People have been visiting Poole's Cavern in England for over 400 years. Its most famous visitor may have been Mary Queen of Scots. The name derives from an outlaw who hid out there in the Fifteenth Century. While my name may someday be a household word, for now I'm just another person who accompanied our amiable guide on a tour of this ancient cave.
It's hard to enter a cave, and not feel as if you have entered a sacred place. In Kim Stanley Robinson's novel Shaman, Thorn and his apprentice Loon spend a lot of time in a cave. In their preliterate society, traditions, culture, and history were passed down orally, and to a lesser extent by drawings or paintings. As caves sheltered artwork from the elements, they served as places to visually record their culture.
With no books, TV, movies, or the Internet, young Loon had little to divert him from his sexual urges. Thoughts of copulation occupy his waking mind, and rampage through his dreams. He longs for a beautiful young woman to sate his passions. As his community boasts little more than two dozen people, his best chance of finding such a mate rests with the corroboree, an event at which the packs gather once a year. Nor does his master help divert him. For many of the stories Thorn tells, and the artwork he paints, involve giving birth to some aspect of their world. Union between the gods, or their historical forebears, serves as a metaphor for actual creation of places, tradition, and culture.
The shapes Loon sees inside the caves also suggest that he has entered the womb of Mother Earth. So he regards his visits there as holy. Indeed, the community is only allowed into the outer areas of the caves at special times, and Loon first enters the deeper areas after his test of manhood. As he matures, Thorn's prickly temperament bothers him more. Nor does he understand how these stories are important to his fellow humans. So when he mixes up words and elements of a story, Thorn flicks his ear, and orders him to repeat it. Loon would gladly resign his position, and let Thorn train someone else as his apprentice, if he didn't love helping Thorn paint. Whether he is mixing the colors, or brushing them onto the wall, he loves the artistic process. This keeps him by Thorn's side, even when the man's antics irritate him, and he would rather be out hunting with others his age.
Like the Ice Age characters of Shaman, people have regarded Poole's Cavern as sacred for at least 3500 years. At its entrance, and in its outmost chamber, people lived and celebrated community events. Remains of metalworking and jewelry-making operations date back to the time of Christ, suggesting that, throughout time, Poole's Cavern has sheltered humans from the elements, and fired their creative endeavors.
Unlike the Chauvet Cave in France, no Ice Age artwork adorns the walls of Poole's Cavern. Instead, they attest to how beautifully Mother Earth adorns her womb, and decorates it with fantastic shapes and colors. Ice Age man felt no compunction about scraping Chauvet's walls with stone or bone tools, and adorning them with his own artistic vision. Tourists in recent centuries may have had no misgivings about carving their initials in the walls of Poole's Cavern. But I felt no compulsion to leave behind a visible reminder of my presence. For even if modern man no longer regards caves as sacred places, I see Poole's Cavern as a treasure to safeguard for future generations. Besides, I've got a pad of sketching paper on which I can draw, and my little corner of the Internet in which to share my photographs with you. I just wish the latter did justice to all that I saw and experienced during my tour of this beautiful English cave. But in that, sadly, they fall short.
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