Landscape in a Tooth

A howler monkey, Alouatta belzebul, of South America. The view is through the back of the skull. Photograph by Rosamond Wolff Purcell...

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A howler monkey, Alouatta belzebul, of South America. The view is through the back of the skull.
A howler monkey, Alouatta belzebul, of South America. The view is through the back of the skull.
Photograph by Rosamond Wolff Purcell
Who needs a dreamer in a scientific realm? Collection managers need more time, more money, more staff. They need fewer irrelevant interruptions. They do not encourage open-closet gazing. They do not want me to examine even 50 animals to select--in some arbitrarily unscientific fashion--the "best" one.As far as I can make out, scientists actually do want all--but one--of the same things I long for. A few have told me that only scientific documentation of their collections is welcome--"real" research with ultrasound, x-rays, computer scans, genetic analysis. To complete a kind of Noah's Ark, an A-to-Z bestiary, 15 years ago, I made the mistake of asking a paleontologist whether he had any specimen "beginning with M" that I might photograph. "We don't do things like that around here," he replied. I said I thought that the museum had mastered the alphabet in several languages. After a heated discussion about the sanctity of science and the silliness of art, he produced several mastodon teeth from which I chose one--the least good one, in his opinion, because it was broken. I chose it because it was broken. Irritated, he nevertheless granted me and the tooth one hour alone together. The single tooth of a mastodon has eight pinnacled cusps, some on this broken sample cracked, with blackened crevices, some of polished ivory. I sank it deep in the cotton it came swaddled in, pulled a hank up behind the cusps and let the sun pour through. In the photograph, the cotton became a storm-clouded sky and the cusps the peaks of mountains. The next time I visited, I showed the curator the resulting picture. "Look," I said, "A landscape. Like the Himalayas, don't you think? Or are the mountains younger? Maybe the Andes?" He handed back the picture. "It's a tooth," he said.
A tooth of a fossil mastodon, Mastodon americanus, masquerading as a mountain range.
A tooth of the fossil mastodon, Mastodon americanus, masquerading as a mountain range.
Photograph by Rosamond Wolff Purcell
I am more or less permitted now to photograph more or less whatever I find in the museum. A decent lens will reveal transforming features in the most unlikely specimens. I could show you a fossil shrimp like a Mr. Peanut cartoon, a whale jawbone like the coastal desert of Chile as seen from the air, and the inside of a howler monkey skull grinning like a samurai warrior. I have pictures of butterflies whose wing tips look like worms with Disney eyes, the eye of a fossil horse like a dormant volcano, and uncoiling snails like the curling strips of lead from antique rural plumbing.

Photographs and comment by Rosamond Wolff Purcell

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