May 9, 2017

On the third floor of the natural history museum in Cambridge, MA is an exhibit of extinct mammals, a winding corridor of bones and glass. I was there on a cold day in May, gazing into the prehistoric skulls of cats with their sharp teeth and enormously empty eye sockets, walking down the evolutionary history of horses, small to big, their toes atrophying with each iteration, until only the middle toe remained at last, beoming a hoof.

Then I turned a corner, and came upon a tableau of three animals: a toxodon, a glyptodon, and a giant sloth reared upon its hindlegs. All the other glass cases were densely packed, like an encyclopedia of skeletons, claustrophobic with information, but these three stood apart from all the others in that sea-green alcove which took up two-thirds of the length of the room by itself. They were massive, forlorn looking creatures, their poses imbued with a bewildering sadness: the squat-limbed toxodon staring off vacantly at the wall, the glyptodon tilting its head as if incapable of comprehending the enormous weight of its own domed carapace (a bone made of a thousand little bones), and the sloth reaching up toward the fruits of a long-extinct tree.

Behind them, fixed upon the sea-green wall in capital letters, were the words:


Suddenly I felt a pang of recognition, a sort of twinge in my nose, a hotness behind the eyes. I remembered those years, long, buried years, when I too felt like an isolated land, when bizarre animals evolved in me also. But then it seemed such an absurd thing, to be feeling this intense sympathy with a prehistoric landmass, that I started to laugh. What else can you do, surrounded by the forever partial evidence of how the past became the present?

Sometimes when I find myself in a natural history museum I have to keep reminding myself, "This is not the thing itself, but an exhibit about a thing, it does not occur naturally here." I don't know when it started, this mantra. But I think I do it so I don't start believing that those things only exist in the museum, in this detached conceptual space. Like if you showed someone the fossil of a triceratops they will probably say, "That's a triceratops." But if you showed someone a skeleton of a human they will tell you, "That's a skeleton." All the time I feel like we are doing this, confusing the remains of a thing that happened with the thing itself. When I think about a herd of triceratops, or a crystal growing in a cave, or a giant squid lurking in the deep, or a galaxy spiraling away from us, I want to invest them all with every ounce of reality I can muster, because I feel like they deserve to be real, no less than you or I deserve it–and also because doing so in turn gives a greater depth and richness and connectedness to our experience of reality. When I eat a chicken I often smirk, remembering: this is what dinosaurs taste like.

These days, the bizarre mammals from South America are vanished from the surface of my world (leaving other equally bizarre if utterly mundane animals to replace them, such as the alpaca), but a few of the recovered fossil specimens have been given their own generous display on the third floor of the natural history museum of my personality, which you can visit everyday from the hours of 9am to 5:30pm.