Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Gray-faced sengi visit


I went to the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park to interview Galen Rathbun and Jack Dumbacher for the “You Animal!” show. The new building is open, airy, light-filled. When completed, it will be the largest green building in the world; the roof, for example, is being converted to a living garden with native plants. For now, it is still very much a construction site, but the glimpse I had gives an idea of how stunning the opening will be in September.

My purpose was not to tour the new facilities, but to see the holotype of the gray-faced sengi. Galen and Jack led the way to the windowless vault that stored the collection of birds and mammals, which few people ever see. It reminded me of a locker room; row upon row of bland, locked metal cabinets. Yet the contents were more precious than sweaty towels and gym shoes.

I gasped when Jack opened a cabinet and I saw the animals, even though that’s why I was there. I wasn’t prepared to see so many, so immaculately preserved and recognizable yet exposed and vulnerable, it seemed to me, lying row upon row on the roll-out shelves. I was surprised that Jack let me hold them. The fur of the gray-faced sengi felt soft and healthy, although the animal was filled with cotton. There were birds in the cabinet that the world would never see alive again; ivory-billed woodpeckers (status still debated) and passenger pigeons in a neat row, small yellowing tags tied to their legs identifying them in handwritten scrawl. Some were over 100 years old.

They were extinct, yet still here. Their bodies had not disappeared from the face of the earth, only the life in them. They seemed so nearly alive. I couldn’t help but think that, if their bodies were still intact – although they weren’t really, because cotton has replaced their hearts and lungs – would it be so hard to put life back in and cross back? It seems such a fine line separating life and death; one moment a creature is alive, heart pumping, and then - a handful of cells cease to divide, neurons no longer exchange electric current – and it is gone forever.

1 comment:

Gordy said...

I was moved by Molly’s description of the specimen cases at the Academy. I worked there for many years and walking down the rows of bird and mammal collections (almost 140,000 specimens altogether!) never seemed ordinary. It was haunting for me to be around so many dead individuals, so much beauty, lost life, evolution, and history. And the specimens of extinct species…well, they defy description. What can you say about a bird like the passenger pigeon that not so long ago darkened the sky with its millions, and is now represented only by a few cotton-filled specimens in a metal box? I’m reluctant to use the word “sacred” to describe the collections, but they are something like that for natural-history-loving secularists like me. They are significant even beyond their usefulness, and they evoke simultaneously awe, and hope, and loss, all things religious people can find at church, I’m told. Thanks, Molly, for reminding me of all that.