Mircea Eliade invented the concept: Axis Mundi, to describe the central point where Sky and Earth meet—where the sacred is connected to the profane through the symbolism of a center. It is seen as the umbilical cord which connects our mundane material realm to the higher strata of sacred power—giving the former purpose, meaning and orientation. Taking the shape of a mountain, tree or the architecture of a sacred place—a temple or a holy city—the symbol weaves together the various threads of the world. In stories or rituals reenacted, the Center transports us back to the world of origins—the world of events that took place “in illo tempore”, the time before time.
At the time of writing I’m working on a private commission, travelling to the source of my motive: the Atitlán hotspot with its series of calderas. These craters were moulded between the Miocene and the Pleistocene (14-1,5 million years ago) in Guatemala. A matryoshka of collapsed volcanic structures occupied by a lake with a depth of 300 m—dammed by volcanic ash. At this time Central America emerged from the Ocean (5-3,5 million years ago) as an isthmus between the North and South American continents—the residue of a Pliocene sea welling up like a slow moving tsunami.
This spirited mirror rests 1,500 m above sea level, fringed by three volcanoes: Atitlán, Tolimán, and San Pedro—Atitlán being an active stratovolcano towering 3,500 m above sea level. The climactic Los Chocoyos supereruption, (75,000 years ago) shaped the land into the vault of an inverted nave—the Atitlán caldera lake. Belonging to Earth’s most energetic expressions, no such supereruption has happened in the last 25,000 years—they are only known from the geological record, belonging to deep time: “the time before time.” It was named after the Chocoyos bird, that often nests in the soft ashes of the surrounding cliffs—like the Phoenix, a reminder that every end is matutinal.
Supervolcanoes are distinguished by the absence of a volcanic cone—like Sherlock Holmes “dog that didn’t bark in the night”, their salience is negative. The vastness of the subterranean body of magma and the pressure above it causes the roof of the molten chamber to cave in, creating a caldera. These giants have their magnitude deep within, just under the thinness of Earth’s lithosphere where magma pierces her skin like roots. The movement beneath the lithosphere is oceanic: seismic waves flow slowly on gigantic convection currents in the mantle—the prime movers of our continents. Like the tidal flow of our breath, this terrain has expanded and collapsed in cycles of caldera formations and subsequent volcanic growth
At the opposite side of blue on the chromatic spectrum is red. Beyond red there is infrared: transcending the visible to become radio waves. From deep within the planet—sealing the passage of the invisible—a cinnabar red grows: magma. The plasticity of the invisible shoots up like sap, cooling into black rock upon dehiscence, as if exceeding the morality of vision. These ecological enclaves are passages from one mode of being to another, from one temporality to another—sanctuaries that open skywards. The caldera curves in like a keel, flanked by ridges of grey and haunted by infernal red.
The Pleistocene (the Ice Age) was distinguished by the action of ice, the Holocene by a period of climatic stability, —allowing the conditions for the balance of life—the Anthropocene is defined by the action of _anthropos: _human beings shaping the Earth at a planetary scale. We are today defined as a titanic geophysical force on a par with the erosive force of glaciers two million years ago, or a more recent action from the Pleistocene archives: the supereruption of Los Chocoyos, Atitlán. When human history, —due to climate change—melts together with natural history, the landscape comes dangerously close to the figure. The geo-processes has gained an agency, like the proverbial Gaia with her intrusion into the human horizon. The Planetary has become incontinent—only the portrait format justifies painting Nature today.
In the time before time, Gaia was, Earth was—she is a force from the time before the gods. In Hesiod’s theogony, Gaia is the force of beginnings. The ancient Gaia emerges in outpourings of blood, steam, and terror, together with Chaos and Eros. Her eruptive nature does not signify balance. In Aeschylus’s Eumenides the Pythia, the priestess of Apollo, speaks: “Earth is the _protomantis,_ the first prophetess (τὴν πρωτόμαντιν Γαῖαν)” she foresees, she forewarns, she conceives of schemas that orient the course of things in a decisive way. Pythia is the double of the god—as Apollo breathes through her, she speaks. In her shrine lies the stone of Earth’s center: the omphalos, on it sits a man varnished with blood, his sword just drawn. It is surrounded by black, sleeping creatures, Gorgons—Apollo’s rays exceed vision.
The cobalt mirror of Lake Atitlán reflects the roof of the world, —Earth’s thinning skin of ozone—the dome of the sky. According to Eliade: the mountain or the top of a tree was often the sign of heaven, yet the true world was always the “Middle-Earth”: the Center where there was communication—a break in plane—between the three cosmic zones. Like our perforated pelvis—with its vaulted circular ridges that protects the body’s central channels—this axis integrates our world, it circulates energy throughout the physical systems that compose our cosmos. The spinal base—shaped like the keel of a ship, a _nave._
Lao Tzu wrote: “Thirty spokes share the wheel's hub; It is the center hole that makes it useful. Shape clay into a vessel; It is the space within that makes it useful.” I’m writing this in the vessel of an explosion from the Pleistocene, the Holocene—the period of balance—has ended.
Eliade equates the _sacred_with power and _reality_, in the center a break in plane occurs and space becomes sacred hence, pre-eminently _real._The “center” is the inception of a metamorphosis like Ovid’s Proteus “will…melt into smooth waves / will now be a lion, now a tree, now a shaggy boar”. Various Planetary scales touch and content grows out of that contact. Surrounding our “time before time” (Eden) there’s a dark, inverted shape of the human: a wilderness.
If time is the wave, we are her foam.