Since finishing graduate school, whenever I was not working 40 hours per week, I visited one new museum or similar site on a weekly basis. But when my family spent Christmas 2010 with my uncle outside Los Angeles, I visited six such sites in one week. Four of these – a museum, a zoo, an arboretum, and a national park – took different forms but shared the theme of humans’ humble place in the natural world.
The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles is an impressive museum displaying dioramas of taxidermy mounts, bones, gems, a rainforest exhibit, and a bustling Discovery Center. I also saw an exhibit on evolution, called Age of Mammals, which approached the subject from a somewhat different angle from (but nevertheless reminded me of) the Hall of Human Origins at the National Museum of Natural History. While the Hall of Human Origins focuses on the details of early humans and human evolution, and asks the question, “What does it mean to be human?”, Age of Mammals seeks to tell a broader story of the evolution of all mammals. According to NHMLA, the theme of Age of Mammals can be distilled into six words: “Continents move. Climates change. Mammals evolve.” The exhibit reminds us of how much longer other species have been around than we have. It frames evolution in terms of climate change and informs ordinary people of things we can do to fight the detrimental impact humans have on the climate today.
We saw animals preserved by taxidermy at NHMLA – and real live animals at the Los Angeles Zoo. I saw snow leopards and a serval, koalas and wallabies, giraffes and a hippo, flamingos and komodo dragons. The great apes exhibit not only shows the animals themselves and explanatory text, but also quotations to get visitors thinking empathically about these animals so similar to humans. Text in the exhibit is bilingual, in both English and Spanish. One quote reads:
“No one who looks into the gorilla’s eyes – intelligent, gentle, vulnerable – can remain unchanged, for the gap between ape and human vanishes.”
While the LA Zoo is also a botanic garden, we visitors were primarily focused on the animals; plants, however, are the primary focus at the Los Angeles County Arboretum. Much of the arboretum is designed for human relaxation in nature, with a gazebo, nature-inspired art, and arbors with benches to sit on among the foliage. Yet, the arboretum’s Prehistoric Forest reminds us humans of a time before any of us were here.
Finally, we spent our last afternoon at Joshua Tree National Park, an awe-inspiring expanse of desert where we alternated between driving and walking in the bitter cold. It is vast nature, unadulterated save for the trails and small placards and markers. The strange-looking trees and rocks are everywhere. One placard speaks to the humbling effect of the desert park:
“Integrity is wholeness…
The wholeness of life and things,
The divine beauty of the universe.
Love that, not man apart from that.”
The museum, zoo, arboretum, and National Park I visited in California explore a natural world before and beyond human beings. Have a happy Earth Day today, and find harmony with this natural world.