The eland is, like the goanna (as I have explored here), an example of an intersection between nature (as an ecosystem engineer) and culture (as an important animal totem), with the latter – as it happens – able to work as a metaphor for the former. Indeed, we shall see below that the cultural associations of the eland are also connected to a process for both rewilding yourself (back to nature) and recivilising yourself (back to culture). Theres’ also a video below showing the rock art creation of the eland.

Eland as Large Herbivore Ecosystem Engineer 

The eland is the largest African antelope, and it’s so big and chunky that it appears more like a cow than like smaller antelopes such as, say, the springbok. There are areas in Southern Africa where eland used to roam until a couple of hundred years ago, and where now they are being reintroduced as part of a natural bush management approach to increase biodiversity. As large herbivores that naturally grazed and browsed these areas in the past, they are part of the natural balance of the ecosystem here. They graze grasses and browse trees and turn this food into dung which, with the help of dung beetles, brings nutrients into the soil. They are hardy animals, so can get on with the job without medication, and by keeping the bush in check as well supporting many insect populations with their healthy chemical-free dung, they help to restore biodiversity. (I explore the role of large herbivores more here.) 

The Eland as San Totem 

The indigenous hunter gatherers of Southern Africa, the San, hold the eland in very great esteem. For them, this is the first animal that the creator god made. At the time he did so, there were already animal-people (people with animal heads) and people-animals (animals that walked and talked like people), but there were no proper animal-animals and people-people. This was the time of First Creation when things had not been given names and so had not assumed fixed forms. The San group known as the !Kung or Ju’hoansi believe that their ancestors were eland-headed. Then the non-human eland was the first true wild animal created without human-like personhood, the first animal made to be a game animal for humans to hunt and eat. This creation of animals that were like they are now (as opposed to ones that walk and talk like people) was also the time of the creation of people that are like they are now: not half animal, and less wild. It’s as if those original eland-people split out into two directions, one going down the path of wildness (the eland) and one down the path of manners and civility and personhood. During special dances, though, the !Kung elders say they feel themselves to have gone back into First Creation and to have become those eland-headed ancestors once more. There are also accounts of !Kung who believe that when the creator made the first eland, he did so by first taking red mud out of a waterhole, and then using this to make the animal, and then using different coloured muds for other animals. This parallels the way that the !Kung’s ancestors took red haematitic clay from river beds and used it as a pigment for rock art painting. The Tsodilo hills are held to be the place where the first animals were made. The creator placed the animals on these hills, and the rock art images of animals still to be seen there are the marks left behind when he did so. There’s an ethnographical account of how the paint was made to make the red figure paintings on these hills, where red clay was taken from a river some way to the north of the hills, and then this was mixed with the fat from around the heart of a cow (in older times, before the arrival of cattle, this was probably an eland, since the fat from around the heart of an eland bull is believed by the !Kung to have magical potency.) It was also said that the first man, the first ancestor of the Red People (a way the San speak of themselves) was also placed on the Tsodilo hills at this time, and indeed the San have created many red figure rock art paintings of themselves.   

Some of the main criteria for a particular animal being a totem for a particular people (according to the anthropologist Tim Ingold) are: there’s an ancestral connection to the animal, and this is achieved via a physical consubstantiality. Very frequently in Australia (the classic totemic culture) this consubstantiality is achieved through red ochre paint. The ochre deposits in the landscape are seen as residues of the blood of the animal totem (the Dreamtime being) from when it was spilled in the events of the Dreamtime. The local clan then use this ochre to make paints, and decorate their bodies with the paint, and by doing so come into direct contact with the Dreamtime essence or potency of the animal. Thus, they maintain their quasi-ancestral connection to the totem. The San seem to meet these criteria: as we have just seen, the !Kung see their first pre-modern human ancestors as eland-headed, and they see their first modern human ancestor as having been painted into being using the same ochre-paint that was used to paint the first eland into being. I.e. they are consubstantial with the eland, having been made from the same stuff, the red ochre. And any painting that shows both the eland and human figures (or the bull and human figures) using the same paint for both, becomes a re-enactment of the creation of the first eland and the first people from the same potent substance. 

Eland Painting as Ritual Re-Enactment 

Another characteristic of totemists, as found in Australia, is that they hold it important to ceremonially re-enact the events of the Dreamtime by which the World was created. By re-enacting these events, they invoke the creative potency of the Dreamtime, which infuses the current world and keeps the natural landscape abundant and providential. Again, the San traditions fit the pattern. We know from the accounts given to the anthropologists Brad and Hilary Keeney that the !Kung believe that their eland dance invokes First Creation and in doing so allows the potency of First Creation to revivify their world, and further to this we may observe that whenever a rock artist took red clay from the ground and used it to make paint and then painted an eland onto a rock shelter in the hills, they were re-enacting the process by which the creator painted the first eland into being.  

There’s another San myth of the creation of the eland which also mirrors this process. In this version, while the creator was still making the first eland, giving it the qualities he wanted it to have, it was hunted by his sons while he was away. The eland was then recreated in a magical way: its blood was churned together with its fat in a pot, and then this mixture was used to make a herd of eland. This parallels a number of ethnographical accounts where eland blood and eland fat (together with red haematite) are mixed together to make a paint that is then used to create rock art images of eland. Here too, then, it is easy enough to re-enact the process. And we can still do this now, potentially tapping in by resonance to the morphic fields of the rite – if you’re open to such ideas – to experience the cultural essence at an ethereal level. In one of the accounts, the paint was to be mixed at full moon. Well, there we go, we can easily enough replicate this: get some reddish clay from a river bed, mix it with bovine dripping in a pot at full moon, and then use this to paint a rock art image of an eland. Or a bull.  

That is what I have done here, and on this occasion I decided to make it an eland. For the reddish brown, I and my daughters collected soft red-brown pebbles from the bed of the little river that runs through Stoney Littleton, south of Bath (as shown in the video above).

The Eland leads to the creation of the other animals – An Ecological Metaphor        

In the version of the myth where the first eland’s blood and fat are used to make a mixture from which an eland herd is made, the first attempts to remake the eland didn’t go according to plan, but did result in the creation of other animals. Since other versions of this myth are cosmogonic in scope (leading, for example, to the creation of the Moon), we may see in this a certain similarity to the widespread Proto-Indo-European myth of the creation of the World and the animals from the bodily substance of the first bovine. These stories have the theme of the animal being the first sacrifice and providing the first meat, as with the eland. (I explore this myth here in the context of the bison as a keystone species and looking at the possibility that in its early origins this was a myth of the cave painters who used paint containing the fat of the bison when creating the animals through their rock art.)  

A late example of the latter is the Mithraic myth. Mithras captured a live bull, took it back alive to his cave where he killed it, and had a feast with the Sun God while seated on the hide of the animal and the blood and other bodily substances from the bull brought the world to life, creating and vivifying the plants and animals. The Mithraeum temples were rooms used by Mithraic initiates that were seen as being the cave of Mithras, and an image on the wall of these known as the Tauroctony showed the world-creating sacrifice of the first bull and the other animals and plants that came into being as a result. As it happens, there are San ethnographic accounts that are quite similar. For example, there was a rite during which an eland was driven back alive to a cave, sacrificed, and then its blood and fat and other ingredients were used to make a paint, and this was used both for body decoration and to create rock art on the walls of the cave. Another San tradition relating to a rite where an eland was hunted ended with a meal of eland broth while sitting on the hide of the slaughtered animal – another curious Mithraic parallel.  

Whatever the reason for these parallels, I think that both the Indo-European and the San rituals and myths derive from the same thing: the fat of the animal in question (whether eland or bull) was used to create a paint, and then images of other animals were made using this paint. Correspondingly, they conceived of other animals as having been painted into being by the creator in the same way using the substances of the eland or bull as the case may be. In Australia there is a myth where sacred red paint was to be made by mixing red ochre – perceived of as blood spilled in the Dreamtime – together with the fat of a sacrificed emu, so that’s another example. The Sandawe people in Africa also have rituals connecting the sacrifice of a cow with the creation of the first people and animals at the site of a rock shelter by means of rock art and the use of the sacrificed animal’s fat together with ochre to make paint.  

And from this we can also derive an ecological metaphor. Just as the creation of the eland leads to the creation of other animals in myth, the reintroduction of the eland leads to increases in biodiversity in nature: the creation of other animals. 

Hunting as part of the order established in the Early Time – and the ecological parallel 

Another characteristic of totemists, according to Tim Ingold, is that they have a particular way of looking at hunting. The right kind of hunting is seen as part of the right way of living on the land in accordance with ancient ancestral precedent, as established by the formative events of the very early time. This has resonances with ecology and the idea of how apex predators are needed for balanced ecosystems. Some kind of hunting needs to be going on in natural ecosystems for balance to be maintained, otherwise you get trophic cascades leading to a great loss of biodiversity. In southern Africa, humans and animals evolved alongside each other. In other words, there was a time during which human hunter gatherers were actually a part of the ecosystem of this area. And sure enough in this San myth there is a strong element of this totemic attitude to hunting as something which was established back in the early, formative period. In the myth, according to an ethnographic account, it is explicitly said that when the creator created the first eland herd, this was when meat was first given to people and when the nature of hunting was established. There is also a strong theme that hunting should be done in the right way, as established during these events. This is the classic totemic view of hunting. 

So far then we’ve seen eland as ecosystem engineers, being reintroduced to “rewild” (in the paradoxical sense of “naturally manage”) the bush, restoring biodiversity, with ecological concepts also reflected in San myth; we’ve also seen how the eland is a totemic animal for the San and how the traditions relating to it involve the re-enactment of its creation in rock art. Next we’ll look at how the culture centred on the eland also relates to a way of periodically rewilding and then re-civilising ourselves for the purposes of psychological hygiene and, in that sense, revivifying our world. 

Not too easy to hunt – maintaining the balance 

There’s a further aspect to the San eland myth which is not merely something that we can make work as an ecological metaphor, but which seems to have been connected with the idea of preserving natural resources by the San themselves. When the creator made the first herd of eland, he made them huntable but not too huntable. They would be difficult to hunt, and hunters would need to become footsore in the process. He did this when he saw how hunters broke the rules and hunted the first eland when it was still small and was asleep. In yet another version of the San eland myth, this creator is concerned with taking away a hunter’s leather shoe. This, I think, may be connected to the same idea: when he originally designed the eland, it would be hard to hunt because hunters would become footsore while chasing it. But when hunters found out how to take the eland’s leather and make it into shoes to protect their feet, suddenly they could hunt without becoming footsore. In the myth it sounds like eland were made hard to hunt as a punishment for something that occurred long ago, but I think we ought to understand that the relevance is ongoing and it is not so much an ancient punishment as a continuing counterbalance to hunting intent; the anthropologist Ansie Hoff has written a paper exploring evidence that San culture included the concept of guardians of nature, with the eland creator being one of them. So it seems quite likely that the San themselves had a concept of natural balance, whereby eland were supposed to be hunted, but not too much.    

“Rewilding” Yourself…temporarily: Cyclical, Periodic Return to First Creation  

One or two anthropologists have suggested that the San ontology (the entirety of their way of being in the World, comprising beliefs, mindsets, attitudes, culture, mythology and so on) is a type of animism. Animists don’t see hunting so much in terms of a right order established by tradition originating in a far off time of origins, but rather see it as something that must be done in order for life force to be circulated from creature to creature, and which should be negotiated in the realm of spirits. Other animals are seen as being like people in their spiritual interior, which is why shamans can negotiate with them. The argument is that the San have stories where animals are like people, so they must believe animals are people on the inside. But it’s a faulty argument. 

As I’ve said, the San view of hunting is totemic (which contraindicates animism), and these tales are more like the stories of totemic peoples, because the animals that walk and talk are limited to an early period, a time of origins, and indeed many of the stories explicitly explain – and indeed take as their main theme – the changes that occurred that led to current animals no longer being like people, and people no longer being like animals.  

The San do make a point of returning to First Creation (the time of eland-headed humans before the creation of the first game animals) but not as part of everyday experience, but rather as something that is done as a counterbalance to everyday experience. So the blurring of animal boundaries is not a feature of San ontology, not a feature of their all encompassing view of the world including everyday experience, but a feature of, specifically, shamanic experience, and an indication of what their everyday experience is not. As the Jo’hoansi elders informed the anthropologists Hilary and Brad Keeney, in order to heal, it is necessary to periodically return to and then return from First Creation. One of the main ways this is done is through the trance dance, and as the Keeneys point out, this is about a change of mental state.  

In the !Kung mythology, during First Creation, things did not have names. It was when names were given to things that they assumed fixed forms. During the trance dance – and this is not trance in the sense of a totally hypnotised state, but rather a shift to a somewhat altered state of consciousness where there is full awareness – during this dance, the trance quietens the part of the mind that is constantly constructing narratives that define the present moment through limitations and fixed natures. Hunting anxiety is based on the idea that there are things called hunters that want but don’t have eland, and things called eland that are separate from them. All that tension dissolves into euphoric elation when the sense of hunter and eland being sperate fades away. The sense of chronological time goes away, as you’ve returned to a former period when the desired and the desirer had not yet been separated: people were half eland. According to the !Kung, this return happens when blood is released and lands on the ground. This can be the sense of relief when hunting anxiety releases, because the eland has been shot and its blood spilled. Or it can be the sense of tension lifting when premenstrual tension ends as a women’s period starts: when she bleeds, she is said to have shot an eland, these two types of release being equated with each other. Blood-like red ochre paint is associated with menstrual blood by the San, as we can see from its use in rites related to women starting their periods. So the eland was made from red mud, and then when it is hunted its blood spills by on the ground, staining it red, as if making ochre (red mud), and then ochre was used in paint to create eland through rock art images of the animal, replicating the original creation of the eland; I call this the totemic circle of creation, as opposed to the animist’s circle of life.  

Although a return to First Creation is needed for healing to take place, the aim is not to stay in First Creation, however; the idea of getting stuck there is explicitly warned against by the San elders. Following the return to First Creation, there should be a return back to Second Creation, whereby humans become modern humans, civilised and polite and mannered.  

For insight into why they need periodic returns to First Creation as a counterbalance to their everyday life, it’s important to understand that San society is, in a certain sense, very civilised, more so than the societies of many ‘developed’ cultures. The sense in question is that of manners. The San avoid direct social conflict at all costs, as Elizabeth Thomas Marshall learnt from living with them. This is not so surprising when you consider that hunter gatherer bands are small, tightly knit communities where it is essential that people get on with each other. As such, they’re not so different from the people who live on small, crowded islands such as the British and Japanese, who have similarly found that life works better if you live according to manners rather than direct expressions of emotion. But wait, before this sounds repressive, you need to remember that flip side: the return to first creation via the dance. The Early Race of First Creation were not mannered and polite, they didn’t have customs nor human things like clothes, but they did have euphoric potency. By returning to First Creation periodically, cyclically, San communities are able to resolve and release all those tensions that naturally build up when you don’t express your emotions directly to the people around you. And I think that, pragmatically, realistically, this is the best way forward for human societies. Some degree of emotional authenticity should be in there too in our dealings with others, of course, but polite manners counterbalanced by controlled cathartic release has to be the foundation. If you think that sounds Victorian, I would say: how often did the Victorians get involved in trance dancing?      

This is why I think books about “Rewilding Yourself” are lacking in nuance. As well as rewilding yourself, it remains essential I think that you also Re-civilise Yourself. Art ‘n’ culture and all that. What’s important is that you do both as part of a healthy cycle. 

The Moon is a useful reminder for this, particularly for men. Women, prior to the menopause, have their monthly cycles, which are a constant reminder that tensions build up and then release. But they also build up for men, as a result of the need to be polite. Remember how the paint for painting the eland was mixed at full moon. Imagine a cycle where each lunar month we unmake ourselves through the trance dance (the return to First Creation) and then make ourselves afresh, painting ourselves back into being like the painting into being of the First Eland at the moment of Second Creation that inaugurates the arrival of civilised human culture.   

All humans, I believe, have the latent ability to enter trance through music. People in different cultures find it works best with different types of music. Personally, I use the genre of electronic music known as Uplifting Trance. I find this very effective. Here’s a playlist with some beautiful music of this type. Trance-dance is not an ego-destroying psychedelic experience. It’s pleasant and you’re full aware and you can end it at any time, but you can definitely feel that narrative-constructing part of your mind quieten down, and it does indeed feel like returning to “pre-temporal time”, and you can feel rushes of liberating euphoria as you stop constructing limiting self-images. It is a joyous way to release many social tensions, and then when it’s over you feel a renewed interest into returning to the world of human culture and the everyday.  

Making Art in a Flow State 

For the San, rock art images of are reservoirs of potency that can help with future trances – you place your hand back on the image and allow that potency to help you deepen your trance. Certainly, I have found that when focussed on creating a piece of rock art, I can get very into the zone. Everything else falls away and it’s just me and the rock and the emerging image, and it feels good. So it’s a type of trance and it’s a type of meditation. And I’ve noticed that the image then becomes a reminder of the state you achieved while creating it. One thing that can detract from this a bit is when I film myself painting in order to be able to put the videos up on this site! So with this one, I made the focus of the video the collecting of the red-brown stones and the grinding and mixing of the paint, with just a few stills of the painting process at various stages, so I could focus on ‘raising eland potency’ while painting. The part of me with metaphysical leaning likes to believe that the passionate flow state of the artist could even be picked up transpersonally by sensing morphic fields, and I think any artist with a bit of romanticism in their heart should on some level have this same belief. It’s the escape route from the traps of twentieth century art where all art can do is “make you think”.  

All this has lead me to an image of what for me could be, in the ideal, a lunar cycle. Prior to full moon, you go out and get some Earth pigment from the landscape. Another thing you do before full moon is choose the rock canvas and draw the outline of your painting. Around full moon, you mix your paints. Also around this time you ideally have a trance dance experience, allowing the tension between your self-image and what you want to dissolve. During or shortly after this, you mix the paints further, and you imagine the energy of the elated resolution and liberation you achieved in the trance being infused into the paint. You then apply a little of this to your skin, taking that energy within yourself and letting it infuse into your refreshed self-image, so the new quality becomes a part of you, so that now you feel more able to have the thing you want. You also use your paint around this time to create some rock art, getting into the zone and using it as a mindful meditation to add further potencies to the paint and to the image. This rock art then becomes a kind of talisman, reminding you of that energy that is now a part of you. This is an ideal, as I say. How far it is possible in any given month to have that all go swimmingly is, perhaps, another matter, but all the same it’s good to have something to aim for.  

So there we go. Rewild Yourself by means of the trance dance, throwing off the shackles of modern manners, and then return refreshed, willing and ready to embrace civility once again with renewed enthusiasm.  

If you’re interested in a way to have effective trance dance experiences (without drugs) but just using your body’s own endorphins (“getting high on your own supply”) plus maybe a little caffeine, check out my other blog site, The Confessions of a Hungry Dawn RaverFor an overview, see for example this page.

Dry powder fresco method for making a hand stencil : Testing a hypothesis

The Australian myth of Wodoi centers on the use of two sacred paints, one made from red ochre and the other from white clay with honey. In a certain style of Australian art, a white base layer is applied, and red figures are placed on top. As paint made with honey is slow drying and sticky, it struck me that dry ochre powder could simply be blown onto it and it would stick, and this might produce the feathered effect around hand stencils we see in rock art, without the need to put the paint in your mouth and spit it out, or make a spraying contraption.

So I decided to test it out. Here’s the vid.

The result is not bad, but a word of warning: I made a right mess and it took a while to clear up!

Rock art for rewilding

We’re experiencing a change in our values. We’re becoming more acutely aware of the importance and value of biodiversity and sustainability. Self-sustaining ecosystems with high biodiversity are recognised now as an important feature of our landscapes. This shift in what we value is a vital part of the equation because we tend to create more of what we value. Art can play an important role in shaping and amplifying our value systems. Art can tap into and spread these feelings value, and then life imitates art. This is an example of how culture and nature are connected.

While now we know and feel that the world would be better if we restored ecosystems to high function with more biodiversity and sustainability, at the same time many people have a cultural resistance to the thought of changing the nature of parts of the countryside on their doorstep, even if that countryside has become a degraded, monocrop desert. They fear of a loss of cultural heritage, and so when it comes to actually making the changes, they suddenly get cold feet and worry that allowing a few wilded spaces in their local area would be somehow erode the cultural richness embedded in the familiar countryside. Art is needed to fill the gap, allowing people to see that culture remains very much a part of the picture.

This is where I think the cave painter culture is so valuable. We have within our human heritage a culture – or collection of cultures – that fit into a wilded world, cultures where people were happy to be one with nature. That’s why I’m looking to pick up the thread of this ancient tradition. For tens of thousands of years the rock art traditions were passed on from generation to generation. Then the shock onset of the Younger Dryas mini-ice age seems to have brought about its end in many parts of the world. But it’s only an end if we choose to frame it that way. I prefer to see it as just a lacuna, a temporary hiatus. We can pick up where we left off. It was a rich and vibrant tradition and the people who passed it on weren’t sub-human cavemen; they were anatomically modern humans, like us. Like the worlds of other indigenous people, the world of the cave painters had value and it has value still and it deserves to be remembered. It was really that culture that was lost, and we, the descendants of the cave painters, are the ones who are impoverished by the loss.

While some of us might have trouble with the idea that rock art directly increases the abundance of nature through some kind of metaphysical action or sympathetic magic that the cave painters may have believed in, we are more comfortable with the idea that art can change attitudes and that changed attitudes can lead to changed behaviours and decisions. Art can be an expression of the desire for a wilded world, and it can be, in a more modern sense, an artistic statement, and perhaps in some small way, it can contribute to a change of attitude to one where we’re more comfortable with wilding our world, and feeling that culture can be a part of nature. As an expression of care and labour of love, works of art can be repositories of value, indicating what we treasure and showcasing those appreciative feelings so they can catch on and be amplified. This is why they can help communities embrace rewilding and reintroductions of keystone species in a more positive, enthusiastic way. Art can be the lens through which rewilding brings positive feelings to communities. I’d like to see rewilded spaces that are also galleries of rock art, so that these are spaces where nature and culture interact and allow humans to feel engaged with and part of those natural spaces.

That’s why I’ve chosen to make my current series of rock art creations a set of images of some of those keystone species, each one being an ecosystem engineer that helps to balance out other forces and create habitats where many other species thrive. These are my Keystone Creations paintings, expressing my yearning for a rewilding of the countryside. All are made from homemade earth pigment paints, and painted onto rock surfaces.

To be honest, I don’t think rewilding is the best term, in as much as wild tends to be seen as one half of a polarised duality. It has an opposite: tame. But tame is a relative term. It just means subject to the will of humans. Humans are wild with respect to, say squirrels, because we’re not subject to their will. Meanwhile, an animal that is wild to us might be tame in the way it relates to its own kind, like, say, a wolf that’s part of a pack, an elephant that’s part of a herd, and so on. We tend to see things in anthropocentric ways. And calling a natural landscape “undeveloped”, ignores the enormous complexity of the natural systems that have developed there.

There’s also an implication that “wild” is the opposite of “civilised”. I do use the name Rewilding, as it would be churlish not to, but it does grate slightly against the vision I have of culture and nature working together, and of living in harmony with nature as a criteria of what it really means to be civilised. By allowing the return of appropriate numbers of large herbivores – an important part of rewilding – corridors through the woods are opened up, for the benefit of many other animals. This has more in common with the road-building projects of civilisation than it does with things going wild. Plants are trimmed by grazing and browsing, becoming less leggy and kept in better balance with each other rather than trying to crowd each other out. You could justifiably call this process “Retaming”. And with keystone species acting as ecosystem engineers, they achieve a type of cultivation of the natural world that would not take places without them, and the word “cultivate” is connected in etymology an meaning to “culture”. What I’d like to see is a blossoming of culture and of nature. But “Rewilding” it is. So be it. 

Speaking of nature and cultural being integrated and complementary, one of the things I’ll be exploring in my Keystone Creation posts is a particular rock art culture – that of Australia – which provides scope for cultural concepts that harmonise well with ecology, taking the idea of the order that emerged in the Dreamtime as a metaphor for the balanced ecosystems that emerged in evolutionary time, and viewing the concept of the totemic Dreamtime beings who became one with the land as a metaphor for those keystone species that became part of ecological landscapes, and taking the ongoing invocation of Dreamtime essence through rock art creation as an equivalent to my own project of Rock Art for Rewilding.

Stay natural.

Landscape Creature Feature: The Lion Mountain of Provence

Some background to the below video

Before we get to my video on the lion mountain, a bit of background. I like nature, and I like culture, and I think they’ve got a lot in common, and that they are also deeply intertwined. Because life imitates art, art can affect our attitudes to nature by reshaping the aesthetic. So, for example, art could champion the idea that all that really matters is human made stuff, while the other creations that go on out in nature are unimportant. Not a fan. Or it could take attitudes to nature that say that a field of sheep with a tightly cropped monocrop of grass and low biodiversity is the way to go. Again, not my bag. Or it could show a stag in a treeless Scottish highland landscape as if this is how nature should be. Once again, rewilders beg to differ. What if the aesthetic that art chose to showcase was based on concepts like sustainability and biodiversity, natural processes and intact ecosystems? This is why at the moment I’m very into the idea of a particular metaphor that I think harmonises culture and nature.

Dreamtime Landscape as Ecological Landscape

The indigenous hunter gatherer culture of Australia gives us the concept of the Dreamtime. Long ago, great animal beings emerged out of the dreaming, mysterious formlessness and shaped the landscape, and in doing so they established an order, and ways of doing things, and filled the world with a potent creativity that ensures that the landscape continues to be abundant. These animal beings became part of the landscape, their bodies becoming hills, rocks and mountains. However, if those landscape feature creatures were to be forgotten about and the patterns of activity they established were no longer followed, if people no longer continued to live on the land in the way that was established in the Dreamtime, the life giving potency of those Dreamtime beings would fade away and nature would cease to be so abundantly productive.

Now consider this as an ecological metaphor: long ago, ecosystem engineer animals evolved into being in deep evolutionary time and shaped the ecological landscape, and in doing so they established an order, because other animals evolved to fit around the impacts of these animals, inhabiting the niches that they created. As these impacts and niches remained constant over long periods of time, nature evolved to fill them to the fill, and a balance was established: a healthy ecosystem. So these ecosystem engineers have become features of the ecological landscape. However, if those ecosystem engineers, those keystone species, were to be lost from the system, balance would be lost and there would be a severe downgrading of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning.

In Aboriginal culture, it is seen as important to maintain the rock art that anchors the potency of the Dreamtime animal beings into the landscape. Well, going back to the idea that life imitates art and art shapes attitudes via the aesthetic, I think there is something in this, and that is what Rock Art 4 Rewilding is all about: the rock slab canvas is the landscape and the Earth pigment images of keystone creature is an affirmation of the importance of placing those animals back in our landscapes. I haven’t done my big cat painting yet, but it is in my to do list. (It will be a lynx – watch this space.) But I thought my video below on the Lion Mountain of Provence would be something to be going on with.

Apex Predators as Keystone Species

The importance of predators in maintaining the balance of an established ecosystem was first discovered by modern science in the case of rock pools, where the removal of the top predator – the starfish – lead to a complete collapse of the system, with a total loss of diversity, and only one species – the mussel – remaining. If you’re at all familiar with the topics of rewilding and trophic cascades, you’ll probably be familiar with the more well-known story of the wolves of Yellowstone in the US. Wolves were eradicated, and it had a massive effect on the place. Numbers of deer (known as elk in the US) went up, and they also moved around less and spent time in places that previously they had avoided out of fear of wolves. Coyotes became the apex predator, but their prey was smaller, so levels of smaller mammals dropped. The deer overgrazed, reducing the number of trees. The beavers who ate these trees had less food and less material for their dams and shelters, and their numbers dropped. Without the cohesive effect of tree roots, there was much erosion of river banks and the courses of rivers were changed, becoming less meandering, and less conducive to wildlife. The numbers of fish, insects, songbirds and amphibians also dropped. Species that were used to scavenging on wolf kills also suffered, such as bears, eagles and ravens.

A decision was made to reintroduce wolves, and everything I just mentioned was reversed. That the wolf creates the right kind of order and even, indirectly, changes the course of rivers, makes it seem just like one of those Australian Dreamtime totems that emerged in deep time and created the landscape and instituted the right way to live on the land.

The Lion Mountain

In the ecosystem of the African savannah, the role of apex predator is played by a collective of animals that include big cats like leopards and lions, as well as wild dogs and hyenas. And when it comes to the large African buffalo, it is only really the lion that can take them down. In some areas, buffalo are lions’ primary prey. Lions therefore play an important role, creating the necessary “landscape of fear” that keeps the heavy, hungry buffalo moving around. As a keystone species, lions are a feature of the ecological landscape. And that, at last, gets the background out of the way, so here’s the video:

Brightest homemade red so far – and making a start on my Herbivore Guild painting

I’ve made a number of “red” paints from Earth pigments over the last couple of years, but in the past if I ever wanted to use a really bright red, I used red ochre powder purchased online, for example from the South of France. Secretly, I was envious and wanted to be able to make a really bright red myself.

Well, yesterday evening I finally had success. This red is the brightest of the bright!

I sourced the pigment a couple of weeks back from a beach in Dorset. The cliff at this spot has bright yellow and red sandstones, and from this cliff many boulders have fallen onto the beach. It was from one of these boulders that I obtained my material – rather than affecting the structural integrity of the cliff.

I didn’t want sand grains in my paint, for obvious reasons, so I used the decanting method, as shown in the video. Before decanting, I boiled the sand for a while – I wonder if this had anything to do with the success?

To test it out, I tried it on a rock by starting to paint the red deer in my next rock art piece: Herbivore Guild : Diversity creates Diversity.

More to follow regarding that piece.

I also obtained some yellow sandstone from the same beach, so I’ll be making some yellow paint soon; again I’m hoping to rival the brightness of the yellow ochre I’ve purchased form the south of France.

Watch this space and stay natural.

The Importance of the Ground

There’s something pleasing about rock art. Natural rock provides an interesting surface with quirks and irregularities – landmarks – as any landscape should, rather than the boring uniformity of a piece of paper. There are a lot of YouTube videos showing how to make paleo paints with Earth pigments, which I’m all for, but on the rare occasions when they show them being used to create art, they always seem to be used on watercolour paper. I can’t understand this at all. For me making paleo-paints is about opening a dialogue with our inner paleo hunter gatherer rock artist or cave painter, a part of us that feels more connected with nature and is ready to embrace a rewilded world. In hunter gatherer ways of being in the world, culture and nature weren’t disconnected into separate realms; engaging with the rock surface in this way was a direct interaction with the natural world.

So, for me, for the paleo experience, it shouldn’t be on paper with a painted background representing the ground. It should be on rock – the ground itself. With my monitor lizard here, this is particularly apt, as lizards do hang around on rocks in the sun.

In short, if it ain’t on a rock, it ain’t rock art.

When making rock art, you get the earthy feel of the materials of this particular kind of art combined with the mindful flow state you can get when making any kind of art that requires care and concentration, as well as a sense of connecting up to a very rich tradition.

This type of art was practised across the world by hunter gatherer peoples for thousands of years, so you can get a sense of going back to a time before the hustle and bustle of the modern world, and linking back up to a noble ancient tradition from a period when humans felt themselves to be more fully a part of nature. Because they didn’t see human art on the one hand and the world of nature on the other as being entirely hermetically sealed off into separate realms, but instead felt them to be magically intertwined, their art was part of a different way of being in the world, a different ontology. Rather than creating art on paper within an image that has an artificial ground representing the landscape, the rock itself was the landscape, and so the art was a direct engagement with that landscape. So painting an animal on the rock was a process of putting an animal onto the land, and as such it was like a re-enactment of the mythic creation of that animal in the time of origins, which gives it a numinosity, yet because you’re engaging directly with the real ground, it also feels grounding.