Seeing mammoths and woolly rhinos

One of the highlights of our time in France was seeing some of the Ice Age cave art. Dating from about fifteen thousand years ago, it provides a fascinating but tantalising glimpse of the humans who were around at the time. They evidently had an intellectual capacity similar to humans today – but the exact purpose of their art remains just beyond reach, provoking many questions but few answers.

Some years ago, I’d read a book about Lascaux, a cave art complex which is sometimes called the Sistine chapel of prehistory. It is now closed to the public because of human-induced damage to the art. I didn’t realise that there were other examples of cave art that were still accessible. When I saw that Lot is close to some of the best examples, I was keen for us to go.

We went to two of the caves. One was to Pech-Merle, about an hour and a half south of Gramat (where we were staying), which has art from what appears to be two different eras. The oldest of these features a stylised painting of two horses, around which are stencilled human hands: these have been carbon-dated to about 29,000 years ago. Elsewhere there are a large number of outlines of other animals, which appear to be from a later era (possibly 15,000 years ago), including mammoths, bison and horses.

The painting of the horses in Pech-Merle cave, dating to 29,000 years ago. Picture credit: http://www.pechmerle.com

The other cave we went to visit was Rouffignac. This is near to the town of Les Eyzies, located in the Vezere valley (a hotbed of prehistoric art because there are so many examples in the region). The art within Rouffignac is extraordinary for many reasons – not least the remarkable detail and accuracy of the drawings of the animals that the artists saw in the world around them. There are over 150 woolly mammoths represented – over two-thirds of all of the art in the cave – as well as horses, bison, and ibexes. There are also ten woolly rhinos, which are comparatively rare elsewhere.

The three woolly rhinos in the Rouffignac cave. Photo from http://donsmaps.com/rouffignac.html

The ten-mammoths freize at the Rouffignac cave. Photo from http://donsmaps.com/rouffignac.html

The most stunning feature of the cave is the Great Ceiling, with 66 animals, many drawn in great detail (exemplified below).

Ice age art in the Rouffignac cave: mammoths and ibex. (Public domain image from Wikipedia)

The art provokes many questions: for example, why did they produce this art in deep caves, which do not reveal the evidence of human habitation that in other caves is abundant? This lack of human detritus enhances the sense of the specialness of the art for the communities that produced it.

The Great Ceiling at Rouffignac was produced when the floor level was only a meter from the ceiling (it has only recently been lowered for the sake of modern public viewing) – so at the time it would have been notably inaccessible. Thus, it wasn’t an Ice Age art gallery. There seems to be widespread agreement that there was deep spiritual significance to the art – but exactly what that significance was is again obscure.

Some other reflections that struck me:

  • The atmosphere of cave art is remarkably peaceful: this is particularly evident in Rouffignac. There is little evidence of conflict with humans or between the animals themselves: however much humans may have hunted animals at that time, there is little evidence of it here.
  • There is a curious lack of correlation between the animals being painted and those that show up in the remains of contemporary habitation. Thus, of the animal bones found in human shelters, the biggest proportion belong to reindeer and other mammals of a similar size – mammoths and rhinos feature to a much lesser extent.
  • There are remarkably few representations of humans, and those that are there are notably incomplete. Given the artistic abilities clearly present, the lack of similarly complete humans in art may suggest some form of taboo.

One reason I find this cave art intriguing is because it suggests that spirituality is a deeply-rooted characteristic of being human. However, much as I would like to press the evidence further to know what that actually looked like and how it was expressed, the glimpse we have provides a tantalisingly incomplete picture.

My other reason for fascination with the art is the light that it sheds on the wildlife of southern Europe during the Ice Ages. The woolly mammoths and woolly rhinos became extinct around the end of the last Ice Age – but these works of art were produced by humans who saw them with their own eyes.

Mammoth remains are relatively common in the fossil record – their huge size meaning that they are less vulnerable to decay than those of smaller animals. Occasionally, complete corpses appear in the melting permafrost of Siberia (such as Lyuba, the baby woolly mammoth found on the banks of the Yuribei river). They were the dominant mammal species of a type of steppe ecosystem which they themselves helped to shape, but has no equivalent today: perhaps unsurprisingly it’s now called the mammoth steppe. It was a grassland rich in flowering parts, and had few trees – partly because young trees would have been uprooted and eaten by the mammoths. This is the vegetation type that would have prevailed around the caves at Pech-Merle and Rouffignac.

The National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies contains, amongst many other remains from the era, a cast of a woolly rhino found in a tar pit at Starunia in Poland in 1929. It’s much older than the animals depicted in Rouffignac, but remains like this generally attest to the overall accuracy of the artwork – although not in every detail. For example, while the large humped shoulders are confirmed, the legs in the paintings are shorter than in the fossils. However I do wonder whether there was just one form of woolly rhino, or whether there was some geographical and chronological variation, to which the cave art is actually evidence.

Cast of a woolly rhino discovered in a tar pit in Poland in 1929

I took a bit less interest in the pictures of horses at Rouffignac – after all, we have horses today – but in so doing I missed spotting a detail which is significant. The forms shown are much closer to the wild horses of Mongolia (the Przewalski’s horse) than to our modern domesticated varieties.

The Ice Age cave art is a wonderful testimony to the life of the people living in Ice Age Europe, and of the wildlife they shared it with. Yet it also teases us with so many unanswered questions! What does seem clear, though, is that they were a deeply spiritual people. Their life and art reminds us that part of being human is to be spiritual.

I’ve been helped in my reflections by Christine Desdemaines-Hugon’s book, “Stepping Stones”. Also, “Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age” by Adrian Lister and Paul Bahn, was a valuable resource.  

Miles from Texas in Shapwick

It was halfway through Miles Pike‘s concert when I thought, “how on earth did we manage to get a singer this good here in Shapwick Church? For his first ever concert in the UK?!”

In practical terms it happened the following way. Some years ago, the pastor of Harvest Church in Street, Dylan Thomas, went to the Stamps-Baxter School of Music in Nashville, Tennessee where he met Miles for the first time, discovering that he was a very gifted singer with an unusually wide vocal range. It was Dylan who invited him over here to do a tour in the UK. Nigel Steady (whose wife Rowena leads our music group Polden Praise) realised that there was an opportunity for an event in Shapwick church, and set about organising it.

Shapwick Church was full for the Miles Pike concert

Miles sang a range of songs from traditional hymns, through modern worship songs, to some that he himself had written. The one which has stiuck in my mind the most was the finale, called “The Son Of A Carpenter”, which was a powerful and moving story from the perspective of the man who became the thief on the cross, who recognise that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. This was a wonderful composition that was truly the climax of an exceptional night in Shapwick Church.

Miles singing in Shapwick Church

As well as singing, Miles also spoke about the nature of the gospel and of Christianity. He managed to combine winsomeness with directness, which is something which is done all too rarely: I felt that this sprang out of the depth of his own personal faith which meant he was authentic in what he was saying.

Miles & Martha, with Rowena and Nigel Steady, Jan Jones, Jen, and Martha’s mum Jill.

As he’d appeared at cafe church in the morning, Jen and I had the prviliege of hosting him and his wife Martha for lunch. They are a lovely couple and very easy to chat with. It was great to hear how they had first met at music school: for Miles it was love at first sight, followed by four years of enabling Martha to recognise that they were meant to be together! A couple of days later we were invited round to Dylan and Liz’s house (unfortunately Jen missed out as she was in London), where Miles cooked a great chilli con carne followed by a traditional poundcake.

Miles & Martha at Dylan & Liz’s house (with Adam Smith on guitar)

They are off to Sweden for a few days and back in the UK for some more concerts in the area from the 22nd to the 24th of September, and I’d highly recommend anyone with the opportunity to go to do so. You won’t be disappointed!

Miles Pike’s website is here: https://www.milespikemusic.com/home

First encounters with French wildlife

I was meant to be taking an interest in a chateau – but something else had caught my eye. A large white and black butterfly was fluttering around which I’d never seen before. With a bit of fortune, I obtained a decent photo. I did some quick research and found it was a scarce swallowtail (which is a misnomer for France). The curious thing was that until I saw the photo, I was convinced that the head of the butterfly was at the other end – so maybe the coloration and stripiness was intentionally deceptive?

Scarce Swallowtail at La Guerche chateau.

I was amazed by how many butterflies we saw throughout the two weeks, many of which were new to me, including other new species like the Cleopatra and the White Admiral.

There were also lots of lizards. When we arrived in the small, picturesque town of Carennac, we parked on a roadside carpark which overlooked the River Dordogne. There was a wall which paralleled the road, on the top of which was a particularly obliging wall lizard, which didn’t seem to mind my putting the camera lens so close to its face. Perhaps it was used to lapping up the attention? We then found that we had parked illegally, so we had to depart swiftly!

Wall lizard at Carennac

During our week staying in Gramat, we took a walk from Lacave, choosing one which appeared to follow the line of the Ouysse river for much of it. We hadn’t reckoned on the scrubby line of trees along the river bank, though, which meant we had very few good views. On one of the few occasions when we found a significant gap in the trees, I went to the water’s edge and found myself eye-to-eye with a marsh frog!

Frog lounging in the river near Lacave

The birding was much more difficult than I had expected: possibly late August wasn’t a good time, and possibly I was going to the wrong areas: but even a dawn walk in a wooded area near Gramat was fairly futile. Towards the end of our stay, we went to the nature reserve at La Brenne, which is about 50 miles east of Châtellerault – and that made up for my previous attempts!

The first lake we went to, by the reserve’s centre, was full of egrets, which reminded me of the Somerset Levels. The second lake we went to, the Étang Ricot, seemed to have hardly any birds: until we saw a purple heron being chased off by a grey heron. As I’d only once seen a purple heron before, and that only briefly, this felt notable.

Jen then went off for a run (in the heat of the day – and it was hot!) while I went to the Terres de Renard. Another purple heron lurking distantly on the side of the lake, and I took many photos of it. Then another flew in much closer to the hide, providing much better and more dramatic opportunities.

Purple heron on the prowl – at La Brenne nature reserve

I watched it prowl around for a while and observed its similarity to the familiar grey heron – but thought it looked more slender and weaker than its cousin. How wrong I was!

After catching a couple of small fish and swallowing them whole, it then plunged after something much bigger.

Purple heron subduing its catch

When I saw what it had caught, I was astonished…

Purple heron with a huge catch

I was staggered by the size of its catch – it could have fed Jen and me for several meals! This one wasn’t for downing in one gulp, and having speared it successfully it strode off into the reeds to dismember its prey.

On the way to the final lake we went to, I saw a flurry of back-and-white wings and shouted ‘hoopoe’! Jen stopped the car and we watched it fly into a bush and then up to a telegraph wire. It looked like a great photo opportunity but, spying some food on the ground, it dropped down. Jen edged the car forward, then I used the passenger door as a hide, and just managed to control my excitement enough to secure a presentable photo.

Hoopoe near the La Brenne reserve

Throughout the day we saw plenty of coypu. They’re entertaining animals, not least in their being very visible and watchable – and I’d have been excited if these sightings weren’t tinged with the regret that they are an invasive species with detrimental consequences to the native ecology.

Coypu swimming at La Brenne

What’s not to like about a small furry animal washing itself – even if it is a coypu?

At our final stop, at the Étang Purais, we hoped to see squacco herons, which we’d been told were there. I looked out of one of the windows of the hide and saw none, and tried further round. Jen went to the first window and announced, “I’ve just seen a bittern there!”. Knowing that Jen can be a very alert observer without being expert, I said, “no you haven’t, you’ve just seen a squacco heron!” Indeed she had – the first time she’s seen a new species before I have! It’s intriguing seeing these birds acting like normal herons – except on a much smaller scale.

Squacco heron

French adventures

Jen and I have just returned from a lovely couple of weeks in France. We spent two half weeks in Châtellerault with John and Hélène, and the intervening week based in Gramat, in the Lot district.

We chanced upon the food festival one evening in Gramat.

Neither of us had been to Lot or the Dordogne before so it was a new experience – and the area more than lived up to the expectations we’d had!

On the afternoon of our first full day there, we went for a walk from about two miles west of Gramat to Rocamadour, largely along a forested dry valley, called the Vallée de l’Alzou. This helped us to appreciate the geography of the area – precipitous limestone cliffs looming over tree-covered valleys.

Hiking along the Vallée de l’Alzou: this couple happened to be walking along the track at just the right moment!

We explored Rocamadour itself the next day. It’s a town that used to be a place of pilgrimage but is now a tourist hotspot. One of its legends is that Zaccheus had ended up there. Rather more plausibly, a hermit called Amadour lived there in the fourth century; during the Middle Ages it was discovered that his body had not decayed, and this ultimately inspired the pilgrimages. Below the main sanctuary there is a lower chapel which is palpably a place of prayer, which was frequented by some of the tour guides; later, we were impressed by our guide who was keen for us to know the gospel truth at the heart of the church.

Rocamadour. The chateau is at the top while the church is the large building halfway down the cliff-face.

Ice age art in the Rouffignac cave: mammoths and ibex. (Public domain image from Wikipedia)

We went on a couple of trips to see the astonishing Ice Age cave art: one of these was to Pech Merle, about an hour south of Gramat, and the other to Rouffignac, located an hour and a half away in the Dordogne. These are extraordinarily tantalising glimpses into another era: while the motivations of the artists were almost certainly spiritual, it’s hard to say more than that as to exactly what the artwork was there for – deep underground, visible only by flickering candlelight. I’ll probably reflect on this more at a later date.

Contemplating the walnut harvest – Jen with Sue and Jerry

On our way back to Châtellerault we were delighted to stop by Nantille in order to visit Jerry and Sue Sellick, a couple of our neighbours in Shapwick. They have a second home there, and were battling the vegetation that had sprung up since their last visit. To us, it seemed a lovely location, but they were keen to tell us that it was hard work to maintain!

With Helene, Jem and John at the Cafe Choquet in Bonneuil Matours.

Back in Châtellerault, John and Hélène were most generous hosts, in both the half weeks we were with them. We visited the Pinail nature reserve on our first day, and then ended up at their favourite café in Bonneuil Matours. On the next day, we went to a museum of prehistory, stopping by the picturesque chateau in La Guerche on the way.

The chateau in LaGuerche

John and Hélène, with Jen behind, in Amboise.

One of the highlights of the final half-week was a trip to Amboise. Situated on the banks of the Loire, the town is famous for its chateau, which was a royal hunting lodge in the 15th and 16th centuries. The other advantage was the variety of restaurants along the street opposite the chateau, where we had an excellent lunch!

Overall we had an excellent fortnight – and we returned the UK thinking that there were many places there which we would still like to see.

A great New Wine – with a tragic postscript

Jen and I spent a week at New Wine a couple of weeks back, and had a most enjoyable time. We camped with the church in Walton (the next one east of Ashcott), and we were warmly welcomed by the team there. Richard & Sharon Knight were the hosts, and we really enjoyed getting to know them, as well as Mike & Karly Robertson, Hannah, and the children and young people who were with them.

The main Bible teaching in the morning was given by RT Kendall. He’s now 82, and first made his name as a preacher at Westminster Chapel where he was the senior minister for 25 years. For me it was refreshing to have a top-quality Bible teacher doing the morning slot: in previous years, speakers have been a bit too light on the Word in their eagerness to be inspiring.

RT Kendall at New Wine

Each of his sermons were masterpieces: and, as we discovered, many had been honed by being given multiple times over the years! These were the topics he spoke on:

  • The importance of ministering in the Word and the Spirit: too often churches prefer one or the other, when we actually need both.
  • The way God answers our prayers depends upon our readiness to receive his answer: we think we’re ready for God to bless us, but often we’re not.
  • The need for total forgiveness in our relationships: this is usually a long process, as we root out the anger and resentment in ourselves.
  • A twofold talk on the importance of tithing – giving God the full 10% of our income – and the importance of being thankful to God. God often blesses the tithing so that our 90% goes further than the original 100%.
  • A look at the end-times based on a radical interpretation of the parable of the ten virgins.

Alister McGrath at New Wine

One of the strengths of New Wine is the wide variety of seminars that take place during the day. It was great to see Alister McGrath being invited to do two of them. He remains an outstanding contributor to the science & faith field, although I sometimes feels he’s a victim of his own success. His pre-eminence gives him a ready market but I’m left feeling he’s not quite reached the breakthrough that could make a lasting contribution.

Gavin Calver at New Wine

One speaker I’ve not heard before, but rather wished that I had, was Gavin Calver: a very gifted communicator who’s also highly intelligent. He was speaking about the need to be confident in the Gospel despite our living in an age of great uncertainty. For example, the word of the year for 2017, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘post-truth‘: the idea that personal feelings are more important than absolute facts. (The definition in the OED is a little subtler in saying that the idea relates specifically to the shaping of public opinion). But, as Calver was pointing out, as Christians we believe in absolute truth and it’s over-riding importance (eg that Jesus really is the risen son of God).

In his second seminar, Calver gave ten tips about how we share the story of Jesus more. Here are three of them:

  • We must not change the substance of the gospel or water it down because we think doing so will make it more palatable.
  • We need to pursue holiness – to stand out from the culture: how we behave differently as Christians speaks volumes to others.
  • We’re all witnesses. Telling the story of Jesus should not be left to a few specialists but should be done by each one of us.

It was a most enjoyable week: inspiring and refreshing, and made even more so by the community of Walton church with whom we camped. The tragic postscript is the sudden and unexpected death of Mike Robertson, whose cheerful and friendly personality helped to make us feel so welcome. He leaves behind his wife Karly and two primary school-aged children. We pray that they will experience the depth of God’s love in this most difficult of times.

Three humbugs, with spashes of yellow and red

About ten days’ ago I bumped into Sue Sellick in Shapwick village: had I seen the grebes from the Decoy Hide on the Heath recently? A pair had nested close to the hide, and their three chicks were still young enough to be hitching rides on their parents’ backs. I hadn’t, but I persuaded Jen that we really should go. They were just outside the hide and very photogenic!

Great crested Grebe at Shapwick Heath with a humbug hitching a ride.

The parents took it in turns to carry their chicks while the other went fishing.

The chicks seemed to have insatiable appetites…

There were three little humbugs in all, though usually only one showed at any one time.

Family portrait on a sunny afternoon…

A few days previously I went to Harnhill, in Cirencester, for three days’ retreat. While there I went on a walk over the fields towards Ampney Crucis – and I heard many yellowhammers singing, for the first time in ages. This may be because I’ve not been in typical yellowhammer habitat in a long time, but it’s a nationally red-listed species, meaning that it is endangered because of a serious recent population decline. I was determined to get a good photo, and having spotted a favourite perch of one pair, I went back a couple of times to do so.

Yellowhammer near Harnhill, Cirencester

At the end of last week, while Jen was still in London, I went up one of the coombs on the edge of the Quantocks to try to see redstarts. I wasn’t particularly hopeful of much more than a distant sighting, and in the lower part of the valley the lack of birdsong didn’t improve my outlook. Halfway up, I happened to turn around, just in time to see a flash of red tail feathers fly across the path. It was indeed a redstart! After hanging around for a while I realised I was close to the nest site, and found myself watching both parents while they were feeding their young. Although my camera ended up malfunctioning, it was my best sighting of redstarts, and my first photographic sequence of the male was at least halfway decent!

Redstart in the Quantocks

Freshly expressed rural ministry

I recently went to an outstanding conference run by the rural team within the Fresh Expressions movement. It was exciting to be among a group of church leaders who are in similar contexts to the Polden Wheel, and who are thinking of new ways of doing church to engage with wider groups of people.

The first day focussed on several stories of rural Fresh Expressions. One of the most inspiring ones came from a remote part of the Scottish borders. Back in 2007 the parish acquired a new vicar, Bill Landale, who challenged the congregation to think about church in new ways. When they did a community survey, they found that, although people were interested in spiritual things, they didn’t think that traditional church would help them, so the idea of doing a Fresh Expression was born. Meanwhile, Bill identified the person he wanted to lead the new project – a guy called Alistair Birkett, a local farmer who at that time was part of another church. After a year and a half they launched Gateways Gathering, aimed at children with young families: it’s similar to Messy Church. They eventually grew to a point when they recognised there was a need for something more for the adults – so, two years ago, they launched Gateways Fellowship, which adopts a cafe church approach. The video below tells their story.

One of the prayer stations used in Outdoor Church

The highlight of the second day of the conference for me was being introduced to Outdoor Worship by Sam and Sara Hargreaves. There are a number of variations of this overall idea, each aimed at different potential audiences. For example, Forest Church seems designed to engage with New Age and pagan spiritualities, whereas Outdoor Worship may connect in a more straightforward way to families with young children (exemplified by Park Church in Luton). One of the key values is that outdoor worship is not merely doing indoor worship outdoors, but is doing something different that relates to the outdoor environment.

As the conference had an overall theme of ‘Dying to live’, one of the activities for us was to look at the invertebrates living on dead wood. As we looked at all the creepy-crawlies I re-connected with my inner child… I was still tearing bark off rotting wood while everyone else had moved onto the next bit, and couldn’t stop myself interrupting Sara in full flow with “hey, there’s a millipede here!”. That was probably the moment when I realised that Outdoor Worship was something I should explore further!

Outdoor church lends itself to some thoughtful prayer stations.

The theme of the conference was ‘Dying to Live’. The basic idea was that we may need to let some things die in order for new stuff to take root: part of Alistair and Bill’s story encapsulated that, and the dead wood – living creatures connection in Outdoor Worship also worked well. Having said that, the theme didn’t really capture the essence of the conference. The mood was more one of optimism and enthusiasm as we were able to explore different ideas: ‘dying’ didn’t really feel like a major part of it!

I also really enjoyed connecting with other church leaders. Early on, I sat next to Scott from Somerset, so I started with ‘Hi, I’m Rich, which part of Somerset are you from?’. Scott replied ‘I’m from a village called Curry Rivel’. At this point I recognised an important connection, and said ‘ah, your wife had coffee with my wife last week’! The networking aspect of the conference was invaluable: it was great to be able to meet and chat with others who are in rural ministry, and to be able to learn from other people’s experiences. I particularly valued a chat over lunch with Matt Timms from the New Wave church in Perranporth, which connects with the surfing community there: he reminded me of the value of prayer walking, and of not being afraid to try some experiments, some of which might fail.

It was great to be able to worship without having to be responsible for it in some way!

When I arrived I had high expectations of this conference, but was a bit worried I was being unrealistic: but actually the conference far exceeded those expectations! I’ll probably be booking in for the next one rather early.