CHAPTER 1: SCIENTIFICA
“Have you ever seen a deer jawbone? It’s…” Sherry pauses for a moment. Her voice takes a muted tone. “It’s incredibly elegant.” The word elegant almost becomes a sigh and she reaches into the back of the cabinet, presenting the bone to me in two upward facing palms. It’s a shaded white color, almost the length of my forearm. Several teeth remain, tucked into the gently curved corner of the mandible. The shorter end of the bone arcs up to a point like the crest of a wave. Just below, a rounded depression looks like a large thumbprint pressed into soft clay.
“I found it at a dumpsite where hunters leave carcasses once they’ve taken the meat,” Sherry says. “It’s just a bone-yard now.” A crater in a clearing in the woods. The sharp-dug sides have slowly eroded; it doesn’t look so different from the hollow in the deer’s mouth. I remember finding most of a deer’s skeleton among the large rocks of a dry lakebed. The powdery, porous texture of the vertebrae against the ridges of my fingertips, each bone the size of my palm. And in the cabin up the hill, a twin knife. Handle made of bone and teeth; narrow front jaw replaced with a harsh blade that scattered the light.
* * *
Just over a mile south of Sherry’s home in South Strafford, Vermont, a gash of exposed dirt and rock disrupts the densely packed trees. In aerial photographs, the abandoned copper mine looks like a large piece of splintered wood. On the ground, different sedimentary layers create mountains of brown and red dirt, with small valleys etched by opaque green runoff. At dusk during warmer months, Sherry walks to the mine with her husband and watches the clouds of bats rush out of the mineshafts. One evening, she noticed a dip in the side of the road where hundreds of footfalls had caused the cement to begin collapsing at the edge. Sherry followed, tracing the path of worn dirt a few yards into the trees. Then the ground dropped away, exposing the pit of skeletons.
* * *
Sherry tells me she’s into bones. Some she finds cleansed of the flesh, others she takes forcibly – stripping away the meat of road kill. She shows me an owl’s skull, several small birds, a beaver-like animal. A snake’s ribs. Something that might be a dog. “This is from a baby bunny caught in a combine in a wheat field in Kansas. A friend rendered the skull and sent it to me for my birthday.” Someone else gave her the skull of an eight-point buck when she married.
To articulate a skeleton, first the flesh must be removed. Dermestid beetles, cold-water maceration and boiling are common methods, though the last can turn the bones to mush. Boiling takes a night, beetles days to weeks, water months. Then, the bones are degreased by submersion in acetone or water. This soak removes the oily substances of marrow and blood from inside the mineral portion of the bone. Depending on the method used, the bones are left to steep for days to months. When no remaining oils leach out, the bones are dried and the skeleton is reassembled and sealed, ready for display.
Some choose not to process the bones they recover, instead burying them for years and removing them fully cleaned. Others follow the common steps. Sherry has developed her own method. She puts a large pot on the stove and heats water to a simmer. Then, she adds the bones and Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer. She waits until the bones are cleaned of flesh and oils, then brushes them off and lets them dry. Finally, she seals them with a slip of Elmer’s Glue and water. It leaves them durable, with a slight sheen. “Bones are like old houses,” she says. “They have stories to tell.” Sherry’s dark eyes seem to stare past me. She stands, pushing her long grey hair over her left shoulder. Taking an empty mug off the coffee table, she leaves to get more tea.
Thirty-five minutes north of Sherry’s home, six-year-old Aristotle shows me a small wooden shelving unit that contains what his mother calls a museum. It is a collection of items representing his life in Bradford, Vermont. When we’re both sitting cross-legged on the floor, he hands me a large aluminum can. Rocks of varying sizes and colors clank against the corrugated metal as I dump them into a pile on the floor. He places a single rock in my hand. It is dry and porous; the light gray color deepens on one end. I tuck my thumb inside my fist and hold the oblong stone in its place. I rotate my hand so the rock thumb points to the left, asking for a ride. Aristotle laughs, but takes the stone back and returns the corners of his mouth to a neutral position. The next rock is smooth and cold; polished black that reflects distorted contours of the room.
Aristotle shows me how he groups the rocks – by size, by color. I say by texture. He moves the larger rocks next to the can, cupping his hand around one end and pushing them individually across the floor. He needs to use both hands to lift them back into the can. Once he has carefully replaced each stone, he takes out a wooden container. He tells me it’s his special box. Small pieces of wood segment the box into squares, each containing a different specimen of geode or stone. Fewer than half of the spaces are filled.
As Aristotle closes the box, a dog wedges herself into the small space between us. Aristotle exhales a low groan, but instead of pushing the dog away, he wraps his small arms around the inky fur of her neck. “This is Honeymoon Dreamboat Cardona Williamson,” he says. “We just call her Moon.” A cat brushes past my back, moving away from Moon. “That’s Trouble Cat.”
Next Aristotle pulls out several plastic dinosaur skeletons. He tells me about the process of unearthing them from sticky orange sand with a small plastic spade. It took him several hours to clean away the grains and fit the small notches at the ends of the bones together. He shows me each of the skeletons in turn, describing what the creature looked like and what it ate and how big it was. Finally we come to a skeleton I recognize. Several bones make a long, curving neck. “Brontosaurus?” I ask. Aristotle laughs and corrects me. “Everyone knows what a Brachiosaurus is.”
Holding Aristotle’s small dinosaur in my palm, I think of the much larger partial skeleton on the second floor of the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Reproduced from a fossil found in Canada, the rougher patches of the dark brown skull reflect the dim light. Sloping points unfurl at the back of the head; an even larger horn rises from the snout. The massive shield, or frill, has two large holes like eyes. I imagine Aristotle next to me, describing the dinosaur without reading the posted information. If connected to the rest of its body, this Styracosaurus Albertensis would measure eighteen feet long and six feet high. It would roam western North America with a herd of others, eating low-growing vegetation. If threatened, it could hurtle its three-ton weight at a charge of twenty miles per hour.
The other objects in the Fairbanks Museum are clustered into dark wooden alcoves and arranged behind glass dividers. Collected from every continent, over 175,000 objects occupy the space. Natural science specimens are separated into birds, mammals, reptiles and fish. Insects, shells, nests and eggs. Fossils, rocks and minerals. Historical artifacts include tools and toys. Dolls, textiles and weapons. Archival photographs and documents, slowly fading into sepia.
The founder, Franklin Fairbanks, began collecting as a child. And his collection only grew over the years. In his mansion, called Underclyffe, a thirty-two by forty foot room was his dedicated cabinet of curiosities, containing over 450 specimens. When he spoke at the dedication of the museum, he held a group of crystals he had found on the Willey Slide in Franconia Notch fifty-one years earlier.
Collectors carefully inventory their world and arrange it to their liking. They define the relationships between the objects they save. In each item, they hear the stories of other places, other times, other lives. They select these artifacts out of an unending stream of things.
I think of Susan in Fairlee, Vermont. She collects cheap ceramic ducks of all different sizes. She places the larger ones in her garden when the weather warms. She also collects bottle caps, metal tops and sundry plastic pieces like the netting from fruits and vegetables. She feels an attachment to the pieces of leftover fabric that she doesn’t throw away. Usable pieces and small scraps: Pakistani textile, Appalachian linsey-woolsey weave, old mending never patched.
“There are places to donate valuable collections and have one’s name on a brass plate forever,” she says. “But things like worthless but familial stamp collections, much loved children’s books that are too musty dusty for the next generations’ allergies, furniture that was part of our history but needs to be fixed, passed down dishes that can’t be put in the dishwasher –– None of these things is an easy donation.”
She tells me she makes art from the pieces of cloth and bits of plastic. She weaves potholders out of long scraps of jersey, mostly from her mother’s clothes. She plans to construct a giant scarf measuring five by twenty feet. She wants to hang it between two trees in her yard. I picture the fabric. Colors and textures and rough edges and fray. In my mind, I assemble the many piles into a large and sprawling quilt.
Scattered throughout Sherry’s cabinet, a collection of insects make their homes on top of wine corks and in small ceramic dishes. Selecting one to show me, she cups the preserved bug in her hands as though trying not to frighten it. The specimen she’s holding is thin and long, black with white dots on its abdomen. Two dark circular markings surrounded by thick white rings look like large eyes. It’s called an Eastern-Eyed Click Beetle. “Some guy found it in the back of his closet.” If alive, it could snap open a hinge mechanism under its thorax, releasing a store of elastic energy with a popping sound and propelling it several inches into the air. Off its back, away from a bird’s closing mouth, out of Sherry’s cradling hands.
She shows me a cone nosed grasshopper and a black stag beetle in two pieces. The shell of the beetle has an inky sheen, and its separated head is almost as large as the body, if you include the oversized pincers. Sherry reaches into the cabinet again, but does not remove another bug. “I also have snail figurines. They’re just kind of around.” She points to one on top of the cabinet, and others on high shelves around the room. “Snails are fascinating. They move silently in their silent world. No sound in or out. Just gliding along, conforming to things in their path. Feeling the vibrations of the earth with their beautiful, long tentacles.”
Sherry pauses, arm still half extended, pointing to one of the figurines. Then she turns to me abruptly. “I’ve liked insects since I was a little girl.” In the summer, once the sky was dark, Sherry would stretch a big white sheet across her bedroom floor and place a lamp in the center, creating a circle of yellow light. Thick, warm air would press into her room through the open window and fill the space with moisture. Sherry spreads her hands apart, palms down, smoothing the air in front of her. “In the morning, the sheet would be covered in bugs, and I’d draw them.”
She also kept jars under her bed with caterpillars in different stages of chrysalis, raising them until they were big enough to release. “Everything,” she says, “salamanders, pollywogs.” She had to hide the creatures from her mother who liked the outdoors to stay where it was.
When Sherry was little, her mother hauled their water from across the road until the well went bad. Then the state sent trucks carrying men and drills and cables. They pounded into the ground, raising and dropping a hardened metal ram onto the dry dirt until water dampened the dust. But the men in the trucks were too late. Her mother had already contracted hepatitis from the contaminated water. Months passed and the original well decayed, collapsing from a vertical hole in the ground to a swampy flatland.
“Anyway,” Sherry says. She picks up a crochet necklace from the coffee table and runs her finger over the interwoven seed beads. “I got the brilliant idea to see what was at the bottom.” She gathered old rubber hoses and recycled pipes, angling them to siphon the murky water away from the marsh and down a hill. “I found all kinds of things that would end up in jars under my bed.” Sherry places the necklace back on the table. “The insects I found, they looked like space age jewels.”
* * *
“Creepy crawly was always my thing,” Sherry says, looking at me. And when it wasn’t bugs, it was other animals. She received a demerit in Kindergarten because she didn’t put her chair in the circle. Instead, she remained at her desk, watching the turtle in a tank on the teacher’s table at the front of the room. “I was fascinated with the shape of its shell –– the texture of it –– the way that it moved.” Next to me, Sherry reaches into the air in front of her with both hands. “I wanted to touch it.”
Thin black lines traced across the turtle’s lighter skin like wood grain. Two splashes of red marked its ears. The loose, leathery skin where its legs disappeared into its shell crumpled with each elongated step. Moving from rock to water, the turtle’s movements changed, webbed feet spreading water with fluid strokes.
“Animals absorb me and I…” Sherry’s voice goes quiet. When she speaks again, she tells me that she’s always had rescue animals. Birds and cats and Chihuahuas. For “a while” (twenty five years) she also had an iguana. At five feet long, Darwin was too big to keep in a cage, so she let him roam freely about the house. “He would just find a sunny window and hang out. He was very Zen.”
Everywhere I look in Sherry’s home I find collections. And elsewhere, far from her, I find still more. Collections of pocket books in unique shapes (example: stingray). Water guns and armored vehicles. Clothing tags, tubes of toothpaste and containers of hot sauce. Spittoons and butter molds. Two headed animals, burnt food, “Do Not Disturb” signs. Eggs from the Open Fields School's Great Goose Egg Auction (including the very first egg auctioned in 1966). World-class slide rules and model double decker busses. Precision tools, measuring devices, and vintage industrial machines. Old medicine bottles and Santa Clauses. Antique Tractor Seats and old motors. Airline barf bags, belly button lint and chewed gum. Head vases and umbrella sleeves. Wasps’ nests.
Within each collection, time slows. We are offered multiple variants and permutations of a single subject. Space remains a three-dimensional image, prevented from being smoothed out and abstracted. As described in Cultures of Collecting, it is “a space where the everyday prose of the object-world modulates into poetry.”
The Main Street Museum in White River Junction contains hundreds of specimens, crowded into glass cases. Dried leaves from local invasive and non-invasive plant species and the preserved carcass of a creature from the Connecticut River. Sheet music, live music (on occasion), and the remaining salve applied to Phineas Gage’s head wound. Electromagnetism devices, a taxidermist’s folly, a radius bone from a monastery. Shoes worn at Jimmy Carter’s inauguration and paper crowns from various New Year celebrations.
The museum is open by appointment or by chance. When I arrive, the windows are dark, but the door unlocked. The maze-like collection of rooms that make up the museum merge into one another endlessly. The reading room, with shelves stacked high, leads to the “Authorized Personnel Only” room where hundreds of pieces of paper settle into mountains on several tables. Past the narrow center hallway, I find the long space that houses the permanent collection and special exhibits. I walk through the dark and the dust, continually ending up in the same place.
* * *
The owner David quickly turns the pages of an old LIFE magazine as we talk. They make a snapping sound and small flecks of ink fall off like paint chips. The cuffs of his navy blue sweater are worn and extend a bit too far beyond his wrists, like a hand-me-down. He says his museum was really just an accident. “Art and history are created by everyone. Anyone can do it.” He pauses. “You just tell the story of common things.”
He holds up a postcard with a small gray rock taped to one corner. “It’s just a pebble, but the important thing is where it’s from.” A friend sent it to him after visiting Versailles. David looks away from me, looks at the dusty tape on the corner of the postcard. “The whole story of the French Revolution can be told from just this pebble.” He doesn’t say how.
David picks up a small green teacup next to the magazines. The liquid inside is pale, brown, opaque. He makes a slurping sound as he takes a small sip and sets the cup down next to the mismatched saucer. Taking the shallow dish in his palm, he holds it in front of his nose, peering in. He remains still for a moment. “Well,” he says, moving the dish. He tilts it vertically over the cup, letting a group of small crumbs tumble off into his milky tea.
He looks back at me. “You know, a guy came in here and said that all this collection is just a bunch of rubbish.” A few weeks earlier, the man’s wife had given David an item to display: a hairball constructed of her hair and their children’s hair. David inhales, sitting up straighter as he does, then coughs. “So, I looked at him and I said ‘Your DNA is in this collection. I don’t think your DNA is just rubbish.’” He pauses. When he speaks again his voice is hard to hear. “You may think it’s rubbish, but it’s really not.”
I drive in large loops through New Hampshire and Vermont. Sunlight pulses through the trees in my peripheral vision. The road and surroundings rush by in motion parallax, distorting at the edges, pulling me forward to the vanishing point. Snow lies still and cold. Each river is a salt-white tundra: solid, rough and cracked. Months pass in a blur of roads and faces and objects.
Only the taller mountaintops are still coated with ice. The rest are muted by the sun, flattened into two dimensions. Their colors are murky and reduced to layered outlines. Rivers melt at the edges, water spilling out and running cold. Each road I’ve driven looks foreign. Pavement edged in bare brown trees, leaves piled below. It could be late fall or early spring. A wild turkey runs across the highway.