Friday, December 27, 2013

Of Mastodons and Macmas

Mastodon! at the Indiana State Museum
I live in a state of multiple personal histories, but where History Itself hardly ever happens. Indiana is a state of people (both the Amish and the KKK have thrived here) more than events (though we're all meant to know something about drug discoveries at Eli Lilly's, and John Dillinger did rob a bank here). Memorials where Things Happened are few and far between - think plaques rather than pedestals. And my kids have picked up on this: they've pointed out on different occasions that no one comes to Indiana to sign a treatise, or tread in the footsteps of something amazing that happened, or touch the column of that one house where that declaration was made, that book was written, that changed everything. And yet. But now. We've seen... the Mastodon! And it was here! "Right here in Indiana?!?" as the kids kept asking incredulously. "Right here in River City!" kept answering Mac (furthering their bewilderment). But of whim, of a morning when we should have been grading and preparing for the holidays, we took off for the Indiana State Museum, propelled by Mac's reading of Elizabeth Kolbert's absolutely terrific piece in the New Yorker about George Cuvier and his discovery/declaration of the concept of extinction based on his work with mastodon and mammoth bones. The totally wonderful and absurd juxtaposition of the Celebration Crossing (Santa! a Train! Raggedy Ann handing out cookies!) and the Mastodon exhibit I will leave to your imagination. Instead, I hope to revel a bit in the tension of historical scales: the huge, massive (yes, mammoth!) statements of an extinct species plodding this very (now very mundane) ground we walk, and the ephemeral entreaties of my own love for my husband and children, which are so individual as to not matter (in an archaeological/historical sense), but which mean the world to me.

Mastodon Mandibles Mostly
Maybe it was thinking of Cuvier and back to the Museum of Natural History in Paris as it used it be before the, granted, fantastic renovations, but the displays looked very early 19th-century to me. Big taxonomic layouts aligning a wealth of bones that have been dug up from beneath the cornfields of Indiana. Easy realizations about the differences between Mastodons and Mammoths. It's all over: in the skull, the curve of the back, the length of the tail, the curve of the tusk. But those all look related. What really gives away Cuvier's discovery of two totally different ancestral trees for the mastodon and the mammoth are the teeth and the jaws: the mastodons had huge rounded teeth (that reminded Cuvier of breasts!!! - and gave them their name) that moved in their jaws' circular motion.

These don't look like breasts at all
Mammoths had blocks of unindividuated teeth that chewed in jaws that moved only up and down. I loved learning this. Simple, drastic knowledge that things are more complicated than you thought they were. Knowledge lodged in the crucial mundane: teeth are boring, but without them, no mastodons, no mammoths. I still can't quite explain the thrill of knowing that both species trod this land. It's linked to the thrill of place surely: I have a friend who is going to Dublin for four days in preparation for teaching Ulysses. I know that being in the landscape where Icelandic sagas were written will be one of the greatest thrills of my life. I remember Mac's careful study and then reveries when we walked all those many WWI battlefields during sabbatical. And now to close our eyes and not have to think any further than the next cornfield to imagine the roaming, and the eating of 400 pounds of ruffage a day, the enormity of this wondrous difference so close. Only time, really, separating us. 12,000 years to be imprecise but evocative of some type of scale. It's in Arizona that evidence of humans hunting mammoths and mastodons has been found - not here. Here, we get to imagine this place before people, before history, before things happened. But for the kids, mastodons being here is something big that happened. It is huge.

So there we are, the five of us in the galleries, being thrilled to discover that something really cool and huge and awesome had indeed happened here. It gave us a new sense of belonging here, I tell you: our fantasies and curiosities being met with big, solid, bones of reality. Of all things for us to feel connected to: mastodons and mammoths whose horizon of consciousness couldn't even begin to begin to begin include us. One could say the same for so many things we love: Chaucer, the Icelandic saga tellers, that one soldier next to Otto Dix in that one trench that Mac wants to think about, all of the creatures that people the books and games the kids read and play. But we retool the scale with our own yearning: we bring them closer, Chaucer and the Mastodon, Eragon and the soldier. Meanwhile, we live within the intimate otherness of family. Those whose horizons of consciousness do include us, those we yearn for all the more for being so close. I stepped outside of our gathered glee just long enough to take this picture and feel a powerful rush of sentimental emotion: their smallness in the scheme of everything, their hugeness in my world, the fragility of goodness, the thrill of love. The intimate scale is a sentimental one. The mammoth scale is a heroic one. Somehow we bridge the two with our desires to know and be known.

The mighty mastodon
And so I'm looking at this mighty mastodon, who meant so much to us. And I'm thinking about how the mastodons of Indiana are by no means unique, how the Le Brea tar pits are filled with them, how in Arizona they are the remains of the hunt. I'm thinking of the tremendous ethical problem of intimacy and uniqueness (and the impossibility of both) presented in Saint-ExupĂ©ry's The Little Prince. When I took this picture, I was thinking about the preparations for Macmas: Mac's December 24 birthday that has become a brunch that gathers our treasured friends, all of us here, more or less explicably, in this place. And I'm thinking of where to put things on a scale, a spectrum of mattering, a range of intimacy and uniqueness.  What courses throughout is the fundamental absurdity of imagination.

The mighty mammoth - totally different animal
And so to end with the reach of our wondrously absurd imaginations stretching across the unknowable and into love. There's Mac initiating an entire dinner's conversation by suggesting that Greg (of Diary of a Wimpy Kid) (!) is an unreliable narrator and that Rowley might actually be smart. And each kid presenting totally cogent arguments as to why an unreliable narrator might nonetheless be telling the truth. Mastodon bones and mammoth teeth present themselves as absolutely reliable narrators of a heroic past, one made more wondrous by being right here. They are reliable because they are gone: in their extinction is a kind of wholeness, a kind of completion, that makes them reliable - heroic and sure. We are more open-ended, sentimental and unsure, reliable only in our entanglements and heroic in our imaginations.

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