Column: Ancient art, and an inspiration to carry on

  • Mary Otto. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 3/21/2020 10:20:13 PM
Modified: 3/21/2020 10:20:10 PM

Is there another subject to even consider for a column today? We in the Upper Valley and in the larger world are being chased by the coronavirus and COVID-19. We’re being herded home from our work, in many instances, and away from nearly all of our outings, for pleasure and otherwise. Our lives are not what they were even yesterday, and the speed of change is breathtaking. I am distressed in these days looking toward spring.

Under the pall of the coronavirus, less momentous things have come to unnerve me too: the unexpected return of a clothing moth to my mudroom on a recent sunny afternoon, landing too near my wool mittens for comfort; the ongoing process of readying our possessions for the long-anticipated move to a retirement location. Oh — and the still obvious fact that my darling (foolish) dog tangled with an early-emerging skunk and paid the price.

There are still places of calm, though. Books are high on my list. Somehow my worries are held in check, at least for a moment, by my ongoing immersion in Robert Macfarlane’s Underland. It’s a slow read — requiring frequent notes in the margins to ask questions or register amazement. Macfarlane began by narrating his travels through caves and lower levels in his native England, through the catacombs of Paris, and through deep places in Italy and Slovenia. Two-thirds of the way through the book, where I am now, he walks alone on treacherous terrain while it is still winter. His goal? One of the painted caves along the Norwegian coast at Kollhellaren.

The knowledge Macfarlane brings with him is astounding: He knows where to go, he has adequate supplies and tools, and he understands these Norwegian cave paintings within the context of such art across the world. He is self-confident despite missteps and the threats of a hostile climate. He is in tune with his environment, minute by minute, day by day.

As he traipses toward his destination through the now-abandoned village of Refsvika, he explores the ruined settlement. Pausing to consider the challenging existence of the few people who lived here in the mid-19th century, Macfarlane is surprised to discover a family still in residence: sea otters, two parents and two children. “I lean against the northern boulder and watch them travel,” he writes. “I am struck with happiness to have seen them there, at home in their habitat.”

And once he finally reaches the entrance to the cave of the painted figures, Macfarlane pauses again, to imagine. Even in the arctic cold, he sees the brightness of a northern summer’s night 3,000 years ago, when a group of “figures” processes gingerly across rocks toward the cave’s mouth. In his mind, he follows them inside as they prepare to paint, mixing red rock with spit to concoct a usable artistic medium.

What emerges from their efforts is a series of tall, red, dancers — male and female humans. They are still there, still in apparent motion, when Macfarlane himself finally enters their large room 3,000 years later. Again he is emotional, experiencing a “collapse of time … as the figures (on the walls) dance and flicker in the low light.”

Closing the book for the day as morning brightens and I am called to do other things, I meditate on why these pages have seemed so important to me right now. In works like Underland, I conclude, there is a longer view of history. In the midst of chaos — mine, history’s and the planet’s — we humans have learned, if we’re lucky, to look for consolation, to search out the solace of art, music and literature, along with that available in stories written by adventurers like Robert Macfarlane.

Through art, music, literature and stories — the humanities — we can be transported from the details of our ordinary lives and subsumed into a larger world. Ancient people painted red figures on the wall of a cave 3,000 years ago. Today, we are able take a common joy in those same red dancers, if we go with the artists toward the cave opening. Herein lies perspective

Herein lies the inspiration to walk on.

Mary K. Otto lives in Norwich.

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