You never know what you’ll see and hear when you visit the American Museum of Natural History.
I spent a few hours there last Saturday afternoon while in New York for Sports Illustrated work. I enjoyed seeing, in the Hall of Birds, 372 avian species (stuffed) in dioramas—exotic types such as a glossy drongo from Congo, a purple-crowned fairy from Panama, a Southern screamer from Argentina and a Mongolian finch from the Gobi desert. I also observed many varieties of museum visitor—from the harried female carriage-pusher to younger, wilder specimens like the raucous redheaded paw-it-all . Here are a few random scenes and comments that reminded me why the museum is one of my favorite places:
“Come on! Let’s go see the heavy elements!” —Declaration from an exuberantly stressed father to a deeply unmotivated three-year-old whose pants he is struggling to pull up in the men’s room.
Teenage girl No. 1, pointing to a genetics display: “Look—DNA tells us all about humans.” Teenage girl No. 2, scrunching her face: “Whaa-AHHT?”
Mother to three-year-old daughter passing a wetlands diorama: “A beaver—oooh! That’s scary!” Girl screams. Mother drags daughter away.
Twenty-ish blinged-up woman passing the same beaver display a moment later with her boyfriend: “They eat whaat—wood! That’s CRAZY!”
Agitated, middle-aged, very New York woman addressing her husband while looking at a gallery of bird photographs: “You complain when I touch up a photo? See this? [She points to the edge of a wing in a photo of an Arctic tern.] IT’S TOUCHED UP!”
Burly father puts his teenage son in a chokehold from behind and asks the boy if he remembers how to get out of it. Boy doesn’t. Father tells him to reach back and grab father’s pant leg and pull. Father and son separate. Father looks up at primate display. Points: “See? DNA. Chimpanzee 99 percent the same as humans.”
Smiling mother to smiling six-year-old daughter while heading for the revolving-door exit at closing time: “It’s been a good day, hasn’t it.”
Which of these is NOT a real bird:
a) violaceous trogon
b) white-whiskered puffbird
c) devil-capped flycatcher
d) gang-gang cockatoo
e) black-faced antthrush
How Oysters Could Save New York (Or At Least Part of It)
The talk on this video is by architect Kate Orff, a pioneer in a field she calls "oyster-tecture." Watch it and you'll learn a lot about oysters and, perhaps, the future of New York City:
Robert Baden-Powell, the British Army officer who founded the Scouting movement in 1907, would have been 154 years old tomorrow. As a schoolboy he would sneak out to the woods to stalk game and hide from teachers, and his interest in military training and the outdoors eventually led him to launch Scouts. He is less famous for being a prolific, ambidextrous artist who, while working in military intelligence, disguised himself as a butterfly collector and incorporated secret military plans into his butterfly drawings. Politically naïve but staunchly anti-Communist, he became an admirer of fascists such as Mussolini and, in a memorable assessment, described Hitler’s Mein Kampf as “a wonderful book, with good ideas on education, health, propaganda, organization etc.”
How can we at The Naturalist's Notebook not point out that Samuel Pepys, the British naval administrator who jotted down the minutiae of his life in a notebook every day for 10 years—the famous Diary of Samuel Pepys—would have turned 378 this week. Without Pepys' diary, which he wrote in a form of shorthand that could not initially be deciphered when the diary was first discovered in the 1800s (he also wrote sensitive portions in a code that combined Spanish, French and Italian), we would not know today what daily life was like in the 1600s. Pepys also gave an important historical accounts of the Great Plague of London (1665-66), which killed 100,000 residents of his city, and the Great Fire of London, which gutted the city just as the plague was ending. A few years later, Pepys had to stop keeping a diary because his eyesight had gotten so bad—possibly from writing by candlelight for so many nights.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, the Maine-born poet, playwright and feminist who saw parallels in the cycles of nature and love, would have been 119 tomorrow. Preferring to be called Vincent and named (since we have a New York City theme going) for St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan, where her uncle's life had been saved, Millay was red-haired, beautiful, vivacious and gifted. Here is Pity Me Not, one of the sonnets (a sad one, mind you) in which she combined love and nature:
Pity me not because the light of day
At close of day no longer walks the sky;
Pity me not for beauties passed away
From field and thicket as the year goes by;
Pity me not the waning of the moon,
Nor that the ebbing tide goes out to sea,
Nor that a man’s desire is hushed so soon,
And you no longer look with love on me.
This love I have known always: love is no more
Than the wide blossom which the wind assails,
Than the great tide that treads the shifting shore,
Strewing fresh wreckage gathered in the gales.
Pity me that the heart is slow to learn
What the swift mind beholds at every turn
And for today's final twist, here's to James Watson and Francis Crick, who 58 years ago today discovered the spiral structure of DNA, the genetic instruction manual in the cells of all living things. And yes, the father in the Museum of Natural History who put the chokehold on his son was correct: Genetic research has proven in the last several years that our DNA is approximately 99% identical to that of chimpanzees and bonobos. We're all well connected.