Essay

Natural History

I recently visited the American Museum of Natural History, on the first weekend of spring, when children easily outnumbered adults, three-to-one. Kids love animals, but if I were one, I’d have been disappointed at the realization that a museum is not a zoo. All artifacts there, even the fuzziest ones, are either dead or nonliving, and many species on display are endangered. I suppose it’s worth celebrating that someone had the foresight decades ago to capture and kill these animals while they still roamed free, drag them from their natural habitats, stuff them stiff, and ship them to Manhattan where they will exist in perpetuity, paralyzed. The museum is a pickle jar—it does not conserve nature, but rather preserves it.

I realized that day that museums also have moral agendas. Concerning the animals and meteorites, the emphasis is on preservation and education: Learn how these creatures once looked and lived! See for yourself a sample of what exists in the universe! But in the gems and geology wing, I puzzled over the ethics. Am I supposed to marvel at the bounty of the earth, and simultaneously disregard the bloody and racist path required to possess these precious things? Should I be excited at the prospect of untold treasures hidden far below our feet? I know I’m connected to all living things, but what is my relationship to these rocks and stones?

As usual, I was attracted to a dark corner of the room, a display case whose light bulb had apparently burned out. Encased within were rows of jade sculptures and idols and pendants, mostly pale green but some were lavender, and others the color of warm molasses. On the wall was a lengthy quote attributed to Confucius about how the qualities unique to jade mirror the greatest virtues of humanity: kindness, intelligence, justice, humility, music, truthfulness. The comparison is abstract yet logical: “Its brightness is like Heaven, while its firm substance, born of the mountains and waters, is like the Earth.”

I recalled the jade bracelets I so coveted as a child; the ones that hung so delicately on the wrists of my aunts and sisters. This bracelet, nearly ubiquitous in Vietnam, is just a simple, perfect circle of cut and polished stone. Smooth, cold, hard to the touch. Most are a milky green, pale and bright, or deep and rich. Some even have grey and heather hues.

I think I was thirteen years old when I first wore one. Because it has no clasp nor closure—it really is just a solid circle of stone—the only way to get it on is to squeeze your fingers together, and push and pull your knuckles and the flesh of your palm through. It is a two-person job, and you should have lotion, soap, oil—most likely all three—on hand, literally. The pain is real, but it is short-lived. Once it slips on, it’s a glorious relief.

And then it doesn’t come off. To wear a jade bracelet is to wear commitment. The only way to remove the bracelet is to destroy it. You lay your forearm on the table, palm up, wedge a piece of cloth between your wrist and the stone, and then hammer the jade until it cracks and falls apart, the circle broken. It is not merely an ornament, like other jewelry, prone to the whims of trends coming and going. It demands work and peripheral attention from its wearer, lest it be haphazardly broken. It is difficult in that way, hard. Not exactly suitable for children, which is why I was so excited to finally receive one on my thirteenth birthday. Which may also be why it was relegated to a dark corner in a near empty room of an otherwise packed museum. It absorbs light without reflecting it.

The placard at the jade display explained how the marbled swirls of white and grey, which make each slab unique, were created. “Although the pattern looks fluid, it formed as solid rock kept breaking and rehealing innumerable times.” The differently colored bands are born from earthquakes deep below the surface. Its beauty is forged through violence and conflict. Jade is a mineral that preserves itself. When it breaks, it knows to heal.

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