Don’t forget to scroll down to appropriate audio episode.
Who painted these pictures on the walls of night’s cave?
This grayish hand, fingers flexed, outlined in black soot,
that deer dancing, those bears, horses, bison, running?
Did they come from nowhere, plucked from nothing but
the artist’s memories of what he saw as the ice age faded
and heat and warmth returned to warm his world? Drawn
from life, without doubt. Unless these Neanderthals were
truly creating art from a literal vacuum with nothing new
invented since according to Picasso. And he should know.
Imagine them as sounds, as letters from distant relatives,
as colored vowels scored on the blocks of a child’s first
alphabet set. Sit and stare. Watch flames flitter over
sharp shapes. See life enter the drawings as flimsy
light flickers over the cave walls’ dips and bumps.
Once seen, never forgotten. Not just the paintings, but also
the clammy cave damp, the red hanky draped over a pocket torch
to imitate firelight, the drip of water, slow growth of limestone
deposits growing into stalagmite and stalactite. Such things
flit in and out of my mind like owls or bats, drop in on my sleep
wake me with predatory beaks and claws, calling for my skull’s shut
doors to open wide, to let them in, and to bring them back to life.
Comment: The picture comes from an ash-tray my parents bought at the Cuevas de Altamira, in Santillana del Mar (Cantabria, Santander as it was known then) in 1963. We visited many cave sites in Cantabria including Puente Viesgo, where we saw the sooty hands. Back then, the caves had only just been opened. At Altamira, a young lady came to greet us. We asked her if we might view the caves and she whistled loudly. Her husband came down from the fields where he was working. He took a large iron key from his pocket, opened a huge door set in the rock, and in we went. One light bulb illumined the inner chamber. Only a small segment had been dug out. We reclined on a rocky bank. He doused the electric light, took a torch from his pocket, and covered it with a red pocket handkerchief. He moved this back and forth to imitate firelight and immediately the whole wall came to life and the animals moved in the flickering light. Pure magic. Unforgettable. We were the only people there. Four of us. A few years later, you had to book an appointment and a place. Within six years, the caves were closed as the heat of human bodies raised the cave temperatures and caused the paintings to deteriorate. I was so fortunate, so privileged, to see those paintings in what was almost their pristine state. In 1991, I visited the facsimile of the caves built in Madrid. I paid my money, went in, sat down, and came out crying for all those things we had lost, for all that beauty that had been denied.