"The Ceolacanth" by Kelly J. Cooper
8 February 2003

Have I talked about the ceolacanth yet? I don't think I have. Well, I know I've babbled about it to individuals because I think it's utterly cool, but I don't think I've written it all down before.

Summer of 2001 I stumbled across a book called A FISH CAUGHT IN TIME: The Search for the Coelacanth by Samantha Weinberg. I forget how I found it, but I ordered it from Powells.com and read it shortly after it arrived. It was a quick read. August 2001 I reviewed it for a book mailing list I'm on:

I still recommend

...for some easy entertainment.

Some nifty things about the Ceolacanth - the female bears live young, but no one's seen a live pup in the ocean. They have an oil-filled ballast instead of an air-filled one (like most present-day fish). A Ceolacanth's support structure is made of cartilage (no bones). Eating it causes diarrhea in humans. No Ceolacanth has ever survived in captivity (for some reason they die when brought up from their normal 300 meter depths - no one knows if it's the heat, the light, or the pressure changes that do it).

Dozens of Ceolacanths were caught during the middle twentieth century and sent to museums around the world.

It's that last bit that recently reminded me about the Ceolacanth (aside from the fact that I have a Ceolacanth pup picture as my screen background - it frequently garners "that is the ugliest fish I've ever seen" comments).

I took my Mom to the Harvard Museum in the summer of 2002 when she and Dad were in town visiting. I'd heard about the Glass Flowers exhibit, that it was finally open again, and I was curious about it. I also thought it'd be something my Mom would like.

The Glass Flowers were nothing like I expected - I was thinking artistic interpretations. I was not expecting specimens so lifelike that it took me going through the display with my nose nearly to the glass looking for flaws to completely convince my senses that they were, in fact, glass. I was not expecting to learn that creating the glass flowers was a labor of love that spanned two lifetimes (50 years), from a father to a son. I was not expecting to read that the son spent ten years trying to purchase and then eventually replicating (on his own) the color of a New England maple leaf in fall. He nailed it, by the way. It's perfect.

After the Glass Flowers, I wandered off into the nature part of the museum. Mom followed me for a while, then drifted back to the minerals on the other side of the building.

Ambling around on my own, I realized that I had forgotten the delightful shock of seeing something so completely different from my normal life. I LOVE museums for this, and although the Harvard Museum is unlike the ones I'm used to, it still shocked me out of my world. The stench of formaldehyde... the variety of animal specimens... the straw stuffing peeking through old fur... the giant whale skeletons... the little paragraphs of explanation and history... the creaky old floors. Very strange set of sensations, some familiar from a lifetime of school trips and educational outings, some new from the feeling of being an unsupervised adult in a space set up for learning.

Then I hit the fossil room. First thing you see when you walk in is a six foot (plus) long turtle shell from the time when EVERYTHING WAS BIGGER. It's stunning. I'm 5'10" and I could've stretched out inside. Beyond it was... their CEOLACANTH! The one I read about in A FISH CAUGHT IN TIME, that Harvard managed to get in the 40's or 50's. A piece of history I learned about and then got to observe directly. For some reason, that's really REALLY cool.

Further into the room, I turned right and saw the crown jewel of their collection. The fossilized skeleton of an ancient whale-precursor. The reconstruction is so cleanly done, the presentation so stark (with the off-white bones contrasting against a uniformly-painted bluish gray background), it took my breath away. And I remembered how much I loved the dinosaur wing of the Museum of Natural History in NYC and how much I loved dinosaurs in general. It was awesome.

They also have one of the first woolly mammoths fossils ever recovered, from a dig in New Jersey in the late 1800's. Mammoths != mastadons and I don't think I'd ever really noticed that fact in the front of my brain. There were three complete skeletons originally, pulled from a Jersey swamp, but this is the only one known to have survived. The bones were a dark, rich shellacky brown, just like the ancient bison teeth and bones I have someplace from my aunt in Alaska. They were my first show and tell items. I love fossils. I always have.

I was reminded that I love learning. I learn every day - it's hard not to when you have the Internet at your fingertips. But there's a difference between reading about something and standing in front of it - looking at it, smelling it, walking around it, putting the book and screen facts together with its empirical existence - that I miss.

A lifetime habit of making time for art, architecture, and history that has fallen out of favor with the passing of structure learning and all the busy-ness of modern life. I miss it.

I've made it to an art museum, a history museum, and a science museum each once or twice in the past decade. I've attended small shows of paintings, photos, or sculpture now and again. I've made it to a couple of classical music concerts. And at least twice a year I attend the theater for a play (mainly because it's organized by a wonderful friend). But it's not enough. I want more of it.

At the same time, I think what I want is much more complex than an urge to visit more museums and see more live shows. It's an intangible need to be in contact with something greater than myself. Something that lasts, like a perfect brushstroke or a master musician capturing sorrow written down before I was born. Something with significance, like an ugly fish wrapped in mystery or a dinosaur extinct so long ago that it scrubs time of all meaning.

Something that will last in my memory long after I've lost the words to describe it.

Kelly J. Cooper
Started 3 October 2002
Finally edited and completed 8 February 2003

Return to my Essay page or...
Go back up to my main page