Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Anser hamadryas

Now we arrive at the most risible display so far: an adult Wood-nymph goose, discovered in a typical place of rest (here the hollow trunk of a rotting juniper stump) by a young stoat, who, though still a good foot away from the jagged breach that exposes the bird, has already startled his potential prey. Her beak frozen in a silent honk of alarm, the goose’s wings have burst through the decayed walls of the trunk on either side, leaving the bark surrounding them intact — so that when viewed from the back, the display becomes simply a tree-stump with pinions, like some figure of folklore or primitive worship.

Questions goad the informed spectator: Does Mr. Urbilne [then director of the Natural History Museum at Tarpeath] feel that nature, accurately reproduced, cannot suffice for the average museumgoer? Does he prefer theatre to science? Do the absurdities fashioned under his watch form an immense rebus, yet to be finished or deciphered?

For contradicting the very premise of this exhibit are basic facts about the species of goose depicted. It is true that after feeding, this most torpid (or rather torpor-dependent) of all waterfowl will lodge itself in an enclosed space to slumber, preferably the hollow of a dead tree. But it ensconces its body deeply in this refuge, and would never be visible from the outside. Nor would rousing its cold, metabolically decelerated corpus be an easy task. Indeed, the entire display might begin to convince were the goose identified as a barnyard-variety Greylag, making a poor attempt to doze in the manner of its sylvan cousin.

From: O. O. Prutchitton, “Taxidermal gaffes and follies at the Natural History Museum.” Tarpeath Gazette, 17 June 1910.