Friday, January 11, 2008

In the Museum of Science and Wonders

“…in all the signs and the wonders…and in all that mighty hand, and in all the great terror…” (Deuteronomy 34:11-12)

I turned a corner and suddenly came upon a small gang of wild turkeys, milling around on the sidewalk of Longwood Avenue. Presumably (when the capability of rational presumption returned to me) they had wandered up from the ribbon of wooded land that lines the Green Line rail tracks. Anyhow and in the first place, there they were: a quite sufficient instance of ‘Arov, wild beasts where we least expect them, incongruously stirred into the mix of daily life. I can still summon up the sudden feeling of acid shock in my legs, an instinctual, if absurd fight-or-flight reaction. I flew – or, at least, I stood stock still and then gave them a wide berth. (Why did the domesticated chicken cross the road?) Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava, after all, once testified about a tarnegol who was put to death in Jerusalem for pecking a child to death (Mishnah, Eduyot 6:1) . These were fearsome fowl. I had to wonder whether turkeys ever seemed so dragon-like to people who lived on this land when it was not built up with mortar, tar and concrete – whether these dinosaur legs and burnished coats of brown and bourbon banded feathers ever turned the thoughts of hardier New England folk to mythical creatures. Farley Mowatt, some forty years ago, predicted that within two centuries there might be no wild animal left along the eastern seaboard bigger than a breadbox. In a world all too like that prophecy, these birds were something of a miracle.

Does the river have to stink and run with blood, must disease rain from sooty skies, and genetically confused frogs, with the last salentian articulacy of oddly numbered legs, crawl out of their polluted waters and die where we can see them; must we – God forbid – lose our own firstborn before we come to acknowledge the wonder of our world and respect our fellow beings? Will there come a day when the proper function of a kidney seems like the wildest fairytale from a mythic past? Is miracle the altering of nature or the drawing of a shining circle of attention around it?

I want to build a museum of science and wonders – a place from which visitors would come away thunderstruck, slack-jawed at the overwhelming elegance of the staggeringly improbable on scales huge and miniscule, where visitors could see the miraculous at every focal distance of the eye. I want to build a Museum of Science and Wonders, and then I remember – we live in it. Just look.

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