And then of course there is the sacred presence of the ancient evidence, the menhirs and standing stones and stone circles that jewel this landscape with an energy of connection and sanctuary. I feel I am being held tenderly by these 4000 year old structures, sharing an unspoken wisdom from witnessing the passage of time and thousands of human generations.

So for now, I am in a soft surrender. While my eyes and hands are still waiting for the electric current to return me to the studio and to my work, I have no master plan to pursue. The cosmic grid has so many access points, I know I’ll stumble onto one that suits me—in a field, in a meadow, on a fells, by the stream, in the hedge. I’m ready.

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Is there some trace of the land’s past still resident? Although songlines are not part of our Western cultural history, the concept of stories preserved in a particular landscape has a powerful appeal. Here in New England we often joke about the tenacity of our Puritan ancestors whose energy still seems to linger in spite of our embrace of 21st century cosmopolitanism. We try to smooth out our tablecloth, but the bubbles of Cotton Mather and the Salem witch trials don’t disappear, they just move down a plank or two.

I have slept on the ground from Bolivia to Bhutan, and every landscape offers up its own dream images and energies. But in all the years I lived in Manhattan, I never did spend a night sleeping and dreaming on its bare bosom. If I ever did, the images might reflect the Manhattan being assembled by the Wildlife Conservation Society as part of their Mannahatta Project (the Lenape tribe’s name for the island.) The WCS is meticulously analyzing every historical document in order to reconstruct the primordial landscape that existed before Henry Hudson and his crew first saw the island in 1609.

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Looking south from Soho. Fresh water marshes, Collect Pond and forests of poplars and pines. (Rendering by Markley Boyer for the Wildlife Conservation Society.)

At the core of the Mannahatta Project is Eric Sanderson, a landscape ecologist. He heads up a WCS project called the Human Footprint which traces the human race’s impact on the earth. “It’s hard to think of any place in the world with as heavy a footprint, in so short a time, as New York,” he said. “It’s probably the fastest, biggest land coverage swing in history.” In addition to future websites and a book, “Sanderson hopes to create a 3D computer map which would allow you to fly above the island, land wherever you want, and look around. Eventually, Sanderson would like to put up plaques around town calling attention to vanished landmarks.” (The New Yorker)

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Looking to the northwest from Foley Square. Marshes existed where Canal Street is today.

My future techno fantasy: The i-Travel, a hand held for time travel. Key in a year, and the landscape is transmogrified for you, on the spot. Who knows, the Mannahatta Project may be an early prototype.

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Painted images from Chauvet Cave

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Horses drawn by Nadia at 3 years, 5 months

Nicholas Humphrey, author and expert on the evolution of consciousness, wrote a paper several years ago comparing the cave art at Chauvet Cave with work produced by Nadia, an autistic child who lived in England, who was not able to employ verbal language as a small child. Drawings that she did when she was very young (in some cases only 3 years old) have similarities with the cave art that are undeniable–the naturalism of individual animals (their portrayal is not stereotyped or iconized,) use of linear contours, the overlapping of forms, an overemphasis on salient parts (like feet and faces,) among others.

Humphrey disagrees with the contention of many scholars that cave art reveals a capacity for symbolic thought and sophisticated visual representation. His position is quite different:

The paintings and engravings must surely strike anyone as wondrous. Still, I draw attention here to evidence that suggests that the miracle they represent may not be at all of a kind most people think. Indeed this evidence suggests the very opposite: that the makers of these works of art may actually have had distinctly pre-modern minds, have been little given to symbolic thought, have no great interest in communication and have been essentially self-taught and untrained. Cave art, so far from being the sign of a new order of mentality, may perhaps better be thought the swan-song of the old.

With so little evidence to build on, experts will continue to disagree on the nature of some of the most startlingly beautiful art ever made. Lines are being drawn regarding the claim that the art is a shamanic, out of body expression, and another theory posits that the cave art was painted by women. Juxtaposing Nadia’s early drawings with representative cave art is a powerful visual case for Humphrey’s assertions, one that is strengthened by the fact that Nadia’s artistic proclivities disappeared when she learned to talk and was able to converse with others.

The paper, Cave Art, Autism, and the Evolution of the Human Mind is full of images and can be downloaded as a PDF file if you are interested by going to Cogprints.

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Alyson Shotz, The Shape of Space, 2004. Cut plastic Fresnel lens sheets and staples.

Highlight from a recent visit to the Guggenheim Museum: In the lobby, the first thing you see is a beguiling wall of light which turns out to be Fresnel lenses stapled together. I sat with and walked around this curtain of micro images for 30 minutes, feasting on its multifaceted reflections of Frank Lloyd Wright’s interior space as well as Fifth Avenue outside. Everyone who walked in the museum was drawn over to it.

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This wall of reflection reminds me of Indra’s Net, a prescient image first recorded in the Avatamsaka Sutra. Offered as an ancient metaphor for life’s “we are each individuals/we are one with everything” paradox, it presages current concepts and technologies such as holography, the structure of the Web and theories about the ultimate reality of our physical universe:

Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out indefinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel at the net’s every node, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars of the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that the process of reflection is infinite.

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Frequent Slow Muse commenter and friend Elatia Harris has written yet another memorable piece on 3 Quarks Daily. Her topic this time: Saffron. And because she is both a writer and an artist, she has woven the history of this delicate spice with an image track of beautiful prehistoric paintings, a few sampled here.

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Here’s a teaser:

Throughout the early 1970s the ruins of Akrotiri, a Bronze Age settlement on the Aegean island of Santorini, were dug out from under several hundred feet of volcanic ash, where they had been preserved from human intervention for 3600 years. One of the rooms that came to light was a large frescoed chamber showing an exquisite goddess and her saffron-gathering cultists. I had been wanting to write about the history of saffron, including its ritual aspect, and when I saw these paintings, I knew this was where I would begin. Before the Bible and the Vedas were written, before the building of Troy, before the objects in Tutankhamen’s tomb were dreamt of, there was heart-stopping painting on Santorini, found in houses of such sophistication that they were plumbed for hot and cold water. Also, there was saffron. And thereby hangs a tale…

Not to be missed.