The Origins of Art?

I have spoken many times about seeing faces in the rocks. It fascinates me. One of my current projects is an illustrated journey through the human faces in rocks from British Columbia’s Thompson Gorge, the Broughton Archipelago on the Mid-BC Coast, the northern tip of Vancouver Island, the Black Forest, the Okanagan Valley, the Columbia Basin, the Nazko, and Iceland. Here are some pictures from the European part of this project.

First, the possibly Celtic formation at Siebenfelsen above Yach (pronounce Eich) in the Black Forest. Here’s the skull at the base of the phallus:

Yes, there’s a vagina right next door. Yes, it’s giving birth. Yes, there’s a navel farther up the hill, with a wild boar. Take a look at what’s below the phallus/vagina tumulus, though:

That’s how it was done. Chips were taken out of the stone along a line. Then the stones were split. The hillside below the monument is littered with humanly-altered rocks like this. Presumably, the monument was carved, much like a Canadian Inukshuk. Now, take a look at this:

Crikes. What is that, anyway? A bear? A dog? A lion? I snapped this shot as I was leaving. A big storm was pouring over the hill. I only noticed the head when I got the picture home to Canada. The site also boasts serpents and horses.

But it wasn’t just the Celts. Let’s go to Iceland. First a troll in a cliff. The cliffs here (and in many other places) contain a lot of Troll faces. This is not the strongest, but it’s cool because it has a little hand-made troll on his head. It seems that humans can’t avoid making self portraits.

And here we are closer, just a hundred metres from the cliff edge:

See what I mean? Closer yet:

But don’t think it’s all about getting cozy with the trolls. Here we are at the geysir Geysir at Geysir. Well, actually, just uphill. Warning: that red dirt sticks to your boots and you will spend a half hour scraping it out with a stick and hopping around in mud puddles. Good to know.

It’s enough to make one feel like one is being watched. A little closer:

Did art start like this? If so, I think it’s watching us. Virtual reality didn’t start with computers or SFX laboratories, at any rate. Aren’t humans beautiful and curious mammals? A dozen rocks on top of each other, and there you have it. You.

It’s magic.

Crossing the Line

Two years ago I crossed the iron curtain from west to east, on the old Salt Road. Two weeks ago I crossed back. The political spray paint art has been painted over now, and the concrete border posts have been taken away and, no doubt, smashed up into road gravel. For an hour I wandered in the sun and the grass with the birds and the grasshopper nymphs, marveling that all that division led, in the end, only to what had been there before it began. I ate wild cherries from a tree growing along the East German guard path, and left the last tiny chunks of concrete to the ants, who were getting a bit of heat from them. For a souvenir, I bring you this found moment: two kinds of East German energy — old and new.

East Meets West at Point Alpha

And this time I found my way home. I have become a Trabant, with an Ossie in my head with both hands on the wheel, and the car puffing blue smoke like, well, not like Brecht’s cigar maybe, but at least like a Pall Mall, eh.


I feel like John Le Carré.

Well, the question is floating around lately … would it, could it, might it, should it, will it be possible to buy up a whole bunch of old cigarette vending machines and convert them to selling small, specially printed books? Why, of course, but, first, maybe, they have to be lung-safe. To add to the discussion (it really is floating around, I promise), here are some pictures from Gotha, Germany, which I took today. First, the full meal deal …

Cigarette Machine Next to the old Waid Hall in Gotha.

Ok, that Waid thing might be tough. In English, it’s Woad. It is what made the world turn around before the British East India Company brought Indigo back from India. Until then, you made the colour blue from this plant, that was fermented, for months, in urine. The law was: keep your windows shut on Sundays, for God’s sake. Looks, pretty good, though. Nice and artsy. All those stickers are illegal bits of Neo-nazi and anti-Nazi art. The way to deal with them is to tear them off. Here is one so enigmatic that no one bothered:

Politics, German Style

Well, OK, maybe that’s not the kind of books that the writers of Canada have in mind. Something like this maybe?

Picture Your Book Here!

Obviously, some books would be better able to compete than others. I pity the poor writer who got stuck in next to the Marlboros. I mean, sheesh. Even Margaret Atwood can’t out-brand Marlboros. Well, the deal is that these machines are everywhere, in the smallest village and the biggest city. In the villages they aren’t adorned with illegal publications, but in the communist-era housing settlement (that replaced over half of the old town) of Gotha, they look like this:

The Cigarettes on the Other Side of Town

Yeah, a bit of genuine graffitti there. You can bet it’s old. The Germans have so moved on from that. But cigarettes? As the playwright Stefan Schütz said to me: “What do they want to do? Take the last pleasure away from the proletariat?” Ditto for, I think books. But don’t let the cigarette machines have the last word. Don’t let them just simply say: a book is not a book until you can smoke it, right?

Let’s see what the German post office has to say about the matter. Again, in Gotha (we’re talking about the royal city here, after all)….

Unwanted Mail at a Hair Salon in Gotha

You can, it seems, lead a German hair-salonist to the mailbox, but you can’t make her read. Her neighbour, by the way, is The Glass House, the State Association for Living Drug-Free.

I think there’s lots of potential for this cigarette machine idea…as long as we glue the books on in the middle of the night, so our readers can tear them off before dawn.

And with that, good-night (I bow). Tomorrow I go to the most beautiful church in the world, the round church of St. Michael in Fulda.

Sorry, the monks are pretty clear: no pics.

Smart monks.

I think you could safely say they aren’t smoking their books.

Napoleon Sings in the Morning

Tra La La La.

Napoleon Singing His Heart Out

Perched on the marker stone commemorating the 1806 battle that saw Napoleon’s armies slaughter the Prussians and achieve European dominance, a former emperor sings into the morning light, five minutes before a warm summer rain. The marker was erected in 1990. Until then, the place was a tank practice ground for the Russian army. Everybody, it seems, got to practice being Napoleon, just a little bit. Nobody, it seems, gets to keep the place for long.

Meanwhile, down in Jena, the war continues.

The War for Hearts and Minds

On the one side, the symbols of German culture. On the other side, German street culture. Visually at any rate, the official symbols are not winning. In a world of instant and mechanically-reproducible art, art itself becomes a quaint antique. And looking a little closer …

Anti-Nazi Street Art

Downtown in Jena, most political action is fought using small glued-on posters. This one, though, was made using a marker and some bus timetables.

Hard to imagine any art gallery rising to this level of art anymore.

No wonder Napoleon is singing. As they say in Jena,


And down the road I go again.

An Audience with the Queen

As part of the work of writing about paradise in the former East Germany, I am back in Europe, looking for traces of Goethe, the mad poet, Napoleon, the mad Emperor, and the paradise they were both chasing, by book, edict, and sword. Today I am in Manchester, and who did I find early this morning wearing the English flag for her beleaguered team, the flag of St George, but the Queen herself, in all her weather- and pigeon-stained glory.

Queen Victoria with soccer flag

Friday night, I had a beer can up there, too

Should all fans of football be so demure.

This Volcanic Land

Ancient Volcanic Islands

For a year now I have been working on the text for a book on the shield volcanoes and lava plains of Central British Columbia. I found the volcanic rocks above in the Thompson River Canyon, crumbling to dust where they fell out of a cliff face folded out of a collection of volcanic islands that formed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean before drifting up against the continent. For images of the book, check out the Chris Harris’s newsletters. He has taken the pictures. The book is coming down to the wire now, and it’s a gem: art, science, passion, and mountains the colour of migrating salmon. We’ll launch it in 100 Mile House in October.

Sacred Geometry for Poets and Artists

Sacred Work at a Sacred Site

Sacred Work at a Sacred Site

Ken Blackburn and I and the artists and writers of the North (and South, you bet) Island, and anyone else who can get here, are going to explore sacred geometries in visual and poetic work, together, at Ocean Resort south of Campbell River. Walk the labyrinth. Heat up in the Sauna. Cool down in the sanctuary. Feel the stones along your spine. Feel the words in your blood and your blood in the words in the sea and in the Garden. Create the future with us. Enter the landscape. This is going to be great. See you there. Be eternal.  Shantie.

The Hour of Creation


Sea Turtle Beached Since the Dreamtime at San Josef

I followed the rains back down to salt water, and stood in this old story at low tide, and knew the purpose of words. We are telling the story of the world. As Ezra Pound said of the love for his daughter that kept him in Italy during the Second World War: the rest is dross. We need to get together to tell this story. Now that so much of it has been forgotten, we might have to start mapping it up piece by piece, but this time not with maps of rivers, plateaus, and trade routes, but maps of story. What a great way for books to return to the world after long journey.

Listening to Ronald Wright on Denman Island

Listening to Ronald Wright on Denman Island

I’ve just returned home from the Denman Island Writers and Readers Festival. And a fine time it was, riding there in the on the north shores of the Salish Sea, with all its ghost apple trees, and all its ghost turnip farmers from the Orkneys, and the delightful interchange of community writers who could easily hold their own on the mainstage and visiting writers, like myself, who were rejuvenated by reading them, and, of course, the tricksy ravens. For just a moment (well, three days), Denman Island showed the world that it is the world. I gave a workshop on trickster writing. It was a gas, and lead to some great conversations about witches and birds flying to the underworld and back, all while sitting in the sun watching children clamber over the Denman Island playground, while Sheldon served his inimitable coffee in the background. Folks, a little trip to the island to salute Sheldon’s Denman-roasted trickster-dreams-in-a-cup would be time well spent, no matter how far you come. Everybody but everybody was there, except, I think, the two residents above, and I think you can see that they were listening intently from across the street and wishing, as I am now, that they were there.