Archive for January, 2011

Adventures in Taxidermy

January 27th, 2011 | Meera

I really don’t mean for this to be a bird-centered website, or for every other post to be about my beloved prep lab at the Field Museum—I’ve had an essay sliding around in my mind for a few weeks now about ice, for instance, and mean to get to it as soon as possible.

But since I’ve reached a bona fide milestone in my bird-taxidermy education, I wanted to share it with you: over several long hours today, Tom and I finished mounting the Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) I’ve been working on. It still needs to dry out and settle in the freezer for a few months, during which time I’ll take it out occasionally to re-preen and re-tape it; but all the major steps in its preparation are basically complete now. This is very exciting for me because unlike the first taxidermy mount I worked on with Tom (that gorgeous Snowy Owl I was telling you about last week), I actually did the lion’s share of the labor on the Cooper’s. I skinned it, set its eyes, replaced the tissue we removed from its wings and legs with cotton, carefully slit the membranes around each individual feather in the tracts along its neck and back to keep its plumage from tightening up as its skin dried, made a body for it, wired its legs and head to its body (Tom took over the most with the parts involving wiring), and sewed it up. I feel much more of a sense of ownership over it, and the next bird I do will probably be a solo endeavor—not least because Tom is leaving soon on a six-week field research trip to Malawi.

Ownership or no, however, there is no way this bird would look as good as it does now if it hadn’t been for Tom assuming the reins whenever anything got too tricky, especially when it turned out that because of a change in the way we decided to arrange the wings, the body I’d made was a little too wide. He was able to maneuver the hawk’s wings into position despite the fact that the tight fitting body meant there was very little give in the skin around its back and chest. After he mounted it on a base he’d made earlier this week, I spent a long time adjusting its pose and pulling its feathers into place with a pair of tweezers. I think it looks alert and alive, which is really neat. You’ll see in the picture below that it’s currently being held in position with pins and tape; those will be removed once it’s dried completely.

Cooper's Hawk, mounted (2)

I’m especially pleased to share this news with you at such a timely moment: yesterday, the Cooper’s Hawk that had been trapped in the Library of Congress reading room for a week was finally freed, with the help of a couple of starlings as bait (poor starlings, but at least now no one can say they aren’t useful for something). By the way, take a good look at the photo in that news story and compare it to the one above: the LOC bird is still a juvenile, and the one we worked on in the lab was an adult. There is a dramatic and beautiful change in plumage and eye color that takes place when a bird reaches breeding age. The patterns on the breast feathers of adults are a warm red color, while those of juveniles are a dull brown—and eyes go from yellow to red in the transition.

Prep Lab Vignette

January 21st, 2011 | Meera

Tomorrow will be the coldest day we’ve seen this season, but today I am in the prep lab and it is warm enough—a rare thing—for me to take off my cardigan while I work. Because I have dinner plans tonight I am wearing, instead of my usual t-shirt, a sober wool dress: warm in gray and black and with a white bar running across my torso. In a moment it will be peppered with flakes of sawdust, but for now I feel myself sleek, a version of a Laughing Gull in modish breeding plumage. I sit. I take up my birds.

A Brown Creeper starts my day. It makes me smile with how long its forked tail is, how stiff—like a rudder for a tiny boat, except no boat would move quite like I have seen creepers move, in that dance that is all scuttle and scratch up and down tree trunks in spirals, like ninjas scaling a fortress wall. To see a creeper is to see a spider, a cicada, a gecko in bird form.

The bird I am holding has coloring that guidebooks will tell you is “cryptic,” which means it’s designed to camouflage rather than advertise. The term is lyrical, but not therefore inapt. Life is a kind of war. If your coloring must speak, let it be coded. I peer into the patterns of brown and white that cover the creeper’s wings—searching for hidden meanings. Instead I find a splash of copper, rusty and bright, hiding on its back like a gift.

I touch a finger to its bill. The thing is curved and sharp but not as curved and sharp as the creeper’s toes: three-in-front-and-one-behind and each ending in long, long claws whose tips prickle and stick to my skin like Velcro just as they prickle and stick to bark. I have to pull the creeper’s toes away from one hand with the other. If I let them they would cling to my fingerprints. If I could devote the rest of my life to becoming a tree, I would let them.

The radio plays Elgar, plays Rodrigo. I hum the music under my breath. So sweet it hurts. The radio is melancholy today.

Dave, behind me, is cheerful. He has received a box. From it he draws dozens of birds, collected in South Africa ten years ago, prepared by a skilled hand, and given to the museum by a university. “It’s like Christmas came again,” he beams. The colors of these birds are startling: crimson, indigo, black with the sheen of a river at night. Olive with the sheen of satin. He lays them out in large, shallow drawers. They form a palette that would make an artist weep.

I pull my stitches closed on the Brown Creeper and clean its feathers of their final day’s dirt: all the grime it did not have time to preen away itself. To dry and fluff them with a little puff of compressed air, I walk to the opposite side of the room. I am glad for this excuse to look over Peggy’s shoulder. Peggy is the museum’s resident artist, and today she is sketching the taxidermied Snowy Owl Tom let me work on with him some months ago. Last week I put the final touches on it, filling in with epoxy the tiny gaps that formed between its round black lids and its beautiful yellow glass eyes as its skin dried and shrunk. Now it sits just out of reach on a counter, wearing a sign Tom made. “PLEASE DON’T TOUCH ME—FRAGILE! :)”

But Peggy isn’t touching our Snowy. She’s doing its portrait. I try not to be too obvious about it but I am staring at her while I dry my feathers. She’s working in pencil, for now, on a large sheet of paper as white as the owl itself. She’s drawn guide lines to help her with size and scale, and she’s working on sketching its head and wings. It looks magnificent: regal, curious, intelligent. Life-sized, or perhaps a hair larger.

The radio plays Mahler. The scientist, the writer, and the artist are listening.

310

Loving Observation: Photographing the Science Museum

January 17th, 2011 | Meera

The following essay was first published in May 2008 at the online photo-literary journal Utata, where I have been a contributing editor for the past five years. I know that at least a few of you are new readers as of this month’s Open Lab announcement—and so I wanted to share this piece here. It’s as good an introduction to who I am and the way I think as any—although when I wrote it, I didn’t realize that coming on three years later I’d spend hours behind the scenes at a science museum every single week.

There are many ways in which people can establish their science-geek credentials early on. They can devour every book they find about dinosaurs, planets, and all the squishy, sticky, abnormally strange things the human body does. They can catch, kill, and mount so many backyard bugs that the sharp perfume of ethyl acetate starts to smell good in their eager noses. They can cover their ceilings in stars, make their own volcanoes, build computers from scratch, or race to the front of the line on the day of their fifth-grade science museum excursion. If you happen to be a certain kind of child, getting your science-geek credentials is a cinch.

I never got mine. I may have been bookish, bespectacled, and pathologically shy, but I was always more of a literature nerd than a science geek. I did get points for being obsessed with animals. I was more inclined, though, to stalk neighborhood strays bearing a bottle of milk with which I fully intended to save a runt someday. I wasn’t much for dissecting what was once living and carefully labeling its insides. As for science museums, I vividly remember being overwhelmed with joy the first time I watched a film in what they used to call the OMNIMAX theater (a name whose grandiosity I didn’t fully appreciate at the time). Still, that was mostly because sitting in a huge dome watching stars swirl high above induced in me a pleasant feeling of vertigo and awe; a sensation, I suspect, from which no one is immune. At the time, anyway, I didn’t actually want to know much about the physics of stars.

Some Amazing Thing (Paper Fish)
Photo taken at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

What I’m trying to tell you is that I’m a late bloomer when it comes to science museums. I wish I had realized sooner how much I would grow to love staring into the eyes of taxidermied animals and tracing the sleek lines of skeletons with a finger— how much romance I would eventually find bursting from within the bulging outline of a trilobite fossil. All those years wasted writing bad poems and making up terrible plays, when all along I could have been crawling through whale vertebrae and calculating how much belladonna it would take to kill a man.

Today I can’t imagine a more perfect afternoon than one spent in the dim confines of a natural history museum. I’m rather happy in a planetarium, too. Oh, or any building whose contents sing a paean to terrifying pharmaceutical products from another age. There’s nothing more intoxicating, now, than the thrill I feel when I pick up the visitor’s map from the front counter. I unfold it ceremoniously, assuming the confident air of a person who never has any trouble at all—don’t be silly—figuring out where she is and how to get home. I plan my approach: dinosaur skeletons first, always, then the mammal hall, then minerals—unless there happens to be a medical history exhibit in the building, in which case all bets are off and you might have to come back and get me tomorrow.

I bring my camera, of course.

You might not want to look too close
Photo taken at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum.

Is there anyone who doesn’t feel a certain frisson of excitement when they see something organic preserved in a glass jar? I don’t know exactly what it is, but I suspect it might have something to do with certain cultural associations we all carry around in our heads, some strange common currency that comes from years of watching mad scientist movies late at night.That might be me in there, I find myself thinking. If some other intellectually curious species with opposable thumbs and access to the secrets of chemistry had come to dominate the planet instead of my own, that might be my shriveled body all scrunched up in there—my brain at whose familiar whorls some creature with a purple exoskeleton would now be leering through the glass, wondering how on earth it could be so very…grey.

Mostly, though, what I love about standing in front of these heavy jars is how much easier they make it to observe the world I love so much, in close detail. Time pauses, temporarily. The barriers between me and the mysteries of this earth fall, temporarily. Nothing else matters except looking, and everything about the place where I am is designed to make it easier to look—and to see. I see that this barnacle has claws like a dragon’s. I see that these spiders have legs like sharp needles. I see that this frog has approximately six times as many organs inside its torso as I would have thought it had room for. I try to look as much as I can, and when I have looked until I have seen, I take out my camera.

Together Forever
Photo taken at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

Science museums are full of materials, organic and inorganic, that are beautiful to photograph. Skin, bone, tooth, stone. Feather, fur, crystal, bristle. Metal that shines and glass that shimmers. I will say that I did not truly believe a collection of electrical wiring and plastic tubing could take my breath away until I met a series of charming walking robots at the MIT Museum a couple of years ago. Not only were they quirky, endlessly complicated, and slightly gawky—three of my favorite things—they were also lit with grace and gravitas.

One of the near-universal failings of museums, no matter of what stripe, is their lack of adequate lighting. Among other things, this makes photography extraordinarily difficult. There are of course important and valid technical reasons for the gloom—many objects on display are delicate, and apt to be damaged by too much light and heat. Sometimes, though, roaming through dark, quiet hallways with my pupils adjusting to the cavelike atmosphere, I come across a beautifully lit display case that appears to have been designed by someone who used to work in the theater. The sense of drama that these invisible curators craft can be so strong that I almost hear the opening chords of an overture and see a curtain the color of burgundy slowly rising.

Waiting to Walk

Photo taken at the MIT Museum.

It’s true that science museums are tributes, in some very deep sense, to the ingenuity of the human mind, and to the triumph of rational thinking over magical thinking. One of my favorite things about them, though, is that they aren’t afraid to remind us of how thin the line between the two can be. Science museums are full of exhibits that put past human foolishness on display. Psst, they whisper, people used to think you could treat paralysis at home, with a portable ultraviolet ray generator. They used olive oil to dissolve gall stones. They poisoned tuberculosis patients with radium. Don’t forget, they tell you. Don’t forget there’s always more to know.

White Cross Violet Ray
Photo taken at the International Museum of Surgical Science.

When I shoot in a science museum, I don’t try to fit everything I see into my frame. It’s impossible, for one thing, and for another, I’m not trying to recreate the exhibit in its entirety. What I want to do is figure out exactly what it is about an object I find fascinating, beautiful, repulsive, or astounding, and put that in my frame all by itself. What I want is for the photograph I end up with to have something to do with the feeling I had when I first saw the object.

That feeling is always the same, whether I’m looking at the claw of a maniraptor, pointed as a witch’s finger in a fairytale, or marveling at the astonishingly spare, zipper-like skeleton of a snake. It’s a difficult feeling to name: not quite excitement, not quite joy, not even simply wonder. I think the reason I love photographing science museums is that, unlike many—though thankfully not all—art museums, they don’t make me feel as if I have to wear my geeky credentials on my shoulder just to make it through the front door. Science museums assume I know nothing (which is generally a pretty safe bet) and still they can’t wait to show me the most amazing things in the world.

maniraptor tickles your spine
Photo taken at the American Museum of Natural History.

The Boilerplate Rhino

January 15th, 2011 | Meera

After spending 2010 engaged in a process of prodigious daily documentation, it seemed a little sad to begin 2011 without giving it something of a photographic shape. In that spirit, I’m creating a record of all the books that the year holds. It would be nice if it turned out to be a large record, since I—along with everyone else I know—would like to read more—but small or large, by Jove, it will persist unto the ages.

A good number, although certainly not all, of these titles are likely to be science books—and when they are, I’ll try to say something brief about them here.

First up, the alluringly named The Boilerplate Rhino. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that despite his prolific output and his renown, this is my first David Quammen. It was DeLene’s intriguing list of recent reading, on which his name figures three times, that finally convinced me I had to rectify that omission. This particular book collects 25 columns Quammen wrote for Outside magazine during his long and enviable tenure as its resident curious person.

I began The Boilerplate Rhino (all crisp pages, silky, uncracked binding, extraordinary cover art, and sweet new-book odor) last Saturday, perched comfortably on a bar stool at the window of the Kickstand Espresso Bar in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood—a gloriously smooth cappuccino by my hand. (I was hard-pressed to decide which perfection to sully first with my touch: the book or the coffee.) I finished it this afternoon, curled up on a couch with a cat on one side of me and a husband on the other. Over the course of that week, The Boilerplate Rhino took me on 25 little jaunts to remote Indonesian islands, snake pits in Texas, Mexican hotel rooms, and central Amazon forests. I’d say that was a pretty good deal for a mere $8 (list price: $15, but Powell’s sells mainly used and remaindered books).

Quammen writes in his introduction that one way in which a columnist can achieve both familiarity and surprise is by presenting readers with “outlandish material in a friendly, companionable voice.” If this book is at all representative of his Outside output, then it seems clear he was eminently capable of delivering on that promise. The Boilerplate Rhino is the sort of book that causes you constantly to halt in reading, shake your head violently, and shout aloud to anyone who happens to be listening.

What you shout are things like “Jesus! DID YOU KNOW that Dutch colonists of the 17th century murdered virtually all of the inhabitants on the island of Bandaneira because they weren’t compliant enough nutmeg-harvesting slaves?” Or, a little later, “Oh, come ON. How could anyone really think that capturing lizards and making them run around a racetrack made of Plexiglas, metal, and wire in flight of a human hand would tell you anything about how fast they run when escaping a predator? THAT’S RIDICULOUS…. but now I really want to see a picture of that racetrack.”

As with any collection, no matter how carefully curated, quality varies across essays. The columns I found the least satisfying, in general, were the ones in which Quammen offers self-deprecating descriptions of his difficulties meeting his monthly deadline, which he admits he was always running right up against. A frantic scramble to capture a coherent thread of meaning in the reams of research he’d done about eggs is particularly labored, though it does offer an answer to the (never-before-asked, astonishingly enough) question: If we eat chicken eggs for breakfast, why don’t we eat chicken sperm? I’ll leave that discovery for you to make on your own.

At his best, Quammen is graceful and erudite—especially when he allows non-scientific obsessions to dictate the directions of his wanderings. The luminous “Half-Blinded Poets and Birds,” for instance, beautifully explores the relationship between poetry, vision, and flight, and begins:

Milton, we know, was totally blind. So he wrote about the ways of God. But leave a man with one good eye and he is liable to raise it skyward, squint it, focus it into the middle distance. In two dimensions he will see those animals that move in three dimensions, and what lacks to eyesight can be supplied by heart and imagination. He is liable to write about birds.

How could you—and by you, perhaps I mean I—fail to keep reading?

2011.2. The Boilerplate Rhino

In Other Exciting News:

Last week I was delighted and humbled to learn that one of my posts from last year had been selected from around the web to be part of The Open Lab 2010, an anthology of online science writing. It is a tremendous pleasure to be included on this list of 50 writers. Some of them, like DeLene, Carl Zimmer, and Pal MD, I was already reading often—and some, like Lucas, are wonderful new finds. I hope you visit and enjoy as many of the finalists as you can; every single post is worth reading. I’ll let you know when the book itself goes on sale.

And When You Look Up

January 5th, 2011 | Meera

There was that moment, years before, when you first discovered that you could see the air. How could it have taken so long? Maybe it was only that you’d never sat just so, interrupting the course of a streak of sunlight as it ran—like a river on a mission—down to its journey’s end, its peaceful, silent terminus.

Maybe you’d never been in a place so friable before: a place where the matter of the world was engaged in an occupation of slow and constant crumbling, and had been for some time—the debris of which was so light, and so plentiful, as to become a force that defied gravity itself. You could see it there, levitating above your head. It took the form of great clouds of dust that dropped and rose and eddied in the sunlight, like broken twigs in the flow of a stream.

So the moment came, late though it was, and there it was: the air. Oh, not the air, all right; let us be truthful, if we must. But close enough: the air’s attorney, its surrogate form, its full and official deputy in all matters pertaining to visibility. The air was bright as diamonds. And there you were, amazed.

And there is this moment, years later. Night, not day. No sunlight to be found, not on this half of the earth at any rate; no radiance whose course you might cut off. No dust, either, for the world is now so cold that it has frozen all its chalky parts to itself, and will not release from its hard core nor the slightest bit of powder nor the merest speck of smut. All that breathes about you is obscured. Indeed, you have forgotten as you walk that the air had ever been unveiled.

But then it starts to snow.

So fine a snow is this that if you try to spy a flake it disappears; so fine that though a few rare flecks brush your lips like needles, you cannot be sure of their actuality.

Still you understand: the world up there is kindly crumbling. And when you look up, it strikes you that you stand just so: interrupting the business of a streetlamp.