A few weeks ago on a wet yellow autumn day, I met the scientist who holds the same chair that D’Arcy Thompson once did in Dundee University; the Boyd Baxter Chair of Biology. He is a molecular microbiologist who researches transformations of metals and minerals.
We climbed to the top of the building and past laboratories to his office – carpeted and piled high with papers and calendars. I saw visualisations of the transformations he studies – luminous, cold, beautiful and unreal – the result of microorganisms, bioweathering and bioremediation. The conversation moved back and forth and we spoke about the oily blue puddles you find when you are walking in the countryside, about tombstones with fallen faces, girls names and bone chessmen.
We talked about the museum, and the wild delight of acquisition that seems to underpin the collection here, the passion of the huntsman and the scientist combined. He told me about collecting bird’s eggs when he was young, describing an elaborate system of moss, broken sticks and markers that he and other children would operate to lead each other to a full nest. To take all the eggs and not leave some for somebody else was bad manners, so you would hopefully be rewarded for your intrepid spirit by having courteous visitors before you who left enough behind. He said at some point when he was growing up he and the others suddenly realized the whole activity of collecting eggs was terribly wrong, and they all stopped around the same time. Still, I think of the bird’s eggs waiting to be found, and the mineral formations appearing under the microscope – perhaps they are similarly precious.
I told him about a book where the father loses his mind and hatches out exotic birds in his attic – cranes, peacocks, pelicans and a shrunken ancient condor. Today, the tobacco stubble fields are being ploughed and crows with their long claws are swooping up and down and I have been thinking of another story about a man who lives not too far from here and walks imaginary dogs.