Column

A Thing with Feathers: Part 7

3 December 2019

A-

I remember—back when we lived in England—the kissing gates in the fields to prevent livestock escaping, to let humans move between the lots. The gate is a metal swing door on a post, within a triangle/semicircle, that to push with brute force clangs it against the radius of the two containing sides. The idea is you hold the gate ajar, squeeze through the opening, and keep holding it for the other, your faces within kissing distance as you navigate the temporary crack of empty, free space, your hands on the bannister. Or someone could do this for you, not follow, and your faces/hands’ closeness—never meeting; the closest could be a kiss in the air around each other’s cheek—would become a kind of transaction. As if to say yes, briefly, we’ve filled this space, now it’s emptying again. 

With family, I used to visit the Jurassic Coast Museum, unearthed in the repurposed storage closet of a pub right next to the Channel. Here in this jar are Kinder Surprise toys salvaged from the MSC Napoli beached at Sidmouth, along the Jurassic coast, Britain’s first natural world heritage site. The first ichthyosaur skeletons were unearthed here by Mary Anning, before the idea of prehistory. We are staying there before we emigrate to look for ammonites; our family would watch Walking with Dinosaurs on BBC One saying, out of all the fantastic sites, oh that’s Dorset where Granny Mary is. That’s nearby. It shouldn’t take long to travel. Across in a glass cabinet, three paper tags read: Pliosaur/femur or/ humerus.  

After flotsam from the MSC Napoli began washing up at Branscombe—including 17 BMW R1200RT motorcycles, empty wine casks, nappies, perfume and miscellaneous car parts in water/erosion-proof containers—200 people or more went to scavenge the remains1. After initially tolerating a “salvage free-for-all” for a week or so, the coastal police said the activity “was despicable”, closed the beach, and announced that they would use navel powers not enacted for 100 years, since Queen Victoria’s death, to force people to return goods they had retrieved without informing the authorities2

We are driving to Lyme Regis where the ammonites in the London Natural History Museum were first dredged from the chalk/limestone strata. I’m being a know-it-all, saying NO, ammonites are totally different from nautiluses. Their outer shells are much lighter and more spiral-y. There’s a little cat-flap thing for their tentacles. Before Walking with Dinosaurs existed, we used to watch a pseudo-documentary about the museum, in which a teenage girl is left in the sauropod exhibit at night. She meets Sir Richard Owen, the museum’s founder and denier of natural selection, and—wearing 3D glasses—watches the computer-animated skeletons blink to life. The VCR box advertises this is the same technology used in Terminator 2, to animate the T1000 flowing like water through narrow seams, their hands changing into blades/fulcrums to prise apart the sediment layers of bodies, as if they were digital fossils. It was used in another James Cameron movie—The Abyss—in which a sentient, alien column of water mimics the faces of the cast, perfectly, by the standards of late 90s CGI. The dinosaurs rendered in the film are not yet feathered, as we now know dinosaurs were. 

The last thing you remember, before leaving the UK, was a field. Dorset in the rain smells so alive. The hole in the earth big as a star, light slithering from the mulch like a treasure hoard. You asked who the bones belonged to. “It’s a cow, bunny, an unusual cow.” We leave shortly afterwards.

 

B-

The party returns to Sigil, the city of doors, at a loose end. Emily Dickinson returns to her anarchist bookshop. In the game universe, maybe two weeks have passed, though we started playing in October. Recently a friend shared Facebook images of abandoned, Roman-style mansions somewhere in Europe with me. The marble floor and walls are wreathed in vines and dead leaves, there’s a crack in everything, the faux-classical statuary wait forlornly. It’s almost lying, my friend says, like once capitalism is gone the world will be made green again. More likely, they say, the plants will be carnivorous, selected to survive on little sun or oxygen, with razor-sharp brambles. I remember our first D&D session, pulling an imaginary child out of a sentient thicket. The more time passes, the more cold air inhabits the house of Emily Dickinson, the character you’ve performed. I imagine there are memorabilia of different sessions/joyful moments: the time we fight a whisky elemental and set it on fire, our arrival in the Faewild, the imaginary door Emily Dickinson tries to conjure back to a Massachusetts, an enabling fiction for character development.  Or when she makes contact with a life-spirit in the Faewild grass, which co-habits in her arm thereafter, and the dream she has that night: an oak-tree, in the garden of her family house, and she is not sure which part of the tree she is, that reminds me of the end of a Yeats poem: 

 

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,

Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

 

There’s an attic which is filled with what could be imagined for Emily Dickinson, her backstory and personality upon finding herself in an Alice-in-Wonderland style scenario. I imagine those things with a thin film of dust, and the windows open to the huge clouds. 

 

C-

In this photo John McTaggart, the Cambridge Idealist philosopher, is explaining the unreality of time to a 1908 audience. Time consists of two main phenomenological series, they say: A and B. The A series consists of past, present, future, unmoving, transfixed. The B series is relational: a moment is earlier than, later than, or happening at the same time right now as another, right now, right now.

A third series—C—is an ordering of events only. We may start with the heat-death of the universe, or ammonites washing up along what will be called the UK’s Jurassic Coast, but at some point the two lines will cross each other. The glass breaking or the glass reforming in your hands. Both seeming—inadvertently—to converge on the point of contact between glass and ground.

 

1 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/devon/6287457.stm

2 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/6290887.stm


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