Monday, April 4, 2016

The History of Existing Things


Those hallowed and pure motions of the sense
Which seem, in their simplicity, to own
An intellectual charm; that calm delight
Which, if I err not, surely must belong
To those first-born affinities that fit
Our new existence to existing things

-William Wordsworth

In a carved wooden box, on a shelf are things that would mean little to most  There are a couple of neatly posted pieces of newspaper, on which the date was manually stamped, a date of a clear Autumn Day.  There is my Mom's Badge from the Sheriff's Department, to lie along side my own badge each night.  There is a small yet deadly knife and a delicate Ceramic skunk on which my Mom's initials lie.  It occupied Dad's shop bathroom until Big Bro and I remodeled it, to make it elderly friendly, and Mr. Skunk came with me to live. All of them small things, by themselves, just objects, together a collage of joy and pain, things without consequence but for their history.

Most of us get the little things around us, from simple to sublime, some posting them cursively on paper, others capturing them in photos, some just cataloging them away in the brain for quiet afternoons of reflective thought. Some walk through life with a remote in their hand and blinders on, not realizing what they missed until all they hear is the final shut of a door.

Others look only ahead, paying no attention to the past, the remembrances of brave men, the battles and freedoms we have fought for. My flag was at half staff not long back and I bet half the neighbors did not know why, seeing only what's going on in this moment, however useless, with no intention of availing themselves of the lessons of history that rattle around in our pockets like rare coins.

Not I. For me, I'll take the slow path, the closer look, the unseen poetry in a drop of melting snow, the land and soul that thirst, the blood and the tears that united a nation.

I've never been one to collect things, thimbles, figurines, little knick knacks that will require dusting long after I am dust. I've moved too many times over the years to even think about it. I have some cookbooks, I have some of my Mom's glassware and Swedish horse collection, I have a well loved violin that follows me around, annoying the neighbors.

But I learned early to note and catalog things, starting with plants in my first botany class, then working on up to so many small bones. It's why I always liked science museums, having an ingrained curiosity since childhood as to what made things tick. But it wasn't just plants and animals, machines as well needed to be understood. It's why in high school, while the girls were gossiping and buying clothes, I was learning how to rebuild a carburetor.

Certainly now, with the Internet, much of the mystery is gone, the average person being able to learn how to do just about anything on a home computer. Even with graphics, computer animations and YouTube, there are still some ways we learn that are best learned hands on.

But with the Internet, you miss those integral steps, that human interaction that provides a corporate experience. It's physical interaction with emotional understanding that you are not going to get with a 57 inch TV. Comparing a TV show on a subject to hands on looking, touching and watching what it's made of, is like seeing a picture of fresh pie, and tasting it on your tongue. The subject area may be the same, but the experiences are light years apart.

For I like to learn hands on, be it in the field or in a museum, taking a close look at it, holding it close (it's not ticking is it?), feeling the heft of weight in my hand, the form of it under my fingers. All the senses involved. I'd read everything there was about dinosaurs in books as a kid, fascinated with both the size and the structure, but the first time I lay my hand on a dinosaur bone, I was awestruck. I remember it to this day, loitering there in a blaze of sunlight, hand outreached, besieged by the huge strangeness of what I was seeing, the unfamiliar feeling of comprehending for the first time, how old the world really was, and how ALIVE I was. It wasn't just a dinosaur, it was seeing the world as it was, not fairy tales or fables, but true, as that unfamiliarity divided into rivers of wondering that I would follow for years. Including that moment in the theater when I yelled out, "Jurassic Park? Those things with big teeth are from the Cretaceous era!"


But the wandering adventure never ended. Even as a pilot, it continued. I'd look through the window of the aircraft as if it was a doorway to another dimension, wild, tremendous landscape stretching farther than even the eagle could see, blue-green mountains reaching up from the vermilion shores of the high plains. I would dash out into the sky, like a kid released from school, dodging cloudbursts raining down unnamed canyons, looking down with a god's eyes onto the desert homes of the cliff dwellers, hundreds of houses built into stone before you were even born, abandoned thousands of years ago, seemingly close enough to touch.

There were always the museums, including the space museums. Actual vehicles that had returned from space. No story or animation can give you the feeling of seeing up close something that HAD "been there, done that". Some of the early models looked like Frank Genry designs on crack. Or something my brother and I would have attempted to build with our erector sets, giant tinker toy constructions, resembling bulky 1960's foil Christmas trees more than modern spacecraft, topped with antennas that could have been placed on top by someones Norwegian Uncle after too much Glogg.

Yet, in all their dated technology, I paused in wonder, seeing it all and thinking that all of the things I built as a child and a teen, the weather radio, the rockets, could have become something like that, with no more imagination, but simply more education. Museums are like that for me, a humanness of history that brushes my skin as I pass each display, clinging to me even as I leave with the genius, fixations and wonder of humanity waiting outside the door.
Like all things mechanical, all things living, what we look at is much more than a sum of its parts. Those early space ships, the eroded surfaces speaking of the intense heat of reentry, the thin outer skin belying the courage of the man that it cradled, just waiting to be blasted into the unknown. A Mercury wonder of heat and design and engineering unheard of in its day. Compare it with the Soviet ships, odd instruments with Cyrillic labels, foreign yet familiar. An animation can never give you that little surge of awe I got on seeing that warning stenciled on a Soyuz reentry module: “Man inside! Help!” -- words that are dense testimony to both the dangers of a landing and the human ignorance that may exacerbate it.

The best way to figure out how something works is to take it apart.My brother and I started with the TV at age 12. The only reason I am not STILL grounded is that we got it back together before we were busted. Somethings are easy, radios, artichokes, a Cuisinart, easy pickings for the inquisitive geek. Hearing about or watching a TV show about taking something apart is one thing. But seeing it, laying your hands on it, hearing it, smelling it, is another.

Those are the type of museums I like, boneyards of man and machine, unlikely mechanics in action, dismantled into their core components, laid out for us to wonder. The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry had this heart the size of a small kitchen in which you could walk through. In it, you experienced each chamber of the heart, complete with sounds, and as a child there on holiday, I would sometimes just stand in it for the longest time, before I could bear to leave it to go stare at the wall of bees. I still have fun in the children's section of science museums where there are no "don't touch" signs and the world is one big laboratory.

In the Berlin Museum of Communications there is a postal service stagecoach, dismantled into its components, hanging up. Most walk past it, eager to get to the computer modules. Some look at it as only as a dusty visage, long divorced from reality, decaying quietly as only a glimpse of something no longer needed. I see structure, form, load bearing surfaces, joints and sinew of wood, made by people that perhaps could not read or write, but oh, they could build.

Give me cross sections, give me actual animals, preserved and on display, don't show me computer videos of things I can watch at home on the discovery channel. Give me not just knowledge, but touch, for when I do it's a tiny chill, partly the warmth of recognition. Early science was imitation and magic but it was more than that. If you go into the caves of Lascaux, the innermost and highest paintings were done at such elevation that they would never have been visible with the light possessed in that age, to anyone other than the artist who painted them. For he was not painting for them, he was painting for something else, a vision that only he saw and wished to document for time.

Unfortunately, most of the technology and science museums today cater to the computer generation with entire floors dedicated to Genetics with wall displays of the codes GAG, GAT TAC ACT) and huge stylized double helices of plastic, all a high tech but impersonal submersion into something that to me, is the Rosetta stone of life. The genetic code is almost universal. The same codons are assigned to the same amino acids and to the same START and STOP signals in the vast majority of genes in animals, plants, and microorganisms. We are all more closely bound than we think.

I didn't want to see plastic models of DNA, I wanted to see the real thing. If you want to show me DNA, then show me DNA - in test tubes, or through an actual working electron microscope.

Which is why a chance to visit a museum in Dublin on the way back from an overseas speaking event a while back meant a lot to me. It's unchanged since Victorian days, the ground floor being dedicated to Irish animals, featuring giant deer skeletons and a variety of mammals, birds and fish. Among the locals it's known as the "Dead Zoo" and when I heard that I knew I was going to spend a day of personal leave there. The upper floors of the building were laid out in the 19th Century in a scientific arrangement showing animals by taxonomic group, an incredible diversity, the interrelations of species through the evolutionary tree.

And my favorite, the bones, the incredible biotechnology of the animal machine, the structure and dentition, the vertebrate body scheme working and adapting. Sure a plastic model of a skull will give you an idea, but it can't possibly show you the exquisite detail of a creature dead hundreds of years. Photos weren't allowed, but I looked and with sketchpad I drew, bone gleaming though splendors last decay, eyes nothing but two empty pools in which the stationary world lurked gravely in miniature.

Stop and look in a museum, stand in places where history stood still, the courtyard at Monte Alban in quiet sunlight you can almost feel the air shimmering with life, priests, victims, warriors, the ball court where to lose the game was to lose life. Those lives vibrate through you.

"those first firm affinities that fit, our new existence to existing things".

That which remains are all things, past, present, they make us what we are, everything the human mind has invented, everything the human heart has loved and grieved for, that bravery has sacrificed for. It may touch only a few, but it connects us all.


I've felt this way in the field, hours spent bending down, sorting out the smallest detail.  Glaring into the sightless night, which was broken only by the events that brought me here, I tune everything else out, but that sound that will never be annealed until I am done, even as I sleep, the events, the pieces, the history, the why, roaring down around me until they stiffen and set like cement and take form.  Small things, inconsequential things, that, when woven with human decision and the vagrancies of fate, form something that remains, for lessons, for closure, even if no more tangible than shattered echoes.
Remember those who have gone before us.

I thought of that as I left the museum that day, I felt it as I trudged home tonight, wearily looking up at the flag. I felt the hush of the wind, a soft voice that says, remember me, in layer and layer of ash in water and stone, bones to be studied, new life to be born. There in a puddle at my feet; a small leaf, decaying in the water, the tissue gone, only the delicate fibrous remnants of that which was vein and bone left. Rocking in the water as if in the motion of sleep, they waved their translucent goodbye.
On the dresser at my home tonight, lies a simple crafted box in which contains the fired remembrance of pure love and loyalty.  Remember me, remember this, from God's intricate creations of blood and bone and sinew, to our own divined dust, the distance is small.
 -L.B. Johnson

11 comments:

  1. It is interesting, the things that we hold dear that might not make sense to anyone else. When my father died (mom having died 6 years earlier) there was only one thing in the house that I wanted. It is a small saucepan. It is very well used. At one time it was used to warm the bottles of infants who are now adults. Later it was used for meals. I never use this pan.

    Murphy & Stanley's mom

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    1. I wrote of it in one of the two books - but I have this deeply scratched, cheap clear green bowl in which my Mom would lovingly scoop out my goldfish (always named General Finn) while she cleaned his bowl every week. I don't use it, it just sits high up in a cupboard where I can see it and smile.

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    2. I wrote of it in one of the two books - but I have this deeply scratched, cheap clear green bowl in which my Mom would lovingly scoop out my goldfish (always named General Finn) while she cleaned his bowl every week. I don't use it, it just sits high up in a cupboard where I can see it and smile.

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  2. OUR mom has a big dose of that UNQUENCHABLE Curiosity... Watching a BUG's Legs move it along... Seeing a PUDDLE go from reflecting the SKY's Blue and Clouds.. to seeing the Cracks forming as the Sun and Wind evaporate the rainwater.
    But then, SHE has been to GRACELAND and .... well, let's just say... fur HER...it was another example of the triumph of HOPE over Experience.

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    1. So many small things - missed if we don't look. Hugs to your Mom.

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  3. My parents instilled a love of museums and a respect for those who came before. I am blessed to have my great-grandparents wedding crystal (or parts of it) - I remember them. I also have my great-great grandmother's silver gravy boat. I never knew her, but imagine her life everything my husband uses it (I don't actually like gravy!)

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    1. I let most of Mom's stuff go to the grandchildren as I seriously downsized, but the few little pieces, none valuable, are precious
      .

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  4. When mom's Auntie passed away, all mom wanted was her old snuff glasses. Her aunt dipped fine powdered snuff that came in glass jars. She would wash them out and they were perfect for little hands to hold and drink out of them.

    Aroo to you,
    Sully

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    1. What a sweet story. I hope those little glasses keep her memory close.

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  5. Hari OM
    My sisters and I attended a workshop with Drake Music Scotland yesterday - they paid homage to our 'Maestro', so recently departed; we 'workshopped' on one of her compositions, a single page of staves and notes. It was quite profound. That page will go into a frame now.

    Nothing beats 'hands on' with history - no matter the length of it. YAM xx

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  6. Oh I agree... you should visit the hygiene museum in germany... they have the real stuff :o) I was there for 4 hours once... it was so interesting to see how much parts such a body needs to work as eggs-pected...

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Welcome to The Book of Barkley. This blog was created for more memories of Barkley as well as updates on Abby the Senior rescue Lab,who we adopted in 2014.

Stop in and say hello. 100% of book sales are donated to animal rescue organizations across the U.S. and Canada and Search Dog Foundation. If you have a non-profit animal organization and would like autographed copies of the book for fundraisers or a blog post featuring your organization please contact me at cliodna58@gmail.com