“I remember the silver light…”


Yesterday I was outside by the bench where I do my indigo dyeing in better weather. I was thinking about the long essay I’m current writing on blue, its various incarnations, and visual disturbances. The research has led me into the most amazing areas of scholarship, unknown to me before I fell on ice in Edmonton in November and tore the retina in my right eye. My son Forrest mentioned Oliver Sacks and his experience with indigo and so I read his collection of essays, Hallucinations.

I had long wanted to see “true” indigo, and thought that drugs might be the way to do this. So one sunny Saturday in 1964, I developed a pharmacologic launchpad consisting of a base of amphetamine (for general arousal), LSD (for hallucinogenic intensity), and a touch of cannabis (for a little added delirium). About twenty minutes after taking this, I faced a white wall and exclaimed, “I want to see indigo — now!”

And then, as if thrown by a giant paintbrush, there appeared a huge, trembling, pear-shaped blob of the purest indigo. Luminous, numinous, it filled me with rapture. It was the colour of heaven…

                          (Oliver Sacks, “Altered States”)

After that I was interested in the idea that the entoptic phenonoma I’d experienced before the retinal tear was diagnosed might be something one could induce. I’m not sure I want to induce them but I found myself thinking about the intense beauty I’d been reluctant to admit was the result of damage to my eye. The blue in particular, the blue of the sky billowing with white clouds: if I was a believer, I might have thought I was seeing heaven.

It hadn’t occurred to me that a person could summon indigo. My own recipe for producing it was pretty tame. Indigo powder (which is sourced from a farm in India, not grown in my garden and fermented in a vat),thiourea dioxide, lye, synthropol soap, and soda ash. I use vinegar for rinsing the dyed fabrics. Some of these are caustic but none, as far as I know, is capable of generating hallucinations.

Would I use a cocktail of hallucinogens to see that inner sky again? Would I mix a little of my precious vial of homemade cannabis tincture (Texada Timewarp buds soaked in Silent Sam vodka) with something else more powerful if it meant I could look upon that cracked red desert beyond my irises? An inner landscape entirely my own. I don’t know. But I would be in good company. Dr. Sacksand those who entered the caves perhaps 35,000 years ago to paint horses, bison, ibex, a gallery of lions, their own hands outlined in hematite.

—from “The Blue Etymologies”, a work-in-progress

Right now I’m reading The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art, by the South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams. It’s quite a provocative analysis of the origins of image-making, the evolution of symbolic activity, and how certain percepts are wired into the human nervous system. I think of the spirals, the gridwork, the zigzag lines that are part of the complex non-representational patterns we see in cave art, existing alongside the most beautiful and coherent images of animals, keenly observed and anatomically represented. The quartet of horses in Chauvet, the polychrome bison in Altamira. The finger-flutings in mud in the Cosquer Cave. The finger-drawn grids in Hornos, in Spain.

I read, and I write, and I wait for better weather in order to set up my dye vat and pursue my own indigo dream.

I remember the silver light falling beside my face, like the tails of shooting stars, in the dark cave of my bed at night, fearful and blessed, and how I will try to replicate that sensation—not just the visual beauty but the awe—in some way for the rest of my life.

—from “The Blue Etymologies”