Every so often an image stops me in my tracks. A few weeks back a friend gave me a pile of old magazines. A few days ago I was flicking through one and this image just smacked me in the face.
It’s huge apparently – 8ft by 11ft – a watercolour entitled The Island by the American painter Walton Ford. No, he’s not some nineteenth century botanist – the painting is recent – 2009.
I just keep staring at it. At this seething writhing knot of creatures. It’s painfully graphic – the thylacines (as I found out they were) are ripping and biting, not only the lambs but one another. And yet somehow it’s not a frenzy. The lambs seem resigned somehow; the thylacines equally uninvolved somehow. And, aside from one creature in the background, the predators are not eating their prey. In fact, one lamb floats, forgotten in the water, as the two nearest thylacines sink their teeth into one another. So it is not hunger? They bite out of habit; out of boredom; out of nature; from enforced captivity? Yet nobody forces them to stay - there is no enclosure, no fence. They are their own prison guards.
The more I looked, the more I saw. The one lamb, quietly swimming away, blood on its coat. The thylacine seeing it (surely?) and looking as though it will pounce. But will it, can it, leave its knot, its island of flesh?
The lamb at the top of the pile stands, almost stoically, the sacrifice, as jaws clamp around its back. Another is, somehow, miraculously, blood-free – right in the centre of the mass. It jumps. Can it escape? Or will it land straight in the maw of the spectator creature, shoulder-deep in the water. The water is curiously calm, blue-green, not stained with blood and gore.
What does it mean? I’m still thinking about what it means to me – which is, ultimately, the bottom line, eh?
The artist called it ‘a sort of fever dream’ and questioned the role of predator and prey. For, see, the thylacine was also called the Tasmanian Wolf or Tiger yet it was neither wolf nor tiger but actually a marsupial (yes, a cousin to kangaroo and wallaby). It was native to Australia and New Guinea and, over several million years apparently it evolved itself into a mean-ass predator, an antipodean velociraptor. It was extincted (yeah I know it’s not really a verb but why not?) on the mainland way back but the thyracine survived on Tasmania until the early twentieth century. As Walton Ford said, in an interview in the New Yorker:
‘The animal scared the hell out of the settlers. It looked like a wolf but with stripes, like a tiger, and they could get up on their hind legs, which made them even scarier. The settlers were sheepherders, and they built up this myth of a huge bipedal nocturnal vampire beast that sucked the blood of sheep. The settlers put a bounty on these animals and began killing them off in every possible way – poison, traps, snares, guns. The last known one died in captivity in the nineteen-thirties, but they lived on in people’s imagination.’
They do. They certainly live on in my imagination. And maybe in others too. This morning, at 5am, I was woken suddenly from a dream by a piercing scream. James.
‘I had a nightmare,’ he said.
‘Tell me,’ I said.
‘There was this creature. Like a wolf or a dog but it stood on its hind legs. There was a light over its head. It was coming for me.’
Had he seen the image? Yet how would he know the thylacine could stand on its hind legs? There was no mention of that in the magazine. Had he read anything about werewolves or anything lately? No, he insisted (and it’s true, he avoids that kind of thing like the plague).
Maybe it was another beast? I’ve been reading lately about familiars, about creatures that can do the bidding of their masters and mistresses. About one, in particular, from Scotland, that appeared like a wolf, standing on two legs, rapacious, blood-thirsty. And I wondered, given we are all connected by subtle energy, can you catch a nightmare? Can you pick up a thought-form, a beast, a fetch, a familiar, by telepathic connection. Had the visions in my head seeped into James’? Yes, that sounds far-fetched (sorry for the pun) but is it, really?
We are careful about what our children read and watch but should we also be careful about our own thoughts and feelings? I do believe that moods can be contagious (if you don't know how to protect yourself from them), that we can (whether consciously or unconsciously) project feelings onto others. Children are particularly impressionable. Sobering thought, huh?
Anyhow, what images have jumped at you lately?