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July 22, 2015 | Nonfiction

A Closer Look

Cathy Gilbert

A Closer Look photo

I am two years old.  It is my birthday.  Children are calling my name and showing me things. Toys.  Clothes.  A puzzle. Someone puts pink bracelets on my arm. My mother says, "Show your bracelets to Daddy!" My father says, "Yes, show your bracelets to Daddy!"  There is a shuffling of children so he can see. Later my father walks over with me to the tape recorder.  Tells me to look at the little wheels turning inside.  "See?" he says "It's recording."  He tells me to sing, and then sings for me. "Happy birthday to me. Happy birthday to me..."

I do not remember this, cannot call up the image.  The memories might be buried deep in my mind, unable to be accessed.  Or perhaps they were deleted to make room for others.  We can only hold onto so much. But I know the details of this moment because of that recorder.  A simple cassette tape, an audio recording. I press play and my two year old world is brought into sharp focus.

The moment the background noise fades and my father's voice and my coos fill the recorder's tiny microphone— I can see it. I am wearing something brightly colored. My hair is short, feather-like, blond. My father is beginning to bald.  He is holding me in his arms.  He is placing me on his knee as he kneels next to the table the recorder sits on.  There is no one else but us. He is pointing with his long fingers, made to play piano and direct my sight to the moon or the stars or Jupiter.  He is tuning out the party, his two sons, the neighbor children, his wife in the kitchen putting the ice cream back in the freezer.  He is watching me blink with my brown eyes at the rotating wheels inside the tiny window to the recorder door.  There are whole worlds inside. He is watching me touch the red record light with my little pointer finger, made to play the flute and hold a pen and point at things on the whiteboard for my students to notice.  The bracelets hang from my chubby wrists. He is turning his mouth toward my small ear to ask me to sing.  He is bouncing me softly to the rhythm of the song. My feet dangle in their little socks. The air moves effortlessly over his vocal chords.  There is no whistle in the gap between his two front teeth. Only more space. Only more air. He sings for me.  He sings for me.  He sings for me.

 

***

 

I am on sabbatical. I have been volunteering in the Fossil Lab at the George C. Page Museum for a week.  I have learned how to sort microfossils into four different piles: discard, plant fragments, bone fragments, and insect fragments.  It is time for me to check my work.  After hours of working these tiny fragments into separate piles with a paint brush under a magnifying glass that magnifies by three times, I move my piles beneath the microscope and see the fragments at seven times magnification.

It is hard for me to see.  I am trying to look closer, but I am unsure where to place my forehead.  Where to place my eyes.  Black circles keep moving in front of my vision. I move again and for a moment I can see what looks like a tiny seed.  A piece of cancellous bone. Black again.  I sit back.  Breath.  Lean in and try again.  It gets easier.  I don't know it yet, but I am sitting in front of the microscope no one likes.

I don't know it yet, but eventually I will learn how to look through the microscope and successfully check my work. Perfectly.  No mistakes.  Today, I have made mistakes.  Bone fragments in the plant pile.  Bone fragments in the discard pile.  Many, many pieces of tricky oxidized asphalt hiding in my insect pile.  I will get better.

When I get better, I will marvel at what I see.  What I notice. It will strike me, in the way that religious folks are struck by the glory of God, that the world is full of intricacies I am incapable of seeing on my own.  It will strike me that even at the smallest level a piece of bone still looks like bone.  That a tiny piece a  leaf is still obviously a leaf.  It will strike me that fractals are more real and more encapsulating than any of the trippy, colorful drawings I have seen.  I will learn to see these details and feel wonder at my place in this world. I will even learn to love the rocky plain of my discard pile: the bits of clay and tiny clear quartz, the occasional garnet fragment and the lone blue rock I discovered that was saved from discard and kept in a small gel capsule marked "GEMS."

 

***

 

Once I have learned to sort microfossils, I learn to polish.  I am assigned a broken radius of a dire wolf.  I draw a picture of it in my field notes.  I try to mark the spots where cancellous bone is visible. I draw an arrow and write "approx. size" in case I can't remember that I can't draw very well.

I don a pair of rubber gloves.  With a scrap of cotton cloth, I rub the fossil with solvent. I work next to an air vent to keep from inhaling the invisible but noxious fumes. I am told to work carefully.  I am told to remove all evidence of black asphalt as best I can.  I have to examine it closely.  Use a cotton swab to dab at the fragile areas of cancellous bone.  Sometimes I move the fossil underneath the magnifier to look for missed spots.  A collection of clay in a worn notch.  A bit of cotton fiber left behind by the swab.

Next day at the lab I am assigned to polish the heel bone of a juvenile prong horned antelope.  And an adult ulna/radius. I learn that the ulna and radius are fused in herbivores. Then I am assigned the vertebra of a dire wolf. The vertebra is difficult to clean because of all the nooks and crannies.  The channels through which the spinal cord once ran.  But this vertebra has even more holes. Some are "discovery" holes—a slipped digging tool pierced the bone just as the excavator thought Eureka! Some are holes that simply formed over time from wear and erosion in the tar pits.  Some holes are evidence of arthritis.

At the end of the day I am given a tray of miscellaneous bones to polish.  In my field notes, I make this list: sabertooth cat tail bone, coyote and wolf femur fragments, puppy dire wolf skull fragment, rabbit fragment, squirrel fragment, bird fragment, bison fragment, a tiny rabbit jaw so fragile the act of polishing nearly breaks it in two.  In my field notes I write "shit." 

Once I have learned to polish, I learn to clean.  I am assigned the tibia of a coyote. It is broken and the shaft is full of matrix. To clean it, I place it in a metal tray, pour solvent over it, and scrub it with an old toothbrush.  Sometimes I dip the toothbrush in solvent and scrub.  Sometimes I let the tibia soak in a pool of solvent made by lifting the tray and balancing one end on an upside down plastic scoop.  Sometimes I use a cotton swab to get to the matrix in the hollow.  Sometimes I take a cotton swab and break it, form a point with the broken wooden handle, and gently nudge at what is too stubborn for the toothbrush.

I want to look as closely now as I do when I polish. I want to take a rag and make it shiny now, though it needs to dry out, leach out any asphalt it is still holding inside the spongy inner structure of the bone.  It is difficult, after weeks of magnifiers and microscopes, to zoom out a bit.  To look at the fossil through my own human eyes instead of through a world of convex glass.

 

***

 

On break in the break room, I write up my notes.  I drink water.  Eat a small snack.  I listen as other volunteers are chatting.  They are looking at a National Geographic magazine.  They call it the "Nat Geo." They are looking at pictures of owls.  I move to stand next to Mary Ellen to marvel at the close detail of the photos.  They are many different kinds of owls.  There are owls we've never heard of.  Mary Ellen points to a small owl with a bright face.  Its large black eyes are lined with small feathers of orange, light brown, almost red.  This owl wears a Mardi Gras mask of his own making.  The caption tells us it is called the "Flammulated Owl."  We ponder the origin of the name. I offer up the possibility that "flammulated" might be related to the word "flame" and therefore the bird is named for the flame-colored feathers that silhouette its eyes.  Mary Ellen says, "Maybe."  I make a note to myself to look this up later.

 

***

 

I have finished sorting another pile of microfossils. I have checked my work in the microscope. I am more sure of my work, more sure of how to hold my head in front of the lenses, more sure of my choices: this is bone, this is plant, this is insect, I am sure.  I move my brush more surely, put it down when I am done with a confidence that says I am done.  A confidence that makes the lab supervisor Shelley ask, "Ready?"  I move my work to her station and watch as she checks it over.  Her brush moves as an extension of her hand.  Her brush moves as an extension of her mind.  Turning over the pieces, shuffling the piles, picking up the strange looking ones between the bristles and putting them back down. 

She okays my discard.  She okays the plant pile.  When she moves on to bone, I scoot closer because I know that she will identify the bones and bone fragments as she goes. She will hmm and oh.  She will ah-ha and that's a tricky one. She will declare tarso-metatarsus and molar and proximal end of a rodent humerus and partial lower mandible of a lizard. If there are enough whole bones or identifiable fragments she will call my pile sexy. If there are not, she will call my pile kibble and bits.

Today she pulls a tiny flat bone, slightly curved, from the pile. I tell her I wasn't sure about this one.  She tells me it is a scleral ossicle.  I ask her to repeat. Scleral Ossicle.  An eye bone. A bird's eye bone. I am trying to understand.  She reads the furrow of my brow correctly and explains.

This was one scleral ossicle, but birds have many that work together around a bird's eye.  They are found just inside the orbital bone.  They interlock and make a circle around the eyeball, much like the shutter of a camera.  The scleral ossicles help the bird's eye focus, whether the bird is flying high or low.  When a soaring bird spots prey below and dives for it, the scleral ossicles keep the eye focused on the prey throughout the dive and help work against wind resistance.  The mouse seen from up high looks the same as the mouse in the mouth.  The bird blinks.  The eye bones hold steady.  Scleral ossicles.

I am having trouble imagining what these small flat bones look like wrapped around an eye. I have trouble understanding all that Shelley is telling me without that clear image.  I make a note to look this up later.

In a few weeks, the lab will be closed due to paint fumes—a ventilation mishap during renovation in the exhibit area.  I will show up on time, nine o'clock, after fighting rush hour traffic for 45 minutes, and I will clock in only to find the lab empty.  Shelley will appear and tell me what happened.  She will apologize for not being able to get word to us all sooner.  She will tell me to go home.  I will be disappointed that I do not get to spend the day playing scientist in the lab, and so I will decide to spend the day at the Natural History Museum instead.

When I enter the dinosaur exhibit and look at the full skeleton specimens, I will have a sense of familiarity.  The jaw of a T-rex is the same as the jaw of the tiny horned lizard I have found in my microfossil pile.  A femur is a femur is a femur.  But when I see the pterosaur display I will stop and inhale suddenly.  I will take out my phone and turn on the camera.  I will zoom in closely to where the eye used to be on this once soaring pterosaur.  And there, my camera will capture a perfect ring of scleral ossicles.  I will stand for several minutes awash in the visual proof that what they tell us is true: birds are dinosaurs that still roam the earth.

 

***

 

In between tours with his band, my husband visits me in Los Angeles.  We try to catch up with his friends while he's in town, people he knew and even lived with back in the late 90s when he lived here. Today, we have breakfast with one such friend at a diner.  The diner is next to a smoke shop where we stop before going to this friend's house.  The smoke shop is typical. They sell tobacco and flavored e-liquid for e-cigarettes and paraphernalia for other kinds of smoking.  Pipes and glass bowls line the display case beneath the counter. There are brightly colored designs everywhere in trippy patterns, a shelf of incense and incense burners, and some tee shirts for sale.  This shop also happens to sell pornography; a display of DVDs reveals itself as you turn the corner of a particular shelf.  There is a resident long-haired cat who seems more interested in soaking up the sun that streams through the few uncovered parts of the window than getting the attention of any customers.  And, on the edge of the counter is a revolving case full of little statues and one particular necklace that catches my eye.

It is an owl pendant, three inches tall with brightly colored inlays—blue, green, red, white, turquoise, and yellow.  It sits inside a little case with a red velvet backing. Its long gold chain is wrapped over the top of the backing and is hidden behind. I am admiring the burnt red color that encircles the eyes.  When I realize the center of the pendant is hollowed out and holds a small magnifying glass, I ask the man behind the counter the price and reach for my wallet.

In it, I see the flammulated owl that Mary Ellen and I puzzled over.

I see the scleral ossicle I found in the notched inlay that encircles its eyes. 

I see every magnified piece of clay or quartz, bone or plant, insect or asphalt in its tiny glass. 

I see my mother, who fights dementia back home and surrounds herself with images of owls, purses, sheets, pillows, statues, jewelry.  Her patron saint of wisdom. Of the mind.

I see the necklace I was given as a child, a tiny owl in brown, white, and gold that hung from a small, gold box chain.

I buy the necklace, and wait to see what else it will show me. 

A week later, I go to the beach on my day off from the lab.  It is sunny and warm.  It has rained recently and the view out toward the horizon is clear. I wear the owl necklace, conveniently forgetting that the sun and magnifying glasses make fiery friends.  I fail to burn a hole through my shirt or my chest.

Instead, in the evening while I wait to watch the sun set slowly over the ocean, I pick up pieces of shell and seaweed, of wood and sand, and I look at each through the magnifying glass in the owl's belly. Even the smallest parts of our world are big.

 

***

 

In the Museum of Jurassic Technology, there is a room dedicated to the micro-mosaics of Henry "Harold" Dalton.  In its center, the room holds two rows of microscopes on a long table.  Peering through the microscopes, I see beautiful shimmering mosaics--bouquets of flowers, a tree at sunset, a rooster next to a basket—each made of tiny iridescent pieces. Lengthy captions on the wall explain the mosaics' history. Like everything in this museum, it is difficult to say if anything about this display is true.

Was there a man named Henry "Harold" Dalton? Did he painstakingly create this micro-mosaics with scales from the wings of thousands of butterflies and bits of phytoplankton?  Did he and those he trained carefully press each piece onto the slide using only their own natural skin oils as an adhesive, until the final piece was in and a slide cover could be placed on top?

It doesn't matter.  Whatever it is, each piece that made up the mosaics had to be as thin and delicate as butterfly wings.  Someone put them together, painstakingly, with tweezers or pins, or tiny brushes.  I can see the bright light of the scope, illuminating each scale placed. I can see the pursed lips, the sweaty brow, the way you have to hold your breath to keep from sending butterfly scales back into flight.

 

***

 

At home in Illinois it is springtime.  The rains come and come.  The earth is saturated, a wet sponge.  Beneath the rainfall you can almost hear a sucking sound.  Everything grows green, the color of potential, and the possibility and inevitability of life buzzes through the air and into my veins.  Each time it rains I throw open the windows.  The smell is wet and earthy.  Pre-coital.

Tiny wildflowers pop up everywhere.  Creeping Charlie.  Forget-me-nots. Wild blue phlox.  My husband and I procure a jeweler's loupe to get a closer look.  We carefully hold it in front of the camera lens on my phone and snap pictures that look like we are peering through a bubble.  The bright roundness of the view reveals the tight details of petals and pistons—and I still see bone and clay in each magnified circle of light.

At night I go out to check on the potted vegetables on the back porch.  It has rained again; they may be too wet, drowning.  On the cement, I see a parade of snails. Small snails clinging to the edges of the pots, some crawling between them, slick gray antennae feeling the way.  I noticed their shells do not stand upright as they crawl, but lie flat against their bodies. 

I get my camera, take many pictures. One video. The snails don't move in the way they are depicted in children's books. I show my friend who exclaims in disbelief, "All illustrations of snails ever are wrong!!!" I cannot deny it.

The next day I will see a jumping spider leap from a lettuce pot.  I will see a brown toad hop across the cement and into dead leaves gathered by the wind behind the shed.

And weeks later, still unable to look away from tiny wonders, I will chase a grasshopper in the garden until he jumps willingly onto my green gloved hand.  He will stay a while, make himself at home, mistake my green glove for a leaf and gnaw at it with his strong tiny pinchers. I will worry he will gnaw through the glove to my skin.  I will not know if I'm afraid it will hurt or afraid I will disappoint him. I will marvel at how long he rests on my hand.  Just when I am sure he will stay, I will turn to my husband, feel a powerful push into my thumb, and squeal as the grasshopper leaps away into the meadow. The wind rustles the tops of the grasses, which carry with them the shadows of birds floating on air.

 

 

image: Aaron Burch


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