Monthly Archives: December 2019


Some of my most off-the-wall thinking happens as I’m waking up. A few days ago Therianthropes guard the bridge between the risible and the numinous bubbled to the surface and I managed to write it down before it went off into the stratosphere. This morning it occurred to me that there was a map to be drawn of the territory of the Risible and the Numinous, on either side of the Ot River (think: Buda and Pest…), having squares and streets and buildings associated with people and movements. The Surrealists surely inhabit the land of the Risible; William Blake and Emanuel Swedenborg and Charles Peirce hang out in Numinous territory, along with Leonardo and Michelangelo (despite the questionable proclivities of the latter pair). Most Cubists are denizens of Risible (though Picasso has moved back and forth), and cartoonists like Robert Crumb and Kliban and Gahan Wilson are to be found in especially disreputable parts of Risible territory, where the tattoo parlors are and punk musicians hang. Some of my photographs definitely belong in one or the other:

3ii1812crop 1i1872adj
are obviously Risible, and

6xi1812 Wass066trac
might make it to Numinous. And what of
(the lattermost from Roger Caillois’ collection)?

I think these might be guardian therianthropes on the bridge:

Saltus beach hands up

So I’m starting to gather up waypoints and toponyms for this possible map, along the lines of (but of course less glorious than) maps of Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork:

Roger Caillois

I never know where my reading will take me next. Today I was investigating the intersection of Pareidolia, Apophenia, and Mimesis (looking for a better handle on creatures seen in rocks and wood and ice) and stumbled upon the work of Roger Caillois (1913-1978), a sometime Surrealist, sociologist, philosopher and collector of rocks. The term “lithic scrying” appears in several descriptions of his activities.

In his classic work of lithic scrying, The Writing of Stones, Roger Caillois suggests that the pareidoliac’s interpretation of a stone’s pattern depends upon her own personal internalized database of stored images, a database defined by the cultural stock of mediated imagery forged and embellished by personal memory, emotion and psychical topography. For Caillois, “the vision the eye records is always impoverished and uncertain. Imagination fills it with the treasures of memory and knowledge.”

–Paul Prudence (

Caillois’ The Writing of Stones (1985) is out of print and costs a LOT. Part of his collection of rock specimens was exhibited at the 2013 Venice Biennale, and they are bewitching:

Caillois was also drawn to the ways in which stones seemed to provoke an imaginative response in humans which in some way made them difficult to conform to strict systems of classification. Caillois’ writings on stone are nourished by the lyrical tendencies of natural histories which reflect the wonder and confusion of classical and early modern scholars in the face of the hallucinatory pictographic forms of stones and their convergence of the brutal, energetic laws of nature with the play of chance. Throughout Stones, Caillois reveals his love of these kinds of paradoxes, defining stones as a ubiquitous and yet utterly marvelous phenomena. He explores how, through history, stones have fascinated human minds with their host of ambiguities, seeming at once animate and inanimate, organic and inorganic, mineral and vegetal, useful and useless, the stuff of poetic reverie and cultural symbolism as well as raw material, the access to which marks the technological advance of human civilization. Stones for Caillois are both an ancient source of human ingenuity and unchained imagination, both finalized by accident during some inhumanly distant epoch and forged according to certain inflexible laws of nature.

–Donna Roberts, An Introduction to Caillois’ Stones & Other Texts

Caillois himself, from The Writing of Stones:

Stones possess a kind of gravitas, something ultimate and unchanging, something that will never perish or else has already done so. They attract through intrinsic, infallible, immediate beauty, answerable or no one, necessarily perfect yet excluding the idea of perfection in order to exclude approximation, error, and excess. This spontaneous beauty thus precedes and goes beyond the actual notion of beauty, of which it is at once the promise and the foundation

Just as men have always sought after precious stones, so they have always prized curious ones, those that catch the attention through some anomaly of form, some suggestive oddity of color or pattern. Stones possess a kind of gravitas, something ultimate and unchanging, something that will never perish or else has already done so. They act through an intrinsic, infallible, immediate beauty, answerable to no one, necessarily perfect yet excluding the idea of perfection in order to exclude approximation, error, and excess. This spontaneous beauty thus precedes and goes beyond the actual notion of beauty, of which it is at once the promise and the foundation.

The vision the eye records is always impoverished and uncertain. Imagination fills it out with the treasures of memory and knowledge with all that is put at its disposal by experience, culture and history, not to mention what the imagination itself may, if necessary, invent or dream. So the imagination is never at a loss when it comes to making something rich and compelling out of a subject that might almost seem an absence of all life and significance. »

A stone represents obvious achievement yet one arrived at without invention, skill or industry, or anything else that would make it a work in the human sense of the word, much less a work of art. The work comes later, as does art, but the far-off roots and hidden models of both lie in the obscure yet irresistible suggestions in nature. These are subtle and ambiguous signals, reminding us, through all sorts of filters and obstacles, that there must be a pre-existing general beauty vaster than that perceived by human intuition, a beauty in which man delights and which, in his turn, he is proud to create. Stones – as well as roots, shells and wings and every other cipher and construction in nature – help to give us an idea of the proportions and laws of that general beauty about which we can only conjecture.

And Caillois in an article in Diogenes, Vol. 52, Issue 3:

I speak of stones that have always lain out in the open or sleep in their lair and the dark night of the seam. They hold no interest for the archaeologist, artist or diamond-cutter. No one made palaces, statues, jewels from them; or dams, ramparts, tombs. They are neither useful nor famous. They do not sparkle in any ring, any diadem. They do not publicize lists of victories, laws of Empire, carved in ineffable characters. Neither boundaries nor memorials, yet exposed to the elements, but without honour or veneration, they are witnesses only to themselves.

Architecture, sculpture, intaglio, mosaic, jewellery have made nothing of them. They belong to the planet’s beginnings, have sometimes come from another star. So they bear upon themselves the distortion of space like the stigmata of their terrible descent. They come from a time before humans; and when humans came, they did not leave on them the mark of their art or their industry. They did not work them, intending them for some trivial, luxury or historic use. They perpetuate only their own memory.

They are not carved in the effigy of anyone, man, beast or fable. The only tools they have known are those that were used to uncover them; the hammer to reveal their latent geometry, the grindstone to display their grain or awaken their dull colours. They have remained what they were, sometimes fresher, more legible, but always in their truth: themselves and nothing else.

I speak of stones that nothing has ever changed except the violence of tectonic crushing and the slow erosion that began with time, with them. I speak of gems before cutting, of nuggets before smelting, of the hard frost of crystals before the stone-cutter gets to work.

I speak of stones: algebra, vertigo and order; of stones, anthems and staggered rows, of stones, darts and corollas, dream’s margin, ferment and image; of this stone curtain of hair opaque and straight like the locks of a drowned woman, but which does not flow down any temple where in a blue canal a sap becomes more visible and more vulnerable; of these stones uncrumpled paper, incombustible and sprinkled with uncertain sparks; or the most watertight vase where there dances and finds its level again behind the only absolute walls a liquid before water, to preserve which a series of miracles was needed.

I speak of stones older than life that remain after it on cooling planets, when it was fortunate enough to unfold there. I speak of the stones that do not even have to await death…

back at Drift Inn

It’s been cold enough for ice to begin to form on the ponds at Drift Inn, so we wandered by to start the winter’s ice photography. Here’s what the venue looks like:


There are several shallow ponds, which only hold water if the ground is frozen. The ice comes and goes with freeze and thaw, and from one hour to the next offers different possibilities as the light changes and the margins expand and contract. Our approaches to the material are quite different, and we see different things: Broot settles in with her kneeling pad and works over square inches of ice from a distance of 3-4 inches, while I wander around the edges and mostly photograph features from 1-2 feet distance. She looks for abstract patterns that I simply don’t see, and I look for creatures who have chosen to manifest in the ice. Often I only discover the creatures once I’m looking at the results of the day’s shooting on the computer. Here’s a case in point, a 90 degree rotation of the image above:


I was surprised to see a face appear, and I’ve made several attempts to capture its outlines. I’m still very clumsy with the iPencil:

13xii1931asketch 13xii1931aoutline

I did manage two shots that actually seem to me to be photographs, though I haven’t yet grasped what they portray or represent (and the answer might be: nothing at all, or maybe they’re conceptual enigmas):

13xii1920 13xii1923

And here’s another, from a series of Colloquys:




(There’s a Flickr album of ice photos from the two days)

A wander on the rocky beach at Drift Inn produced this line of six or more spectators:


and two portraits:



So the winter season’s explorations at Drift Inn have begun.

sculpture, masks, therianthropy

A couple of days ago I awoke with the question of just who is responsible for the idea that a sculptor liberates a figure from within a block of stone by removing material. It turns out to be Michelangelo:

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.

(photo by Jörg Bittner Unna, Wikimedia Commons)

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

For Michelangelo, the idea was already there, inside the hunk of stone,
whether by divine providence or his own imagination.
His eyes and hands were merely the vessels by which that idea—the art—was brought forth
into the physical world as he or God (or both) originally intended.



And a few days ago I ordered Chris Rainier’s new book Mask, thinking that it would assist in threading together elements I’ve been juggling as I assemble materials for the next Blurb book. Pico Iyer’s Introduction has some very useful perspectives:

(of an owl mask he had bought in Bali) It wasn’t just a mask… It carried a whole universe, a swarm of roiling forces, within. I really couldn’t tell if the spell it cast was happy or malign… All I did know was that it belonged to the realm of the spirit, the world of transformation…

…an agent of transfiguration, which allowed whoever wore it to become something other, belonging to the sphere of angels and demons.

In Africa, I knew, different kinds of masks signified the ways in which another world could enter our own, liberating our minds from the conscious realm into something no less real but much less easily tamed.

Masks are not just a portal to another world, but a reminder of the fact that our lives are defined by amazement and terror and silence. Just to see a mask is to travel out of the everyday into another, a more secret realm.

I’m still trying to figure out in what way my life might be “defined by amazement and terror and silence”, but the rest is surely pure gold, and suggests to me some new ways to think about the rocks I’ve been photographing: they are in a sense sculptures, and they have some of the Powers that are built into masks.


A story in this morning’s New York Times, Mythical Beings May Be Earliest Imaginative Cave Art by Humans, surfaced the word Therianthrope just when I needed it:

In the story told in the scene, eight figures approach wild pigs and anoas (dwarf buffaloes native to Sulawesi). For whoever painted these figures, they represented much more than ordinary human hunters. One appears to have a large beak while another has an appendage resembling a tail. In the language of archaeology, these are therianthropes, or characters that embody a mix of human and animal characteristics.


Therianthropy is the mythological ability of human beings to metamorphose into other animals by means of shapeshifting. It is possible that cave drawings found at Les Trois Frères, in France, depict ancient beliefs in the concept. The most well known form of therianthropy is found in stories concerning werewolves.

Quite a few of my rock creatures occupy territory between human and creature, and it occurred to me that

Therianthropes guard the bridge
between the risible and the numinous

a formulation that is just too delicious as a description of part of the landscape I’m dealing with. So now I need to find some examples. And today being the first day it was cold enough for ice to form on the ponds at Drift Inn, we went to see if there were photographs to be made. Indeed:




and one from the recent Nova Scotia trip:

hands up

I won’t attempt to calculate the risibility and numinosity quotients of these, and only the lattermost seems to rise to the level of full-on therianthropy (and it’s probably a dryad anyway).

Redoing the Imam

As I begin to lay out the next Blurb book, I’m retracing the steps of my burgeoning engagement with persons and creatures in rock. It seems that it was more than five years ago (in March 2014) that I discovered the 12th Imam (who went into Occultation in 874 CE) on a stretch of beach rock:

12th Imam as first discovered
I made a mirrored image of himself and his chiral twin, heads resting in the lap of a goddess (Bilquis, I’m thinking):

expired and melting turbaned dude, on the lap of a Goddess

I relocated the original image and rotated it a bit, then traced the lines of extravagant turban, beard, and eye-nose-mouth:

12th Imam 8iii14



The great significance for me of this image is its contribution to my appreciation of ephemerality in the medium of rock. Months after the original capture of the Imam (in December 2014), I returned to the stretch of beach in search of the Imam. I found the rock, sure enough, but the Imam was simply not there:

1xii14 no Imam

Subsequently (as I compared the March and December images) I realized that the Imam’s mouth in the March image was in fact a strand of seaweed, whisked away by the next tide. I can imagine a turban’d face in the December image, but it’s not nearly as classy as the Imam.