MEMORY SYSTEM FOR D’ARCY THOMPSON
Squatina squatina and Sea Urchin
List 1. Objects from the Museum and Nearby
(certain animals and objects are included)
1. A house in the woods
2. Silk worm
3. Sun in the trees
4. The beach obscured by mist
6. A fish head on the beach
9. Crab meat
11. Whale scapula
12. Seal skin
13. Almonds (brain and bee)
14. Pink cloth on the beach
16. Coloured glass models
17. Gym hall
18. Snake skin coil
19. Turtle shell
20. Ostrich pelvis/seal skeleton
25. Cabinet (the smell of whale bones)
26. Sailors bringing down sails after dark
27. Man looking for something in the sand.
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.
The day before that the tide had been higher than they had ever seen. They watched from the stone wall as people prepared canoes and sails. Then that morning the news reports said 26 pilot whales had beached themselves just a few miles away. People came to help but were told to go away, and they came back again with sandwiches they prepared for the coastguards and marine specialists.
The storm began during the night soon after that and kept going the whole of the next day. By the time they got back to the beach the starfish collectors had been and there were just pointed marks left in the sand. You couldn’t see the sand at first – it looked like the whole seabed had been ripped up onto the beach.
There was a smell like warm plastic, a salty sweet smell in your mouth. The seaweed had been dragged up by its roots, and lay in glistening black and brown mountains. Weaved into it and around it on the sand were dead black and white seabirds, some of them stuck into the sand halfway by their beaks like speckled storm totems. Then ripped branches from the forests nearby and a whole fir tree, luminous pale green against all the monochrome. Plastic bottles and glass and pieces of twisted metal and some salt-rusted machinery parts. Nobody was there at all that day, the sky was completely without colour and they walked between the mounds, curious about seeing the birds and trying to find a starfish left behind.
JARS (Anguis fragilis)
Along one wall of the museum are a series of mounted and labeled specimens, which unintentionally and exquisitely demonstrate some of nature’s persistent biological interactions: Symbiosis and parasitism.
In the corner, inside a Victorian glass bell jar is a Venus Flower Basket (Euplectella aspergillum) – a light transmitting sponge found in the deep waters around Japan. It is composed of glass fibres that are constructed from silicic acid extracted from seawater. Traditionally, the dried sponge was given as a wedding gift, as inside it is home to a pair of small symbiotic shrimp that live in the body of the sponge and feed on its waste. Young shrimp pairs search for their own basket to live in, and once they have grown they cannot leave.
Two cases along, past the corals and bryozoa and close to the floor are a few taller vessels containing ominous pales stretched forms – Helminths, or parasitic worms.
Pentastomids, or tongue worms, are blood-consuming parasites that live the pulmonary and nasal cavities of predatory vertebrates, usually snakes. When the predator host eats the intermediate host (a fish or small mammal) the nymph of the tongue worm is released into the digestive tract and then bores into the lungs where it matures. They are rare in humans but can be transmitted by eating raw goat or sheep meat, and result in severe itching the ears and throat, and eventual death if not removed or dislodged by coughing or sneezing.
You hope that your gaze will hold them still in their glass coffins.
My studio here in St Andrews faces north. I am working in the house and studio of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, and researching the collection of D’Arcy Thompson in his museum in Dundee.
The first drawing I have pinned to the wall in here is the skeleton of an embryo porpoise. The proximity of the sea is constantly on my mind here, and I find my daily routes are extended as often as possible to take in the pathway by the beach, or past the aquarium where you can look down over the railings to the harbour seals.
Lindsay Sekulowicz was artist in residence at the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum at the University of Dundee from July-November 2012. The Residency was a collaboration between the Museum, the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Charitable Trust and the Royal Scottish Academy.