Thursday, April 28, 2016

Why Did Dad Collect All This Crap? ~ Thoughts of Mortality

I seem to be stuck in sand.  I recently wrote about it (Sizing Up Sand, A Grain at a Time), and, now, here’s another post that turns to sand (or ashes?).

In my last post, I noted that I had stashed several precolonial Mesoamerican obsidian blades for several decades in a trunk in my basement.  When I recently opened the trunk and dug out the blades, I also found, in one dark corner, a small jar that my wife had filled in the 1960s with sand she collected from Horseshoe Bay Beach in Bermuda.

She was taken by the beautiful, soft pinkness of the sand.  Besides, it was a memento of Bermuda.

Until recently, I, too, would have been drawn to the pastel pink sand and the vision it conjured up of a broad, curved beach lapped by gentle waves under a brilliantly blue sky.  But, as I extracted the jar of sand from its hiding place, an irresistible impulse took hold, born of my recent years of searching for fossil remains of microorganisms.  And so, in rapid succession, I opened the jar, scattered a pinch of sand on a picking tray, and slid the tray under the microscope.  A new world revealed.

At still greater magnification, some amazing objects came into view.  Yes, there were the shells of various foraminifera (including the ungainly, reddish ones of Homotrema rubra that tint the beach at Horseshoe Bay pink), some tiny gastropods, and myriad mollusk shell fragments.  But, among the most breathtaking specimens that I gently transferred to a microscope slide were clear, glassy, right-angled spicules from sponges:

and wonderfully colored sclerites, the hard, calcium carbonate rods that soft corals secrete to provide themselves with some firm structure and some modicum of defense:

(A useful introduction to the microscopic world of this Bermuda sand is Guide for the Identification of Carbonate Grains and Carbonate Producing Organisms, by Harold R. Pestana, Bermuda Biological Station for Research, Special Publication No. 32, 1993.)

This transformation of the Bermuda sand from a source of passive, decorative beauty or a journey’s reminder to a window on a breathtaking world full of the tiny remains of once living creatures is a curious thing.  Nothing about this biogenic sand changed from the day it was scooped into a jar to the day a sample was examined under the scope.  What has changed, over time, is me.  (I guess my wife’s view of it has changed; she gave me the jar without hesitation, no sentimental moment involved.)

I am reminded of a conceit (perhaps there’s a better word for it, but I haven’t found it) that I came upon in David Lodge’s Small World (1984), a wickedly funny novel skewering academics, academic life, and, in particular, academic conferences, which the novel likens to Arthurian questing.  One character, the young academic Persse McGarrigle, who has recently completed his MA thesis exploring the rather prosaic topic of Shakespeare’s influence on T.S. Eliot,  cleverly recasts the thesis during a conversation with several of his “academic betters” and a publisher.
“But my thesis isn’t about that, “ said Persse.  “It’s about the influence of T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare.”
“That sounds rather Irish, if I may say so,” said Dempsey [one of those academic betters], with a loud guffaw.  His little eyes looked anxiously around for support.
“Well, what I try to show,” said Persse, “is that we can’t avoid reading Shakespeare through the lens of T.S. Eliot’s poetry.  I mean, who can read Hamlet today without think of ‘Prufrock’?  Who can hear the speeches of Ferdinand in The Tempest without being reminded of ‘The Fire Sermon’ section of The Waste Land?”  (p. 60, Warner Books paperback, 1991)
Of course, the publisher is quite taken with the work that Persse hasn’t actually written (just one of the many complicated trials Persse faces in the novel).

Though Persse's recast thesis seemed brilliant to me when I first read the novel, it’s actually also quite prosaic.  It’s a truism presented in a smart, academic guise – Eliot the writer influencing Shakespeare the writer – when, in fact, as Persse explains, it’s our reading of Eliot that influences our reading of Shakespeare.  Why should we be surprised at that?  When has it ever been otherwise with important works?  And it’s not just works of art, but all of life.  We are constantly reinventing, renewing, and reinterpreting the past.  Learn something new and what seemed long since settled may take on a new and different life.  We have a new slant on it.

So, yes, it’s a mundane observation that the jar of pretty sand became something else because I now know something else.  Is it better with my new take on it?  Not sure, but it’s different and, to me, more important.

The importance of this jar of sand comes from the seemingly endless array of calcium carbonate microstructures it contains.  Admittedly, the audience that might appreciate this aspect of it is damned small.

And there’s the rub because I’ve been wondering what ultimately happens to this jar and the other jars that occupy a drawer or two in one of my cabinets, and, for that matter, all of the fossils that sit in other drawers, in trays, on shelves, and, further, the little drawers full of microscope slides labeled (usually carefully) as to their contents.

What happens if (more likely, when) I fail to break up my various collections, “deaccessioning” them, if you will, by giving some away and tossing the rest?  Selling some specimens or giving some to a museum isn’t really much of an option since little of what I’ve collected is truly special in any financial or scientific sense.

So, in all probability, it’ll all be left for my children to deal with.  Maybe, just maybe, they will assign some sentimental value to a piece or two.  Perhaps this jar of pink Bermuda sand will revert to its decorative or its memento status and be placed on some shelf by one of my kids, because the pink is so lovely or because my wife collected it when she was a teenager.

Though that’s a somewhat reassuring thought, it probably wont happen.

Artist Roz Chast captured this perfectly in the two-page “Sketchbook” that ran in the April 4, 2016, issue of The New Yorker.  Titled Wonder-Land, the story traces how Chast “fell down a rabbit hole into the world of vintage matchbox labels for sale on eBay.”  The seductive array of matchbox labels that she explored ranged across the world and across the ages and she exclaimed, “I COULD NOT STOP LOOKING AT THESE LABELS!!!”

Ah, the irresistible siren’s call to the collector that resides in most of us . . . but Chast defied it, sanity, rationality prevailed.  She only looked!  She didn’t acquire!  The cost of the labels wasn’t the deciding factor, rather, it was the “hassle of ownership.”  And, at the next panel, I laughed out loud (awakening the dog in the next room) and then I sighed quite deeply (as did the dog before she settled back to sleep).  Though the hassles of ownership were critical to the decision to resist the collecting impulse, so was her vision of what would eventually happen to the collection.  This key panel shows her two adult children contemplating a trash can overflowing with bulging plastic bags.
“Why did Mom collect all this crap?”
“I have no idea.”

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