Thursday, 22 November 2012
I am meant to be thinking, and writing about caves. Instead I found myself thinking about this.
Even the caves die. They were made by life and time. Limestone is a corpse-stone compressed from the empty shells of another ages brightly-lit life.
If you stand on Limestone and imagine, a handful of millions of years ago, looking up from the same place, you will see light. The old and faintly moving light hanging in the darkness, held in momentary shards by waves rolling a mile above your head. You will be standing in a drizzle of the tiny dead, their calcite skeletons pattering down.
Those bodies turn to rock. The rock folds in the earth and churns to hills. The rain falls on the hills and eats the rock. The caves are born. But rain alone is not enough, there must be life. Growing things on the surface of the earth to lend the rain it's teeth. Carbonic acid cuts the caves.
As the land heaves up and water seeks its home the caves remain. They fill with air and darkness. Gravity, water, air and time paint the caves in three dimensions. Wild speleothems crackle into being, stalagtites, mites, richly banded flowstone, pearls of bone, crystals and gypsum flowers, the mad capillary curls of helictites.
This all takes long enough for life to change its form. New breeds and creatures, pale, transparent and sinuous. Somewhere a salamander closes its eyes for the last time. It's children will never hold the language of light.
The stone is slowly dying. It came from life, it returns to life, it's erosion and destruction cannot be stopped. In-between the caves are allowed to exist as a strange cradle for forms that have no other place. This process, invisible to us, locks the caves in time. In the whole history of the earth, they could only exist now. We think we see eternal stone, but this is just a blade of time, florescent-flicker-fast.
Not many people build their empires around a spine of mountains. Rivers are a more popular choice. The Inca perhaps.
When the Ghorids built their Turquoise Mountain, the city made to rule the plains, they made it from the bricks and blood of other peoples.
“The Ghorid chieftain then forced the inhabitants of Ghanzi to carry every mud brick of their city on their backs up to the mountains of Ghor. There they executed the captives and mixed their blood with mud to make more bricks for their highland capital the Turquoise Mountain.”
The Ghorids built towers and left relics in the rock, carefully placed and held in space between the pillars of the earth.
“The domes were positioned in the centre of a symmetrical plateau, which was lower than the western approach ridge. From above, they had no silhouette and from the bottom of the slope they were invisible. Only for a moment, halfway down the slope, did they rise above the skyline. They were then lost again until the summit of the final climb when the curved roof slowly reappeared framed by the mountain range beyond, with the shape of the arches mimicking the shape of the peaks.”
“...The Ghorids seemed to have shared this delight in the shape and colour of rock. Unlike the Seljuks or the Mongols, they were not nomads from the steppes but instead, like the Phrygians, Medians and Persians, people who had lived for centuries among their mountains. …. A Pride reflected in the Ghorids use of the epithet Malik-I-Jabal, or King of the Mountains, as their royal title.”
The Ghorids run into a man burning his way through history. The Turquoise Mountain blinks from memory. Eventually, with the long passage of years, the descendants of this man, possessing both luxury and force, make themselves a meal for time. Time feasts on them.
A few centuries after that Rory Stewart decides he needs to walk through the mountains of Afghanistan. He thinks he needs to go on foot and never ride a wheel. In the valley of Jam he finds the tower of the Ghorids, from the top of the tower he sees the trenches ringing the valley sides. The villagers have found the Turquoise Mountain again. They are hacking trenches into the bare earth, down through the blacked roof beams burned by Genghis Khan, and tearing out every artefact they can find. The relics can sell for one or two dollars each. The people need the money, the valley grass won't feed a goat. There is no government but the dead empire of the Ghorids feeds the people of Jam as they send it into the darkness for a second time.
The islands of the Pacific were that last parts of the earth to be touched by the settlement of man. The navigators that took us from Asia to Hawaii and Easter Island did so without charts, mathematics, sextants, compass or metal instruments. They could not write.
They divided the sky with the stars. They could read the geometry of the criss-crossing swells and feel the knots of water when multiple swells combined. They could read the tightness of the water and judge the direction of the current. Read atmospheric pressure from the shapes and colours of clouds. They knew the birds, fishes, whales and reefs of each island, a fluid but regular biological cartography.
They could read nature but they could not read. They passed it on in talk. 'Kapesani Lemetau', the talk of the sea, by performance and by song. Not separate from the culture but part of it, weaved together at every level. Not a storehouse of knowledge but an endless flow of understanding encoded in living experience. Navigation, Theology, Social Code, Art and Political Structure all combined in one.
Then that culture met this one. It did not seem likely to survive. This mad collision of worlds is still going on. We are like an insect, caught in flight in the background footage of a car crash. Only visible when the speed is slowed. Right now people are riding the wave of cultural impact, hurriedly transforming the talk of the sea into something that can survive the storm of western culture.
The Simurgh lays it's egg in flight. The egg hatches as it falls and the chick learns to fly before it hits the ground.
The plankton-dust under the keel of the canoe is falling to the abyss, steeling itself for the long journey until it can form a crag or bound the edges of a cave.