cavemen and polar bears

orange dumpster, Brooklyn, PDX

I want Werner Herzog's job, accessing the inaccessible (the Amazon, Antarctica, the Chauvet Cave) to muse on planetary decline—minus the German accent. Only of course there's no replacing Werner Herzog. Over the weekend, I watched Cave of Forgotten Dreams (though not in 3-D, which gives me headaches), and though I'd seen media shots of some of the cave paintings when they were discovered in the 1990s, the close-ups on film left me awed—the sureness of line, the charcoal shading along limestone contours, the herds in motion along the walls where torches once flickered. These images were drawn not by cavemen but men, protomodernists. Only most of the animals they hunted, ate, knew so intimately they could project them from memory for ritual purposes no longer exist in the same form at this latitude, if at all: ibex, wooly mammoth, lions, wild horses, rhinoceros, cave bears, panthers, hyenas.

The only certain human reference in the cave paintings, aside from handprints, is a female figure with the head of a bison and the lower half of a woman. The experts Herzog interviewed displayed similar female-shaped fertility totems excavated from that period in Europe—all headless females with large, sagging breasts, bulbous bellies, and wide hips. Where the head should have been was a little knob, presumably to attach to a cord to wear around one's neck. Leave it to paleolithic men to focus only on the necessary woman parts. Yet for those of us who feel at times we're attempting relationships with emotional Neanderthals, not much has changed in 37,000 years. How strange to imagine Homo sapiens coexisting with Neanderthals, who themselves did not make figurative art.

And leave it to Herzog to end the film on a postscript about albino crocodiles patrolling an artificial greenhouse swamp 20 miles from Chauvet Cave, thriving, if mutating, in the bathwater from a nuclear plant along the same river that 30,000 years ago was glaciated.

Polar Cryogenics ("since 1972"), Brooklyn, PDX

Yesterday I walked through a different part of Brooklyn than usual and noticed a specialty-gas company founded in 1972, Polar Cryogenics. The more a species specializes (e.g., ice bear), the more likely it is to become extinct. Adapt or die. Polar bears are now mating with grizzlies in the permafrost, as Neanderthals once did with humans, some of their genes still mingled with ours. In the meantime, the human generalists of Russia, Scandinavia, Canada, and the U.S. are massing in the Arctic, ready to vie for the melting territory, its submerged fossil fuels, and new shipping lanes. That is, of course, before all the methane releases, the frozen remains of tropical biomass, palm trees once swaying at the poles. And they may again.

Till then, till the Earth's climate warms exponentially, restless explorers can excavate urban dumpsters, those stinking caverns of forgotten consumption, the middens of postmodern humans.

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