One man's trash is another man's treasure
An odd inheritance, this assortment of biology specimens, snake skins, small taxidermied mammals, birds on sticks, a varnished beaver tail, owl pellets filled with impossibly tiny bones, birds nests, cocoons, fossils, boxes of butterfly wings and insects sandwiched between multiple layers of cotton. These were the artifacts most appealing when I began clearing out my great-aunt Ruth’s house. Inherently acquisitive I also rescued moldy boxes filled with photographs of the lovely young women Ruth mentored and loved during her middle age.
Curiosity killed the cat, satisfaction brought it back.
These photographs are more compelling to me every time I sift through them. They occupy my dreamworld, both sleeping and waking. Dreams in black-and-white, jerky sequences of photo-stills from another era. Images blurred by poor optics, an unsophisticated darkroom technique and the passage of time. I can sit for hours looking at them, a yearning to connect with something beyond my grasp, images feeding my imaginings of what days spent with these young women might have been like.
The whisper of a pretty girl can be heard further than the roar of a lion.
Days spent on picnics and field trips, sleeping in musty smelling canvas tents, campfire cookery, nature games, word games, gathering plants, seeking evidence of the inhabitants of the natural world for documentation or collection. I know of these days through a collection of pocket sized three-ringed binders - the sort whose pale blue lines, intersected by a red margin rule and punctuated with holes along the left for binding, always fill me with an odd satisfaction, whether empty or full - filled with ideas for a variety of nature games, rules for the games written in painstaking detail with the hand of a life-long teacher who would rather be doing than writing about doing.
Praise the young and they will blossom
One day, while visiting friends on Cape Cod, I tell a young child who reminds me of me that she can have the skull and skeletal remains of the bird we find half-buried in the sand. What a find, compared to the incomplete skull fragments found in gray logs of owl pellets that comprise most of my bird bone collection. Breath caught, I don’t voice my wish bordering on need to carry these remains back to my own studio. I seem always to carry that white/red lump of want trapped behind ribs.
A mother stiffens at the sight of her child carrying a bundle of desiccated bird ‘put that down’ she screeches.
The child hesitates then turns and places the bundle in my waiting hands.
Hygiene is two-thirds of health.
When Ruth was 97 she told me this: 'You and your sisters always insisted on wearing your underpants to bed, even under your pajamas. I thought it the strangest thing.
Birds of a feather flock together.
When Ruth arrived in Denver in 1922, she needed more college credits to get her Colorado teaching certification. She signed up for an evening birdwatching class
with Dr. Needham, who was the director of the Natural History Museum and an
instructor at Denver University.
"I'm telling you, he was a bird expert. He could see a bird sitting on a nest driving by in a car going 60 miles an hour. He was a little bit lame, one leg shorter than the other. As a child he had gone to see a circus and was impressed by the tightrope walker. He tried walking a tight rope at home, fell and broke his hip. When the bones had knit, one leg was shorter than the other.”
During their evening class they would study bird skins on sticks and try to get
acquainted with the different kinds of birds. On Saturdays we would go on field trips to identify the birds we'd seen on sticks.