Animal attraction

Manege, Jardin des Plantes, ParisTerm 6

It was half-term and I was in Paris. Wandering through the Jardin des Plantes on a chilly Monday morning I wondered what to do. Hitch a ride on the Dodo manège?  Or join outdoor tai chi to warm up?

Tai Chi in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris

But a trainee Alexander teacher never sleeps. The siren call of skeletons sang out from the nearby Gallery of Comparative Anatomy and Paleontology. The lure of bones was too strong and I stepped inside.

Skeletons, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Over 600 skeletons came at me in a stampede as I walked in. It’s hard to believe these animals are long dead – they arrived in Paris in the 18th and 19th centuries, brought back by French explorers from overseas expeditions.  Many lived in the nearby Menagerie and eventually the collection formed the basis for the study of comparative anatomy, then in its infancy.Manege, Jardin des Plantes, Paris

Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Bird skeletons, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Turtles, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Spines in Museum of Comparative Anatomy in Paris

The layout and display seem little changed since the gallery opened to the public in 1898, but it’s surprisingly light and full of life. Parisian children on half-term visits seemed content to wander, point and discover as they moved from hippo to giraffe, gorilla to whale or headed for the heavier bones of the fossil gallery upstairs.Gallery of Comparative Anatomy and Palaeontology, Paris

Prehistory, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris
Fossils on the first floor

At first I was overwhelmed. But as I spent more time among the bones, I saw the value of a collection like this.  It’s entertaining and quirky, but it also forces you to compare and contrast and think for yourself. What are the differences between species, between modern and prehistoric, young and adult and ultimately between animal and human?  I haven’t got the answers, but the questions are still ringing in my head and the impact of being with so many skeletons in one huge room will remain with me. I now have a clearer sense of how important bones are in providing structure, alignment and internal space. They give the framework for life and dynamic movement, and maybe that’s why it was so cheerful and full of energy and the children were so absorbed and engaged.

Feet of Bactrian camel, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris
Feet of Bactrian camel – thick pads between the toes stop it sinking into the sand
Deer skeleton, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris
Deer use strong muscles in the hind legs to jump. Front legs act as a pivot for changing direction.

There wasn’t just science on offer but art too. All the displays had historical and anatomical value, but there was also beauty in their form and arrangement.  And it was artists, not anatomists, who first used the écorché  standing at the entrance – a model of a flayed human body produced to help understand muscles and how they work. The one here was made for art students in Aix-en-Provence in 1758.

Model of human foot, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Further on the arteries of the brain were as much an artwork as a scientific specimen.

Arteries of the brain, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

And in 2016 the artist Quentin Garel made twelve giant animal skulls from wood and bronze, hiding them in the mass of skeletons for visitors to discover. It was difficult to tell if they were still there or not.

Lunchtime approached. The attraction of the animals began to fade and it was time to go. There was one last treat on my way out – Garel’s giant whale vertebra still sits in the gardens outside. Like the gallery itself, it was the perfect French marriage of art, science and delight.

Dodo Manege, Jardin des Plantes, Paris

Vertebrata by Quentin Garel
Vertebrata by Quentin Garel

By the water

Canal mural
The hectic shared space of the canal on a local school mural

Term 5

“There are places where we feel calm or that provide us with space to think; places we feel a deep pull towards or that have a physical effect on us when we visit; places where we feel ‘at home’ or that make us feel complete.”

I noticed this quote from the National Trust’s new Places that Make Us report because it echoes the Alexander concept of ‘psycho-physical unity’ – that mind and body work as a whole, and what we do with one affects the other.  If I want space for body and mind then I feel drawn towards water. The most tranquil place is the New River – not a river but an aqueduct engineered to bring fresh drinking water to London in the 17th century.

Here I find quiet and autumn colours, birdlife, dog owners and children being taken to school.  I have a camera in my hand; people are friendly and greet me warmly. No rush, I can sit quietly and enjoy birdsong and silence.  Sometimes a local artist sets up her easel to paint by the old watchman’s hut. The heron stands hidden but wary; I admire its balance and the easy turn of its neck.

Heron, New River

To negotiate the second stretch of water I too have to be alert.  The narrow canal towpath is grittier and more competitive, with differing views on speed, space and entitlement. To manage this I need to think ‘up’ with my Alexander directions, breathe easily, be aware of what’s around me, and take whatever comes in my stride.

Cyclists move fast, heading into work in determined fashion.  Runners follow, chatting in twos, easier to hear as they overtake. Then come dog or casual walkers like me, more at ease, holding our own, ducking lightly under each bridge. It’s too early for anglers to sit safely on the path and no canal boats or canoes are on the move just yet.

London’s housing crisis is here in microcosm – two semi-permanent tents pitched by the towpath and canal boats in use as affordable living space.  One of the striking things in my Alexander life is how often people stop me to ask for directions, responding perhaps to open body language. Sure enough, two stranded tourists want the canalside café. I point to the lock beyond the next bridge and move on.

Canal boatMy third destination is the Thames. Sometimes I walk along the riverbanks or venture onto the muddy foreshore, envying the mudlarks as they dig for finds. Recently I spent a late summer’s day on the river, sailing on a paddle steamer towards the Thames Estuary. The river has tides and timetables that can’t be ignored, but there’s also a calm detachment as the banks and rivercraft drift by. This is the Alexander concept of ‘means whereby’ in action – the journey’s the thing, not the port of arrival. The mood on board is cheerful. We wave at the Southend lifeboat out for a spin, and to cruise ship passengers heading for the Channel.

FM Alexander was clear that body and mind act as one, and I’m slowly integrating the two as I continue my training. My experience also bears out the National Trust’s research that a physical visit to a special place has a long-term emotional and psychological impact. Moving on or near these watery spaces changes my thinking, leaving me energised, calmer, more content and with new perspectives and enlarged horizons. Which special places do you visit, and what effect do they have?

New River reflections

New River, duck on water

Canal boat

Canal boat

Fish bench by the canal

Canal boat cat

Canal boat duck

Notice on a canal bridge

Tower Bridge raised
Tower Bridge lifts up as we sail underneath
Looking back at the London skyline
Looking back at the London skyline
Red Sands Forts in the Thames Estuary
Red Sands Forts in the Thames Estuary, part of Britain’s Second World War defences
Traditional Thames barge
Traditional Thames barge
Returning to London on the Thames at sunset
Returning to London on the Thames at sunset

 

In the saddle

Horse sculpture, Marble Arch
Still Water (2011, bronze) by Nic Fiddian-Green

Term 5

I’ve sat on a saddle more times in the past eighteen months than I have in the rest of my life.  It doesn’t move – its purpose is to release leg muscles and improve balance and poise as part of my Alexander training.  I mention this only because I’ve just discovered who invented the saddle.  According to curators at the British Museum, it was probably the Scythians, nomadic warriors living over 2000 years ago in southern Siberia.

The saddle helped both rider and horse, spreading human weight better so the horse was more comfortable, could travel further and live longer. The Scythians used this to full advantage. Unlike me, they were anything but static in the saddle and were feared as agile fighting horsemen far beyond their homeland.

I have something else in common with these nomads.  Our weekly tai chi session includes a movement known as ‘drawing the bow’. We do this slowly and thoughtfully, able to put aside the martial origins.  But for Scythians the action was all too real, the bow their weapon of choice.  As well as firing poisoned arrows, they developed a short curved bow of layered wood and sinew. This gave extra tension and energy and was easier to use from the saddle. They became feared opponents who really did eat, shoot and leave, appearing out of nowhere on horseback, firing deadly arrows at their enemies and swiftly returning home.

Horses were at the heart of their culture – they bred them for speed, used the hides and drank fermented mares’ milk.   Once they perfected light durable saddles and riding gear, they moved fast and far, extending their territory.  Even the clothes they wore on horseback had special belts for quick access to weapons in a sudden attack.

Most of this we know from burial mounds preserved in the Siberian ice and permafrost.  They were not a writing culture and, as nomads, left no buildings.  Their beloved horses came with them to the grave, buried and decorated with special saddle cloths and head ornaments, becoming mythical animals riding into the afterlife.

I sit quietly in the saddle atop my wooden horse, and later move slowly to draw my tai chi bow. I think of the Scythians able to do both things at once, in balance at speed, turning easily in the saddle, two hands on the bow and arrow, yet still able to direct the horse, take aim, and dodge their opponents.

Even though the Scythians are long dead, the exhibition at the British Museum conveys a strong sense of modernity, movement and life. It’s not just the mobility of their nomadic lifestyle and horsemanship. A wooden mallet and ladder used in making one of their deep graves seem to have been cast aside only moments before. I can almost smell the wood through the glass.  Furs and embroidered textiles retain colours still bright from their time in the permafrost. Golden jewellery and ornaments show craftsmanship and a deep understanding of animal forms real and mythical.

The wind of Siberia whistles through the exhibition soundtrack. A piece of tattooed human skin preserved in a grave catches everyone’s attention and the queue slows down so we can all take a look. The sinuous animal shapes are no longer visible to the human eye, but are brought to life through imaging to reveal designs we could easily see on tattooed bodies today.

Line drawing of tattoos on Scythian man (from the British Museum blog)
Line drawing of tattoos on Scythian man (from the British Museum blog)