Visiting the American Museum of Natural History

I’ve been away for a week in New York with my family. When I left the Arboretum last, yellow-rumped warblers had returned and spring beauty was in bloom. Woodcocks were still singing. This morning, I returned to robins singing in the dark, as they had been, but no more woodcocks, and nearing sunrise I heard eastern phoebes, a field sparrow, and a ruby-crowned kinglet along with the usual cast of characters. Chorus frogs and peepers are still going strong, even louder I believe than they were last time I was here. Onion shoots are halfway to my knee. The burned fields are bright green. Virginia bluebell flowers look like tight little grape hyacinth clusters. Touch-me-not cotyledons are the size of pennies. Buds on the beech outside my office window are swollen, and everything is poised and ready to leaf out. The place feels as though it could explode.

Last week Monday, my family and I were at the American Museum of Natural History. Rachel and I were last at this museum in 1999. It’s the only time I’d ever been, and it impressed me greatly at the time, when I was just making the transition from being a naturalist to being a researcher. The museum presents such an array of options: mammals, forests, ocean life, geology, peoples of South America, the Pacific, Africa, Asia — all of Asia? This time, we started with African mammals, and I can’t remember it clearly, just a few images. Gazelles on the Serengeti beside a termite mound, the panorama in the background sweeping. African water buffalos. More ungulates, this time in a multi species scene, with cranes in the background, papyrus on one side and Phragmites on the other. The few species of this genus are found around the world, and the sign tells us that you can find Phragmites in wetlands around New York. Two giant elephants.

We walked into the hall of biodiversity, which is sumptuous. Organisms are lined up ladderlike, strung on wire like pearls, perched on shelves, dried or preserved in spirits or modeled in plastic and fabric. Herbarium sheets of ferns and flowering plants are arranged placard like under a giant Rafflesia bloom. There is a necklace of propagules organized by size, from maize kernels to pine cones, with a short run of various white and red oak acorns in the middle. Beside them are models of boletes and morels and shelf fungi. Across the aisle are tree frogs the size of quarters and toads as bulky as grapefruits; a handful of lizards; sea turtles, tortoises, snapping turtles and what looks to be a spiny soft shelled turtle; cranes and penguins; a kangaroo and a capybara; a lobster; a horseshoe crab; an enormous, long-armed crab. A taxidermied fish swims above a translucent shark egg sac. Overhead in the middle of the room swims a school of striped fish and a ray. The room impresses you in the way that museums do best: by presenting not a few organisms in the framework of a theory–natural selection, common ancestry, homology, convergence–but by bombarding you with organisms in a systematic framework, and letting the mechanisms and theory seep into you slowly, by repetition. I think of Louis MacNeice: “I peel and portion / A tangerine and spit the pips and feel / The drunkenness of things being various.” I feel in these museums as I did when Rachel and I first met: 22 years old, and everything is brand new and exciting, all the time.

We turned and entered the hall of ocean life. You enter at balcony level. A life size blue whale hangs from the ceiling in the middle of the hall, and on the floor below people lie on their backs looking up at it. It is as big, we are told, as three school buses, but that hardly conveys the mass of the thing. It is as though someone had suspended a passenger plane from the ceiling of a high school gymnasium. I read that the blue whale is found in all oceans, feeds at 50 to 200 feet deep, lives mainly on krill, and is very poorly known. How long does it live? More to the point, how can such a thing exist? To a botanist who spends his time wondering about relatively subtle adaptations of oaks and prairie plants, the hugeness of a whale is almost inconceivable. I guess it is to everyone. On the walls hang phylogenies of crustaceans and fishes. There is a model of a pier piling in a bay, encrusted with barnacles and algae and anemones, fish swimming around it. Looking at the photo a couple of days later, I asked Rachel whether this was a model or an exhibit in an aquarium. She confirmed that it was a model, but from the photo I took I don’t think anyone would be able to tell. I walk down to the floor below and sit with my younger son, the whale above us. We watch a movie about shark research. We regroup and slowly make our way out, leaving time to ride the elevators an extra time or two from the ground floor to the balcony, watching the people recede as we ascend.

There were many more stops to our visit, which seemed to go on without pause for the several hours we were at the museum. We lunched at the hotdog / shawarma / falafel cart outside the 77th Street Grand Gallery, passing the enormous stibnite crystal beneath the 60-foot canoe that hangs in the middle of the gallery. We passed by small mammals and birds: an ermine stalking a meadow vole, the latter completely unaware, perched on his haunches, eating; Andean condors, one flying and one feeding; a fox; armadillos. We spent an hour in the hall surrounding the Hayden Planetarium, where around the balcony you can take a logarithmic walk from a scale model of an atom to a scale model of the universe, your scale increasing by factors of ten as the scale of the models decreases. We walked down to the Cullman Hall of the Universe and weighed ourselves in moon pounds. We watched a simulation of the collision of, I believe, two neutron stars, and a video on the discovery of gravitational waves. We headed to the Discovery Room to look at a drop of water from the turtle pond under a microscope, identify gases using a prism, look at rocks sliced so thinly that light shines through, play biodiversity bingo.

After the Discovery Room, we left the museum. We went out through the main hall, crossed the street, and we were suddenly in Central Park. I don’t mean to imply that we were surprised to find ourselves there, or that we didn’t plan on it. We had planned the day around these two things, the museum and the Park. But the exit was like the exit from a backpacking trip, when you go from the trail one moment to riding in a car the next, and a curtain has fallen between the one and the other. In the park we stretched out and were happy to be on the move. We walked into The Ramble, a section of the park densely criss-crossed with trails nestled into a bend in the lake. White-throated sparrows were singing. Brown creepers were crawling up the tree trunks. My younger son ran up the giant boulders along the trail and back down to meet us. This must be the most most avidly birded park in the world. I imagine researchers streaming through the museum over its life of nearly 150 years, working in the collections for hours at a stretch and then coming out, minds packed, to the brushy woods around these lakes. The very existence of birds is a miracle, the diversity of them that much more miraculous… then to see them moving again after studying them in the museum is itself incredible. We walked along the edge of the lake, through Strawberry Fields, then back to the train line and down to Chinatown for supper.

Back from New York, we found our unplanted pagoda dogwood from last year’s plant sale had survived winter in its pot. We planted it in the front garden. Back at work, I find a short stack of western North American sedges right where I’d left them. My email holds news about an accepted oak paper, plus an email about another one in the mill and a paper on the flora of Indianapolis to finish up with colleagues. Louis MacNeice’s poem, quoted above, is set behind a “great bay-window… spawning snow and pink roses against it.” It ends:

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes–
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands–
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

So much happens at the margins, the edge between one exhibit and another, between the museum and the park, between home and work, between the woods and a pile of specimens. I think that’s all I’m trying to say this morning.



3 April 2017

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