Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Notes from Spain, Part III: Basket Case

On the train to Seville. 

The landscape sweeps away from the tracks in all directions: undulations militarized by strictly ordered regiments of olive groves. Ochre and sienna creep up out of the ground to cover the sides of buildings, as though the land were determined to slowly swallow them. Under the ancient eyes of ruined hilltop fortresses, the authority of modern power lines and agriculture seems weak and wholly temporary. That impression is underscored by the staccato remains of abandoned condominium developments. No matter what man puts in this landscape, the dialogue between geology and time is the only thing that remains indelible.

In the archaeological museum in Madrid, one exhibit features the exceedingly rare remains of Bronze Age basket work. These finely—truth be told, exquisitely— woven baskets and fabrics are reminders of how deft the arts of natural craftsmanship were in an age where the most practical of everyday items were not made of metal or plastic, but organic: they had a level of love, care, and attention in them that can't be found in any of the everyday objects we use today. They had an unsurpassed level of mindfulness in them, which conferred a respect for existence that becomes disposable when objects lose those qualities. That respect, marked in the herringbone twirls of fine grasses, was later transferred to the embossed and incised lines of pottery, where the decorative marks referred to the woven qualities of the baskets it imitated. Even today, despite our unpracticed eye, such references often remain subtly present in our art and architecture: decoration which seems to be almost casual carries echoes of the ancient valuation of painstaking handiwork.

In the same way that all the arts and crafts echo the natural world and our relation with it, our inner world is a crafted thing woven from the impressions we take in. That's easily forgotten; our thoughts and emotions begin to lose their color and appear as mere forms of entertainment, designed not to deepen our relationships, but merely to serve as reservoirs of pleasure to be tapped and drained. In doing so, we fail to properly honor their source; we lose the direct and palpable connection to outer nature which helps form our inner nature. 

There are analogies between this and the regiments of olive trees; we think the landscape of our lives is just a place to plant trees and press their fruits for oil, rather than an ancient and honorable place of dynamic interactions. An inversion occurs here—instead of seeing that we serve life, we think that life serves us. This inversion is the downward movement of the enneagram through re, mi, and fa; it is the descent of Saint Anthony into stagnant waters of darkness, the unconscious realm of the ego. 

It may seem odd to suggest that something as mundane as scraps and fragments of bronze-age basketwork can offer a clue to our indifference in the face of life; but it is this neglect of inward craft, of an understanding of how life is formed and what forms us, that cheapens and devalues our experience. The threads and strands of life are the leaves of many fine grasses, each one absorbing and storing a bit of the light of intelligent experience that enters it; woven together, they have the ability to create a basket which, although it is only as durable as the length of our life itself, nonetheless serves in greater ways, for the benefit both of ourselves and others.

 It can contain care; it can contain attention and mindfulness; even wisdom. But only if we engage attentively as caring inner craftsmen may this take place. 


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

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