Thursday 26 January 2012

Can you catch a nightmare?

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?    


Zoë said...

Strange that you are thinking this way - I have been reading Joanne Harris's most recent books, Runemark, and Runelite, and having some very vivid dreams as result. She has the world being broken down into many worlds much like you do in Walker, she has 9, and one of them is Dream. Dream is a river that ebbs and flows, floods and invades people's mind.

Your creatures are Taz of Disney? Maybe Warner brother fame? The Tasmanian Devil as he was called. More Wolf-like creatures - there must be significance. I had wolves in my dreams last night too, but pretty sure my ones were prempted by the characher Skandi, who has one of her Aspects as a Wolf.

I am sure we are all connected - God is in all of us, so wouldnt it be natural for your son to pick up on your thoughts? We know children do feed off our emotions and behave accordingly, so why not our dreams which often influence us anyway?

Yes I am a complete crackpot!

Tattieweasle said...

My eldest picks up on my moods but I have never thought if he picks up on my thoughts - heaven help him if he does!

Rob-bear said...

Tasmanian Tigers survive on the labels on bottles of Cascade Light, and Australian (Tasmanian) brew. Doubt James would have seen one, though with Adrian around, one never knows.

Perhaps the best way to catch a night mare is with a sturdy rope and good roping technique. Riding a horse is part of the process.

I have my own nightmares. I have no idea what to do with/about them.

JOHN SHORTLAND, Cotswold Hills, England. said...

Thanks Jane for your commenton my blog - almond croissants take a lot of beating!

On Exmoor, always stay at the Blue Ball Inn at Countisbury (links on my blog). Have known it since I first came down here as a lad in 1968 so know the moor like the proverbial back of hand. Always include a trip to Dulverton too - especially now when the churchyard is just a sheet of purple crocus. They'll be over by the time I get down but the primroses won't be .... Can't wait.

Always pleased to hear of good places to eat!


Anonymous said...

The day before yesterday, Philip had asked me: 'What's "torbacz" in Englandish?'

Frances said...

Jane, it was a just a day or two ago that some colleagues in the shop were talking about some movie/tv show, don't know what it was, but I just told them to keep the volume down because I did not want that story in my land of nod.

Good news is that I cannot now remember what it was that they were talking about. I hope that I won't remember the picture in this post of yours.

Fear not. I sleep soundly and my dreams are secrets even from me.


Kelly Byrne said...

this is one gnarly painting for sure and i'm surprised it didn't give YOU nightmares.

i do believe in the transfer of energy and thoughts and all that sort of metaphysical stuff smart people talk about. how can it not happen when you think about it.

i haven't been struck lately by any one image, but these beasts remind me of the mythical (or realical) chupacabra and they seem to share many characteristics as well except the chupa's meal of choice is the goat (or blood of choice i should say). scary villain type animals all, it seems.

another great post, jane. keeps me thinkin'. hopefully it won't keep me thinking right into a nightmare tonight. ;)

Ashen said...

It's natural, yet shocks us to realise what we are impressed by should be picked up by those close to us. The image sheds light on the destructive forces in the collective psyche, the chaos of change we experience now, where conflicts are acted out all around us. A nightmare like this offers the chance to face and accept the agonising contradictions (like a crucifixion of the image we have of ourselves) as a process and resist the good versus evil polarisation. That's how I see it.

Saucy Siciliana said...

Images of people and traffic...Rome is chaotic! I found you on Twitter, I am Francesca Edesia, following you there and here.

F said...

That's a fantastic painting, Jane. Thanks for sharing.

My images lately are stark, black and white, empty places, decaying and desolate.

Between all the unconscious information and signals we pick up and process and call intuition or instinct or hunches, and the shifting sea of memes and folkways and pop culture that makes up our collective unconscious, I don't see why you can't catch a nightmare.