Monday, September 1, 2014

L’envoi – The Wonderland Excavations VIII

L’envoi—the conclusion.

September.

The days are growing shorter, the air colder; the leaves hang heavy and muted before the change.

The autumnal equinox is advent.

And I’m another year older.

The damask drapes are drawn against the imminent gloaming, the chamber dark save for the dancing shadows caused by the flickers of candlelight and the flames on the hearth. The warm, ligneous scent of pipe tobacco mingles with the bittersweetness of opium fumes and stings the nostrils. There’s a high note of burnished black leather, a base note of old potpourri, dusty and floral.

On the polished mahogany desktop, a wood whose colour is as deep, as gleaming as spilt blood, lays my notebook, open to the last page of my inventory. I pick up my pen, dip the nib into a fathomless pool of atramental ink and begin my scratchings:

One Side Will Make You Grow Taller and the Other Side… (inspired by Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) – Handmade miniature hookah (antique glass beads, brass fixtures, floral wire, gold fabric, brown thread, floral tape) genuine mushrooms; dried moss; dried leaves, twigs, cones, and pods; rocks

What I show here is my final offering—the last of its kind.

I tarried too long in Wonderland…what was left of Wonderland. The fantasy has come to an end; the rabbit hole has collapsed, the Cheshire Cat’s grin has evaporated, and the last cup of tea has been drunk, while somewhere in the background the Mock Turtle’s miserable sobs echo before falling silent, leaving the ear orphaned. In the twilight I was facing a large blue caterpillar, sitting atop a mushroom with its arms folded, quietly smoking a hookah. We looked at each other in silence until, at last, the creature took the pipe from its mouth, exhaled in misty rings that dissolved into nothingness, and addressed me in a languid, sleepy voice.

“Who are you?”

And like Alice, I was left perplexed, answering,

“I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I knew who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

The caterpillar gazed back at me sternly. “What do you mean by that? Explain yourself!”

I shook my head. “I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir, because I’m not myself.”

I’m not myself.

Then who am I?

Who was the me that started all this?

And who am I now?

I sit perpetually in a dreamworld between the real and the imagined, between what is and isn’t, lost in the past, contemplating the present, and in wonder of the future.

Was it all real? This six year odyssey of finding that which should not exist. But I have the proof—numerous proofs—right before my eyes.

And right before my eyes sits at present a tiny hookah, once smoked by a three-inch blue-tinged caterpillar with a fondness for asking psychologically-probing questions.

“Who are you?”

And now I have the answer—and it is paradoxically the same I would have given at the start of our journey—

I consider myself an archaeologist of the arcane, a preservationist of the bizarre, a taxidermist of dreams. Humbly, I lay before you all that I have discovered travelling darker and curious byways. The relics I have returned with are evidence—faint echoes of desecrated realms and passions long interred. May they prove the existence of what was wrongly believed the stuff of but fevered imagination only.

Thank you for coming along with me.

I lift my pen and blot my words.

I close the book.

L’envoi.

Let Lewis Carroll have the last word—

Thus grew the tale of Wonderland:
Thus slowly, one by one,
Its quaint events were hammered out—
And now the tale is done…
 





 

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Wonderland Excavations VII

Shards of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Cup (inspired by Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) – Antique nineteenth-century pharmacist’s bottle; vintage Royal Albert bone china saucer and matching tea cup shards; antique sterling tea pot/mouse charm; antique Holmes & Edward silver teaspoon; sterling Mad Hatter charm; black and gold cording; large black and gold tassel; grunge harlequin paper

Which way?

This or that?

One or the other?

Alice had asked the same of the Cheshire Cat oh so long ago:

‘What sort of people live about here?’
‘In THAT direction,’ the Cat said, waving its right paw round, ‘lives a Hatter: and in THAT direction,’ waving the other paw, ‘lives a March Hare.’.After a minute or two Alice walked on in the direction in which the March Hare was said to live. ‘I've seen hatters before,’ she said to herself; ‘the March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won't be raving mad—at least not so mad as it was in March.’
She had not gone much farther before she came in sight of the house of the March Hare: she thought it must be the right house, because the chimneys were shaped like ears and the roof was thatched with fur.

The March Hare’s house is nothing more than rubble. The foundations are all that’s standing; keystones at each of four corners, delineating a domicile no longer there. Hewn timber beams, splintered and scattered, are all that remain of the roof, the rabbit ear chimneys gone. The surrounding lawns have grown wild, the grass at certain intervals almost knee high. It was here on this verdant expanse that a massive table had been laid for tea time; a perpetual tea time, one that promised to stretch on into eternity. But that promise was broken and time returned, took hold, held sway, swept away. The table collapsed, its cloth, its napkins and cozies, riven and rotted. The profusion of chairs that lined either side, erect and straight-backed, like soldiers awaiting orders, withered, their joints swelling, loosening, giving way, their whittled wood decaying. A large armchair that had stood at the table’s head—the large armchair in which Alice had situated herself when sitting down without being invited—is reduced to its naked frame and jute webbing, its springs lounge in the shade of a leafless tree, scraps of worn burgundy velvet clinging. Bone china crunches underfoot. The tea things—the cups and saucers, the pots, the plates, the milk jug and sugar bowl, the forks and spoons—all broken, bent or buried. (It is just such a broken tea cup, just such a bent spoon that is recovered and removed.)

And what of the curious trio who once made up this mad tea party?

One can only surmise.

The March Hare was most likely a humble European brown hare (Lepus europaeus). And that old adage, “mad as a March hare”, was due to the species’ erratic and bizarre behaviour during the third month of the year, the thirty-one days that made up its breeding season. Their odd actions consist of boxing other hares, jumping vertically into the air for seemingly no reason, or remaining stone still, staring. An early fourteenth-century record of this strangeness appeared in the poem Blowbol’s Test, where it was said:

Thanne ├żey begyn to swere and to stare, And be as braynles as a Marshe hare
(Then they begin to swerve and to stare, And be as brainless as a March hare)

Hares live only four to five years in the wild; such a civilized example as the March Hare would probably have made it to seven or eight. Or he might just as well have ended up in a nice pot of Hasenpfeffer.

The Dormouse was almost certainly a specimen of the hazel dormouse or common dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius) that is prevalent in English isles. They are mainly nocturnal, which is perhaps why the little fellow Alice met on that late-spring day in May, couldn’t keep his eyes open. Their name is actually based on this drowsy trait; it comes from Anglo-Norman dormeus, which means “sleepy”. In Elizabethan times, dormouse fat—whether eaten or rubbed on the limbs—was thought to induce a snooze. These tiny rodents have a life expectancy that matches that of the European brown hare (see above).

And what of that Hatter?

The Hatter probably eventually succumbed to mercurialism, the slow poisoning of the system by mercuric nitrate. Mercury, that shock of fluid silver, that lethal liquid metal, was used throughout the nineteenth-century in the process of making felt, and felt was needed for making hats. Hence hatters were contaminated, progressively, by the vapors until their brains shrunk, and dementia set in—thus giving rise to another old adage, “mad as a hatter”. Other symptoms of the malady include red fingers, red toes, red cheeks, sweating, and loss of hearing, bleeding from the ears and mouth, loss of teeth, hair, and nails, lack of coordination, excruciating shyness, insomnia, nervousness, tremors, and dizziness.

Sadly, given the brief natural lifespans of his fellow partiers, the Hatter would have soon been left alone at the table.

Maybe by that time his madness was so acute he failed to even notice.
 


 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Wonderland Excavations VI


Gryphon Feathers and the Mock Turtle’s Lachramatory (inspired by Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) – Antique silver-leafed wooden frame; nineteenth-century crystal tear bottle with sterling embellishment; vintage pheasant feathers; beach sand; sea shells; dried flower; rusted tacks; colour print of sand; hand-stained recipe for “Mock Turtle Soup”; colour print of hand-stained illustrations of the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle by Sir John Tenniel

The scent of the sea suddenly assails the nostrils; briny, damp and bracing. It startles, surprises. How can we be near an ocean? Has the pool of tears swelled? Has it left its banks and flooded the lowlands? The cat’s cradle of woodland roots and branches untangles, dissipates. There is clear blue sky overhead. The forest floor gives way incrementally to sand—pure, pale beach sand, thick, soft underfoot. A veritable Stonehenge of boulders arise, worn smooth by time and tide, wind and water. Salt encrusts, sparkles. Verdant ferns become water reeds; knots and snarls of seaweed proliferate. Seashells dot the strand, half-buried. The rhythmic roar of waves lures one closer. Up and over a dune and a whole seascape stretches out before us. The sky and sea are of the same colour; where does one end and the other begin?

Above the continual grumble of the ocean, another sound comes to the ear—a sobbing, ghost-like, ethereal, faint but perceptible. No. Impossible. Just an auditory hallucination spurred by the knowledge of what happened here on this lonely sweep; here where a high-spirited Gryphon and a woebegone Mock Turtle once roamed and ruminated.

A Gryphon you must know—a mythical beast with the body of a lion and the head, wings and front claws of an eagle; a magnificent creature emblazoned for history on heraldic shields and family crests.

But the Mock Turtle? Ahhh, there’s a different kettle of fish entirely. You all know that turtle soup is made from turtles, then what could be the main ingredient of “mock” turtle soup? You guessed it! This pre-dinner delicacy was quite popular during the Victorian era, and what with real turtle meat being such a luxury (with a luxurious price tag to match), more frugal cooks replaced the costly component with the morsels of veal calves usually discarded—the head, the hoofs, and the tail. And thus the waters of Wonderland spawned Mock Turtles—another peculiar corporeal composite, this one created of the shell and front flippers of the turtle and all those unwanted cuts of bovine butchery. The poor creature has a heavy heart, though, he pines away, weeping, and wishing he was in fact genuine and not faux. After all, how can you spend your lifetime being what you’re not?

Digs here reveal a surfeit of fine feathers—too large to be any ordinary bird’s; the Gryphon must have molted evidently before becoming nothing but mythical once more. And here, what’s this? An ornate crystal and sterling container—a very rare lachramatory, or “tear bottle”—a strange bit of nineteenth-century mourning paraphernalia in which one saved up the teardrops shed in bereavement, in sorrow for someone or something lost—the spirit of grief made manifest.

And, in the end, what are tears?

Simply salt water.

Just like the sea.
 


 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Wonderland Excavations V


Dentis ex Jabberwock (inspired by Lewis Carroll’s 1871 novel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There) – Hand-distressed ornate oval frame; genuine bison tooth; genuine desiccated cicada; curled tree bark; cardboard curlicue; hand-stained prints of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” poem (both forwards and backwards) and Sir John Tenniel’s “Jabberwock” illustration

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

The Tulgey Wood thickens, grows dense and dark, any pathway is now hardly discernible, just a well-worn rut filled with rotted leaves and lichen-cowled stones. The air is dank, heavy, and has a musty, earthy smell. The ground swells, rises into a small hillock, nettles snatch and sting. The climb is not long and at the summit a new vista opens out—a flattened countryside once visibly divided into large, neat squares, as if the landscape from horizon to horizon was one continuous, vast chessboard. The effect is unnerving, mystifying, disorientating, an impossible reality—has M. C. Escher taken up horticulture?

There comes a strange cry. Bird or animal? It is impossible to say. The Tulgey Wood is home to many a peculiar indigenous species: there are mome raths (a sort of green pig) and borogoves (a kind of parrot. They have no wings, their beaks turn up, they make their nests under sun-dials and live on veal) and toves (they’re something like badgers, they’re something like lizards, and they’re something like corkscrews, who live solely on cheese) and we are warned to beware the Jubjub bird (described as “A desperate bird that lives in perpetual passion”) and shun the frumious Bandersnatch (a swift moving creature with snapping jaws, capable of extending its neck). But by far the worst inhabitant of the Tulgey is the Jabberwock.

Or perhaps I should say “was” the Jabberwock.

Only one was ever known to exist; it was a winged monster, toweringly tall, befanged, beclawed, both hairy and scaly, and attired quite nattily in a bespoke buttoned waistcoat. It terrified the area, until its day of reckoning, when a young knight ventured forth to slay the creature. And as history records:

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

Excavations here uncover but a lone object—a single tooth.

So small a something to prove the existence of a so large and so frightful beast.

But the shadows grow long.

There’s a rustling amongst the scrub.

The time has come to once again move on.
 


 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Wonderland Excavations IV

Cheshire Cat Whiskers (inspired by Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) – Black wood-framed shadowbox; glass vial with cork stopper; old cat gut strings; twisted wooden branch; dried cherry; black paint; colour print of antique cat tintype; colour print of forest at dusk

What remains of a path is now nothing more than a grassy furrow worn into the earth. It winds, twists, traverses a field and continues straight on to the wood. The forest spreads in all directions, like black ink spilled on patterned silk, its edges ragged and blurred. Trees with gnarled trunks and knotted limbs seem to scrape the sky and nearly blot out what little sunshine penetrates. Moss is springy, spongy, underfoot. Everywhere stalks of vividly purple foxgloves genuflect in the balmy springtide breeze, their flowers oh so beautiful and oh so venomous; Dead Man’s Thimbles they’re called, the random mottling on their petals believed to be a warning of the toxic juices pulsing within. Could this be the Tulgey Wood—the stretch of strange and sinister timberland that divides Wonderland from Looking-Glass Land? If so, then…?

There’s something caught in the brambles, something incongruous, something odd, almost absurd (as if anything in Wonderland could not be called absurd)—tattered bits of flannel, shreds of delicately-woven lace, and the threadbare remains of a baby’s bonnet. So, evidence at last! This must be the point where Alice tired of carrying the Duchess’ infant—that wailing, chubby babe, with a pink, pink face and turned-up nose, given to the most violent snorts and grunts; a babe who metamorphosed finally into a genuine porker, a transformation our young heroine took in quite unperturbed:

‘If you're going to turn into a pig, my dear,' said Alice, seriously, 'I'll have nothing more to do with you. Mind now!' The poor little thing sobbed again (or grunted, it was impossible to say which), and they went on for some while in silence.
Alice was just beginning to think to herself, 'Now, what am I to do with this creature when I get it home?' when it grunted again, so violently, that she looked down into its face in some alarm. This time there could be NO mistake about it: it was neither more nor less than a pig, and she felt that it would be quite absurd for her to carry it further. So she set the little creature down, and felt quite relieved to see it trot away quietly into the wood. 'If it had grown up,' she said to herself, 'it would have made a dreadfully ugly child: but it makes rather a handsome pig, I think.' And she began thinking over other children she knew, who might do very well as pigs and was just saying to herself, `if one only knew the right way to change them—' when she was a little startled by seeing the Cheshire Cat sitting on a bough of a tree a few yards off."
 
That adjacent oak was once mighty given the circumference of its trunk—and the trunk is all that remains. Thick barked, its huge roots run wide and deep, but the rest of the tree is gone, felled it appears as if by a stroke of lightning. Burn marks singe far into pale wood, splinters rise up sharply, dead branches lay scattered hither and yon.

And what’s this?

Brushing aside the debris, the leaves from countless autumns past, a skeleton is revealed—long, thin, four-legged and finely boned, obviously felinic. Bits of gray and black fur cling; its claws are formidable. Its skull still grins (but all skulls grin, do they not? As if they alone appreciate the punch line to life’s final jest). One touch and…the cat vanishes—not slowly as it was prone to do while thriving, leaving naught but that insidious rictus behind—no, this time the feline fades swiftly, instantly, into dust. Is there nothing to be salvaged? Wait. Here and there, a few all but imperceptible strands sparkling silver in the sunlight—whiskers.

Cheshire Cat whiskers.

Collected.

Bottled.

Labeled.

Time to move on.

One final glance back, the mind’s eye conjures, and the cat is yet again curled upon its branch, legs tucked in and under, ochre-hued eyes glinting; it’s watching, and grinning…grinning…

…as if saying,

“We’re all mad here. I’m mad…you’re mad…”

…and I’m left asking defensively,

“How do you know I’m mad?”

And that all too perceptive answer—

“You must be, or you wouldn’t have come here.”

How true.

How true.
 

 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Wonderland Excavations III

Peppercorns from the Duchess’ Kitchen (inspired by Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) – Antique nineteenth-century pharmacist’s bottle with original cork; black, green, and pink peppercorns; vintage kitchen twine; hand-stained print of illustration of the Ugly Duchess, her Cook, and the Cheshire Cat by Sir John Tenniel

It was the epitome of Georgian elegance; a veritable jewel box of a house—three-storied, white-walled, black slated roof adorned by a pair of matching chimneys. Egg-and-dart cornices surrounded. A triangular portico rose high above its main entryway, where liveried finny and froggy footmen once hurried in and out, bearing royal invitations. Its classically sashed, twelve-paned, rectangular windows at the front looked out upon a clipped carpet of grass. In the spring and summer months, rhododendrons blossomed in explosions of white, purple, and fuchsia. The whole spoke of simplicity, of refinement. It was owned by a duchess, that much is true; the duchess of what and who she was (or the duke was, for that matter) is now lost, unrecorded. What is known, though, is that she was very ugly, had the deportment of a bulldozer, and had a penchant for garish flowered prints and oversized medieval millinery.

The house is a wreck now, barely standing; its exterior battered and blighted by time and weather. The chimneys have fallen, the roof caved, the windows smashed. The formerly immaculate lawns are unmown, weed-ridden, and strewn with splinted slates and slivers of shattered glass.

Beyond the collapsed bricks and past the absent front door, the foyer stretches, the terrazzo there a chess board of disjointed marble tiles where dead leaves gather and swirl; the skeleton of a grand staircase is straight ahead, its steps ascending to nothing more than the ghost of upper levels. On either side of the foyer, rooms lie open to the elements, paint peeling, wallpaper stained, buckled, and bubbled. No furniture remains, fireplace hearths are bare, carved mantelpieces chipped or missing. The only chamber that continues to reflect its former function is the kitchen. The floorboards are a minefield of broken crockery, scattered knives and spoons, a badly-dented, tarnished coffeepot. On walls besmirched by smoke, an empty plate rack encircles, embroidered with spider webs and encrusted with desiccated beetles. The stove—a massive wrought-iron monster—stands cold and rusted. It was here that the duchess’ cook, in apron and mobcap, held sway before steaming soup cauldrons, ladle in one hand, peppermill in the other. The strong pungency of that overused spice can still be smelt above the rot; clinging, saturating the woodwork, almost eliciting sneezes while peppercorns crunch under foot. It was in front of this stove that the duchess would sit, nursing a howling, porcine baby, singing to it strange, unsettling lullabies:

I speak severely to my boy,
I beat him when he sneezes;
For he can thoroughly enjoy
The pepper when he pleases!

It was here too that a curious cat curled, warming itself by the fire, purring, content, one could almost say grinning.

From above, beams suddenly creak ominously, a blizzard of dust drifts from the fissured plaster ceiling—it’s time to grab what little can be salvaged and be gone.
 


 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Wonderland Excavations II

Painting the White Roses Red (inspired by Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) – Lacquered burlwood frame; dried white rose; red paint; white wax; custom cut mat; colour print from the original illustration by Sir John Tenniel; colour print of grunge hearts; colour print of dripping red paint

And then she found herself at last in the beautiful garden, among the bright flower-beds and the cool fountains.

The beautiful garden that so entranced Alice is now nothing more than an overgrown thicket. Neglected, abandoned, nature has reclaimed that which was once originally hers. The fountains have long since dried up; their pipes rusted, their marble basins splintered and silvered, where weeds flourish in the ever-expanding cracks. The manicured trees, the pruned boxwoods, and the carefully-tended topiaries have gone wild, their tidy geometric shapes scarcely distinguishable from the rest of the tangled wood. Cypresses sway, taking leisurely, theatrical bows prompted by each passing breeze. In the distance stands the dome of a massive orangery, its metalwork bent and twisted, a steel skeleton barely supporting its last few unbroken panes of glass. And surrounding all is a confusion of rosebushes—once the pride of the garden they, too, have proliferated untamed, untrimmed, their branches a cat’s cradle of thorns. Here and there, lost in the leafy turmoil, can be found the heads of a few withered white roses, their dried husks mottled, splashed and splattered with red paint; the haphazard and hurried brushstrokes of a trio of living playing cards a testament to the frantic correction of an error long past—

“Would you tell me, please,” said Alice, a little timidly, “why you are painting those roses?”
Five and Seven said nothing, but looked at Two. Two began, in a low voice, “Why, the fact is, you see, Miss, this here ought to have been a red rose-tree, and we put in a white one by mistake, and if the Queen was to find it out, we should all have our heads cut off…”

Gardeners in threat of being deadheaded; much like the flowers they care for—that’s pure Wonderland logic.