Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Sparrow Drawer

The sandhill crane today. He no longer welcomes you to the exhibit, but he's still dancing. Photograph taken by me.

I love poetry. There's no art form that's better at conveying what it felt like to be in a certain place at a certain time.

With that in mind, here is "The Sparrow Drawer" by Canadian poet Diana Brebner, from her posthumous poetry collection The Ishtar Gate. The poem takes place in the old bird exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Most of the displays she describes no longer exist.

The Sparrow Drawer

I. The Sandhill Crane

The sandhill crane, in his glass case, performs
his nuptial dance. Jumping, bowing, and wildly

flapping, reads the museum description. Well,
aren't we all the same in love? This dead

male is frozen in the pose, on a bed of
stone. Thus, the museum welcomes us to its

permanent exhibit: Birds in Canada. When I
bring my daughters to the museum, because

it is cleaner and easier than a day in the
bush, they always ask to see the birds, or the

big animals. And I tell myself: this will
do them good. They know enough about mud,

rain, being hungry, no toilets, and wanting
to go home. In the real world, a bird is

always gone before my two-year-old can look.
Or, alternately, I can never find the great

blue herons they insist are really there.

II. Birds by Number

In the Eastern Hardwood Forest thirty-three birds
are mounted on log pedestals, each in a pose

that is meant to be life-like. I remind myself
these are dead bodies. I have no memory for

useful things, but I can remember my first
sighting of migrating snowbirds (Junco hyemalis)

in Algonquin Park, the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks
at the feeders near the cabin, the enormous

black and white Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus
pileatus) with its blood-red crest, up near the

cliffs at Luskville. I can tell you where, and
who was with me, down a great-list of the birds

I believed forgotten. My daughters learn birds
by numbers, matching a numbered body with a

name on a list, given in three languages, as if
that will make them real. The fact is, my girls

enjoy this. They call them doll-birds. And the
bird names are repeated solemnly, as if each

name were part of a spell. And I do it too.
For who can say this is not reverence, a litany,

a prayer, a wish for something promised. The
name of one woman who died finds its way to

the list, and I remember my first sighting of a
            rare old man I loved.

III. The Sparrow Drawer

It is time for us to be leaving; somehow we find
ourselves before one final display. It is the same

forest, rearranged by seasons, and including
the ducks, herons, owls, and hawks, that are

familiar to The Forest, as they call the example of
hardwood forest that is local, and ours. And then,

beneath the glass cases, my eldest daughter finds
two drawers. Above them a simple label reads:

Would you like to know more about birds? How
many times did I bring that other child to this

place? We never found these boxes. And they
are not hidden, merely unexpected. The first

lights up as we pull it out. Eggs. Large and
small. Blue, green, mottled beige, brown. Great

white goose eggs, the hummingbird's egg glowing,
a white pearl, all in rows, labeled, an old child's collection.

And the second drawer opens quietly, and as easily
as the first, lights up, displays its contents.

This is the sparrow drawer. No-one has gone to any
trouble to make this look pretty. Dead sparrows

lie in an uneven row, their bodies in disarray,
frozen on snow, which is also synthetic batting,

with black plastic arrowheads stuck in strategic
areas to accentuate their differences. The caption

tells us: all sparrows look alike to the untrained
eye. They are difficult to tell apart in the field.

Chipping Sparrow. Savannah Sparrow. Lincoln's Sparrow.
Song Sparrow. Swamp Sparrow. And alone, beneath

the line of identical bodies, a Pine Siskin, just
to show us how even one species can be mistaken for

another. And what have I seen hovering in a field?
I could swear it was the child I have lost. Love

I have learned the hard way; how many hovering boys
in schoolyards look just like him. Of course, I don't

want to see this, or the dead birds, and I close
the drawer. But my girls will not leave it alone.

They open it. I close it. They cry. So, we open it
again. We say the names of the different sparrows.

I tell them that any creature, once named, cannot
be forgotten. This, I believe. You see, there are

no numbers there, only names. The Pine Siskin trembles
at the bottom of the drawer, as we roll it shut.

Brebner, D. 2005. The Ishtar Gate: Last and Selected Poems, ed. Stephanie Bolster. McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal. 192 pp.

These Canada geese were mounted on the ceiling of the old bird exhibit, and surrounded by mirrors that made it look like there were a lot more than there really were. Prints of this picture are for sale on eBay.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

AMNH Digital Special Collections

I recently discovered an incredible resource on the website of the American Museum of Natural History: the Digital Special Collections.

It's a browsable and searchable archive of thousands of images from the museum's library: technical illustrations, photos from museum expeditions, and -- most dear to my heart -- photographs of long-gone exhibits and of exhibits under construction.

Here are two of my favourites. The information I've provided comes from a terrific book about the AMNH called Dinosaurs in the Attic.

This is a skeleton in the process of being mounted by the great osteologist Samuel Harmstead Chubb. It's the last mount he completed before he died in 1949: a donkey turning his neck to nibble at botfly eggs on his hind leg. Chubb is mounting the skeleton using his system of suspending each bone from a scaffold and making tiny adjustments until it's in exactly the right position.

Here's a photo from the Life Magazine archives of Chubb with the nearly-completed mount.

This is a social weaver bird nest in the final stage of installation in the Biology of Birds Hall. A whole flock of these birds will collectively build one huge thatched nest, and add to it each year. This particular nest -- as well as the crown of the acacia tree it was built in -- was collected in South Africa in 1925 by ornithologist Herbert Friedmann.

There are plenty more images to be discovered. Go explore!

Preston, D.J. 1986. Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion Into the American Museum of Natural History. Ballantine Books, New York, 308 pp.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Making History

Posted on behalf of Andrew, whose account isn't set up yet.

The Canadian Museum of Civilization website now says history.


On this 7th day of January, the 2000th and 13th year of the Common Era, the Canadian Museum of Civilization no longer exists.