1996 – Colette Hosmer
Although I enjoy walking the Oregon coast in winter I found this January day, featuring snow and gale-force winds, to be challenging. As I pulled on layers of clothing, I was encouraged by the thought that I would have the beach to myself since it was doubtful that anyone else would be crazy enough to venture out in such weather.
The beauty of this icy coastline, with its no-nonsense attitude, reminded me of how I began to make art in the first place. I was romanced by art from an early age but the natural sciences presented tough competition for my attention. Unwilling to forsake one passion for the other, I began to use organic materials as a medium for my art. I’ve since learned, through the dissection of hundreds of animals, that we are all mostly indistinguishable beneath the surface.
I had been laboring against the frigid wind for more than a mile when I spotted a hawk perched on an obscure mound. As I headed over to investigate, the big bird flew a safe distance away and watched as I claimed its cache – an adult seal that had apparently come in on the tide the night before. Until the fatal head injury came into view, the seal looked as though at any moment it would realize my presence, turn and make its way back into the sea.
It was my birthday and I wasted no time in justifying this find as a “gift”. Reinforced against the cold with a new enthusiasm, I headed back to the cabin to collect the tools I would need to explore the mysteries of this sea mammal.
The long stretch of beach was deserted except for seagulls — and gripping the edge of a twisted log, leaning forward into the wind like an Art Nouveau hood ornament – a solitary crow. I returned to the place where I’d left the seal – a small cove protected by cliffs. I was grateful to be out of the wind and for the intermittent winter sun and its illusion of warmth.
As I opened the seal’s abdomen, a large sac spilled onto the sand. Knowing it was positioned too low in the body cavity to be the stomach, I made a careful incision and held my breath as I reached inside. A beautiful, perfectly formed fetal seal emerged, its iridescent, white pelt reflecting light for the first time. I sadly contemplated its premature death for several moments before cutting the umbilical cord.
As I set to work to remove the pelvis, skull and limbs of the mother seal, I recalled the first time I attempted to dissect a fellow creature. It was winter then too, and at nine years old, I was kneeling in the snow trying to command my frozen fingers to fillet minnows taken from an icy creek at the edge of my rural North Dakota town. The feeling of awe and reverence that I felt as I studied the insides of those tiny fish returns each time I skin an animal.
I began to toss bits of meat to a circle of seagulls that had formed around me and was soon enveloped by the din as my rowdy audience increased in size. Aware only of the sea, the wind and the seagulls, I was absorbed by the mystery of discovery. I remember glancing up nervously every few minutes to scan the beach for intruders, feeling a sense of communion with the human scavengers who had come thousands of years before me. At that moment in time, thousands of years of cultural evolution fell away without a trace.
The seal had the size and appearance of a large dog, but as her limbs had been transformed into fins, her body took on a torpedo-like shape. Stiff whiskers framed her gentle face and the dark spots on her gray back migrated down to the white underbelly. The light began to fade and I regretted that I would not have time to properly skin this mammal so as to recover its splendid coat. My sense of intrigue at how strikingly similar we mammals are below the surface was reawakened.
Our bones, muscles and organs share the same names and functions with other animals, although the shape of each may vary according to its job description. The seal’s thick, but drastically shortened femur is a marvel of biological evolution; the elongated finger and toe bones are perfectly adapted to operate flippers. And, an absolute miracle of creation, the seal pup, was still curled into a fetal position and lying in the sand at my feet.
I finally surrendered to dusk, and feeling exhausted but grateful to have the wind at my back, left the greater share of the mother seal for the birds and the tide, shouldered my portion, and retraced my footprints back to the cabin.
The next day I arrived at the airport with a heavy, frozen box and checked it along with my suitcase on a return flight to New Mexico. Several hours later, I was greatly relieved to see that semi-frozen package slide onto the luggage carousel in Albuquerque.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” said Albert Einstein, “It is the source of all true art and science.”