When horsetail ferns make their appearance in spring, I always think of Clan of the Cave Bear, which I first read when I was ten, and have re-read many times since. It’s the story of a little homo sapiens girl orphaned in an earthquake and taken in by a band of Neanderthals, who raise her as one of their own.
The romantic premise of the story certainly had something to do with its fascination: Ayla, the protagonist (after whom, incidentally, my dog is named) is a strong and compelling heroine. Her struggle to belong in spite of her status as an outsider, her beauty and bravery and cleverness, her defiance of tradition to become “The Woman Who Hunts,” is captivating and relateable.
What really got me interested in the book, though, was Jean M. Auel’s vivid descriptions of the Clan’s culture and everyday life. The way they gathered food, hunted, cooked, made clothing, and communicated with one another was an endless source of fascination and inspiration to my childhood self. The book is filled with detailed descriptions of the Clan’s everyday activities: women boiling water in woven grass vessels using heated rocks, roasting birds wrapped in wet grasses by burying them in a pit of coals, stripping the tough outer layer of roots away with their teeth to reach the tender, nutritious middle. Iza, Ayla’s adoptive mother, is the Clan’s medicine woman, who cares for the health of her community and passes her knowledge on to her daughter. She makes infusions, poultices, and plasters from plants to treat common ailments, fashions splints out of bark, sets bones, cleans wounds.
In a mechanized world in which alienation from the creation of what we use is the norm, the notion of making things myself, using what I could find in nature, was highly appealing to me. I loved to pick berries to eat, simmer willow bark into an analgesic tea, smoosh up horsetail ferns to make “shampoo.”
Now that I’m older, I view Clan of the Cave Bear (and all the books in Auel’s “Earth’s Children” series) as a fable, not of the purity of primitive existence, but of the human drive for progress and expansion. After all, Ayla’s heroism lay in her rejection of the Clan’s custom-bound narrowness, as well as in her improbable prolificness as an innovator: She domesticated the dog, the horse, and the cat, invented the bra and the sewing needle, and figured out how to use iron and flint to make fire. It’s a story of posthumanity’s paleolithic origins.