There is a wonderful snippet of a scene in the movie “Delicatessen” where troglodyte dwellers in a subterranean service and sewer world arrive at a momentous decision by playing “Rock, Paper, Scissors”. This quirky and charming bit of goofiness is but one of many surprising elements that play through this movie of dark humour. The idea of troglodytes was rather fascinating to me, as I do recognize pervasive troglodyte tendencies in myself and have experienced a number of years of below the surface living.
When we first arrived in Canada, some charity agencies that provided hard goods to newcomers delivered a wooden apple crate full of comic books and magazines among which were several issues of National Geographic. It was in one of these where an article on the cave dwelling people of Anatolia accompanied by strange and wondrous photographs of an alien terrain provided many hours of fascination and rumination for me. In my imagination, I could feel the dim moist coolness of the hollowed out sandstone chambers, the hard-packed grittiness of sandstone floors on my bare feet and the abrasive brush of stone walls agains my exploring hand and fingers. A bed could be a ledge hollowed out from the wall, small niches could support necessary utensils – a lamp, a jug, a few tools. I entertained myself for a long time, elaborating on what life might be like living in such caves.
It was during high school years that I began to study art history. Particularly fascinating to me were the early Renaissance paintings of saints who had withdrawn from the hubbub of common life to live in ascetic solitude, in landscapes sere and harsh. The illustrated terrains were rocky, austere and uninviting. One could imagine a saint’s life being stripped to the bare essentials of daily survival. Yet, the various saints looked beatific, serene and satisfied, content to find themselves in such forbidding settings.
At age 23, having fallen from grace, a single, unwed mother, I embarked on a number of years of living below the surface. The only accommodation that I could afford for baby Renaissance Man and myself were basement suites with minimal services – electricity, ambient heat from the central heating of houses, rudimentary stove, shared fridges and bathrooms and tiny sliver-like windows set high up on walls that allowed watery light into these cave-like environs. In the first few years, these basement apartments were furnished by the landlord. Table with mismatched chairs, a box-spring and mattress, a bookshelf and an old overstuffed chair perfect for lounging on to read and study late at night. To these dwellings I brought Renaissance Man’s crib, then bed, his clothes, books and toys, my clothes, dishes and cooking implements, my text books and school stuff and an alarm-clock-radio. We spent much time out during the day, enjoying weather of all kinds, the neighbourhood, the playground and sometimes longer treks to the beach a couple of miles away.
One such abode, one favourable and comfortable to recall, was a tiny two room basement suite in the area just outside the University gates. It had tiny windows, cedar clad walls with built in shelving and cleverly concealed built in closet which house all of our clothes. There was a small alcove built into the wall separating the two small spaces – in this was a fitted mattress which became Renaissance Man’s little bedchamber. One little room became his playroom, with rolls of large paper taped to the long wall where he could draw with crayons and pencils to his heart’s content. His books were accessible from the small book-case, and his toys were placed about here, ready for play. My mattress and box-spring bed I dragged into the space adjoining the two rooms and this gave an illusion of privacy for both of us. The large abstract painting my art schoool friend Barry gave me for my 23rd birthday, provided beautiful jewel-like colour on the dark wall above my bed. On the door hiding the closet hung my friend Carol’s hard edge painting from one of her series of closet abstractions. The book-shelves in the kitchen housed my collection of text-books, few art books and some of my pottery dishes and mugs.
We lived a quiet life here, cocooned and comfortable. It was spare living, but very comforing. There was a park with lovely shrubbery and trees across the street, a playground, a view of the North Shore mountains. Grocery shopping was close by, in fact, my University, RM’s day care provider, doctor and friends were within walking distance. My Statistics prof lived two houses over from us, and her little daughter was RM’s age. Her nanny would bring her over to the playground across the street in the park, where she would stand transfixed and terrified to move and get herself dirty, arms upraised in a “Yuck” gesture while Renaissance Man did his best to entice her to play with him by demonstrating how to make sand landscapes with his little shovels and pail. He reveled in the unrestricted freedom of the open spaces, while she recoiled from them. They never managed to connect in play, in spite of all his friendly overtures toward her.
I loved our little lair and its environs. My Mother, on her occasional visits would curl her lip, disdainful of our apparent comfort. My Father said it reminded him of a hermit-in-the-woods cabin. To this day, I recall fondly this marvellous cosy underground home.
Fifteen years later, Rumpole, Renaissance Man and I travelled by car to the Four Corners area of the U.S. southwest where we were completely fascinated by the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde and spent several days wandering about and considering how a population of people could make safe homes for themselves in close communal groups using the natural features of the landscape to provide the basic structure of their living spaces. These cliff-dwellers were New World troglodytes.
When we travelled to Moab in Utah I was struck by the gorgeousness of the landscape. It did seem rather strange to me, however, that the town of Moab was built out of materials that obviously had to be transported from a different landscape; ther was no attempt whatsoever to use the indigenous red sandstone to build this community. Was it a collective failure of the imagination that caused this poor integration of built environment within its given landscape? There were no pioneer builders with troglodyte tendencies?
I have developed a natural abhorrence for voluminous living spaces, of the kind that are much desired for living in North America. The outdoors seems to be more than adequate to experience feelings of expansiveness and freedom.Needs for privacy can be met within small, intimate spaces; the need to let one’s spirit and mind soar freely can be fulfilled by moving about outdoors. I suspect there is a duality operating in human nature – one aspect, to contain and distill into concentrate impressions, and the other to let range and roam gathering information and sustenance. A troglodyte needs sun, wind, rain and stars, food and water, the companionship of others as well as comfortable enclosure in small private spaces.
Do you have a bit of the troglodyte inside you?