Sunday, November 28, 2010

Spotted: Owl

On a snowy day last week, an owl arrived and spent the who-who-whole day sheltering in the ivy draping my neighbour's Garry oak.

The description in my bird book suggested that this might be a Spotted Owl except that, according to Audubon, SOs are crow-sized. This was way bigger than that – 18 inches, I guessed.
Further research (ie reading the rest of the description) unearthed the info that Audubon thinks crows are 17 1/2 inches tall.
I'd like to know what Audubon feeds its crows.
On second thought, maybe I don't.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Patience pays off

Years ago I belonged to a gym where several of Canada’s national rowing teams worked out. One afternoon one of the rowers was lifting a barbell with a lot of cast-iron weights stacked at each end. At the end of every lift, he had to set the barbell down and, contrary to standard gym etiquette, he was dropping them the last few inches. This made the weights clang together which is really noisy and unpleasant when it happens twelve times in a row, but what made my trapezius muscles climb right up my neck was that I knew it was going to start up again for his second set of twelve repetitions and again for his third.

So I asked one of the gym staff to “suggest” that he not drop his weights any more. She threw back her shoulders, raised her chin, marched over and made the request.

From the top of his six-foot four frame, he looked down at her five-foot one.

In the patient tone we reserve for children and idiots, he explained, “But it’s really heavy.”

I didn’t say anything because I was taught that patience is a virtue and nice girls don’t make scenes in public, but it just about killed me because for once I actually had a good comeback.

If it’s too heavy for you, I thought, maybe you shouldn’t be lifting it.

Fast forward to last week. Different gym. A middle-aged guy in the freeweight area was lifting a barbell with a lot of weights stacked on each end and then dropping them. Every. Single. Time.

I was up on the mezzanine and the noise of crashing metal ricocheted off the metal walls and pierced my eardrums like a skewer. Every. Single. Time.

After he finished a set, I opened my eyes and unclenched my shoulders, but I knew it was going to start again in a couple of minutes. This time there was no staff on duty to run interference for me, so I either had to go home or act like a big girl and ask him to stop.

I trotted down the stairs and crossed the floor.

As soon as I could make him notice me standing beside him, I said, “Excuse me. When you drop your weights, the noise reverberates through the whole gym and really hurts my ears.”

“Too bad,” he said, then as he turned to walk away, he tossed over his shoulder, “That’s the way it is.”

I don’t think my jaw hung open for more than a second or two before my brain delivered.

“Maybe you shouldn’t try to lift it,” I called to his mossy back, “if it’s too heavy for you.”

I think I blew a bunch of karma points, but it sure felt good.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

I don't know anything about art but…

When I was in high school, the Social Studies teacher offered a course called Civilisation. It followed the British TV series and used the companion textbook. We got a smattering of Vikings, Dark Ages, Renaissance…and I loved it.

When I made my solo jaunt to Europe a few years later in 1981, I visited Stone-Age sites, Iron-Age monuments, the British Museum…and discovered prehistory. I was fascinated.

Twenty-eight years after that, the eminent French archaeologist Jean Clottes gave a series of lectures in my hometown. I wrote about them briefly on this blog last September when I was still overwhelmed by the trove of information he’d shared.

Two weeks ago, I was once again overwhelmed. In fact (don’t spread this around) I cried. Nobody noticed, because it was dark, and also because they were all looking at the end of the beam of light from the guide’s lamp, which was shining on two mammoths someone had carved into the walls of Rouffignac Cave 17,000 years ago.

Freaking mammoths. God, they’re beautiful.

They’re also important.

The thing about prehistory is that, as far as we knew, people had no recorded language (although recent work by University of Victoria grad student Genevieve von Petzinger is challenging that). But still, we have to piece together the stories one clue at a time.

People created images such as those mammoths at Rouffignac and the aurochs at nearby Lascaux and the experts apply their knowledge, such as it is, and then extrapolate. There’s lots of room for assumption, cultural projection, personal agendas and egos.

When I visited the British Museum back in 1981, I bought a book called The Social History of Art by Arnold Hauser in which Dr. Hauser states: “In [the prehistoric] age of purely practical life everything obviously still turned around the bare earning of a livelihood and there is nothing to justify us in assuming that art served any other purpose than a means to procuring food.”

Fifty years after Hauser’s work, the archaeological world has changed its tune a little. Decades of study of many more sites using both old and new technologies have led Dr Clottes and others to conclude that the carvings and paintings so deep in the limestone caverns at Rouffignac, Lascaux, Chauvet and elsewhere were indeed a spiritual act.

Why else go so far underground, climbing rock chimneys and crawling through passages to reach sites where no-one else could see their work?

According to Clottes, the artists from these hunter-gatherer societies thought the caves were the world of the spirits and the deeper they went, the more they could access the supernatural.

As I moved into the caverns myself, it was easy to imagine people 15- and 40,000 years ago inching along the tunnels that fold and wind like the vessels that carry blood through our muscles, air to our lungs, children into the world.

How different that is from the mindset of the agricultural age, when men built upward, toward the sun. Notre-Dame Cathedral, Sacre-Coeur all white on its hill, the glass curtains of Sainte-Chapelle, all push toward the sky to thank or praise or plead to a god.

Either way, whether they’re painting a horse a kilometer underground or carving a chunk of stone for the façade of a church they’ll never see complete, people bring their best to art.

For that, I thank them.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

How I Spent My Autumn Vacation

For two weeks in late October, I reveled in the sensual delights of one of my very favourite countries – France.

The first week, in Paris, I rented an apartment on the Left Bank

strolled through the Jardin des Plantes, the Promenade Plantée, the Tuileries Gardens,
Ile St-Louis, and along the Seine

listened to Bach at Ste-Chapelle, Puccini at the Opéra Bastille,
and Gregorian chant at Notre-Dame

strolled through the Louvre, the Orangerie, and my favourite: the Rodin museum

Then I headed south for a completely different and equally wonderful week in the
Dordogne Valley

where I rented a medieval farmhouse

strolled along country lanes

visited ancient caves and medieval towns

shopped in local markets

and then enjoyed my purchases.

While there are a lot of stories (some of them amusing, mostly at my father's expense) for now I'll let the pictures do the talking and I'll just add
Á la prochaine!
Until next time.
All photos by the charming and talented Spence Partlo