Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

21 February, 2008

Up and Ride to the Burpee

I awoke from my slumbers on Monday morning quite happy because my girlfriend was lying next to me on a huge bed and I didn't have to go to work. Instead the plan was to spend some time at the Burpee Museum of Natural History. I'd been meaning to make a visit for a while. About six and a half years ago my friend Jeffrey informed me that his father had discovered a dinosaur out in Montana and that it would be put on display at the Burpee. I had to go see.



The Burpee is on Main Street right on the Rock River. It is a beautiful building as you can see. While dwarfed by The Field Museum in Chicago, I found the Burpee to be very cozy and a very interesting place. The unimposing façade betrays the rather large space inside which holds three levels of exhibits. It's not huge but you won't see everything in 10 minutes either. We spent about three hours there and began the afternoon on the first floor by learning that Rockford was once underneath the Ordovician Sea and by looking at fossils including this fish…



…and this rather eldritch looking thing which rather resembled a baby Old One.



Unfortunately my photos of the coprolites (fossilized feces) aren't in focus. And no, there weren't any 5-foot mounds of hardened dinosaur poop on display. Nevertheless, I was awestruck by looking at the remains of creatures that lived millions of years ago – long before our ancestors had decided that the Quaternary Age would be a good time to improve their posture for a night of hunting and gathering on the plains. It was at this time as my imagination was roaring back to the Primordial Soup that The D revealed to me that she is a young earth Creationist type.



Moving along, we found a miniature replica of the skeletal system of an ancient sea creature. It was rather like a Terminator in that it had plate armor on the inside. The creature was vicious yet had no teeth. Instead the bits of the armor around the mouth were shaped like them. The description noted it was one bad-ass predator in its day and that it essentially ate whatever the hell it could get its mouth around. This last statement amused The D and found that it reminded her of me. Hence this portrait:



I remain unsure as to whether being compared to an ancient eating machine 25 feet in length is a sign of her love or whether I should take offense.

The exhibit on Jane was quite nice. The area we entered had a video installation which featured a computerized reenactment of Jane's death. It is theorized that she was killed by a predator along a shoreline some 66 million years ago. I'm not sure how her death throes were recorded, but they were rather disturbing.



Jane's corpse laid there as the Cretaceous Period gave way to the Paleogene which, in turn, gave way to the Neogene. In the late Quaternary Age (i.e. – summer 2001) Jeffrey's father, Bill Harrison, a professor of Latin American Studies at Northern Illinois University, was working on his PhD in archeology when he took the highway to Hell Creek (Montana) to dig for bones. It was there and then that he and the rest of the team from the Burpee stumbled upon Jane.

Jane herself stands in the middle of the room surrounded by a fence which has a series of small but interactive video displays. Using a touch screen, you can learn about how a doctor at the nearby hospital was enlisted to determine what a mysterious bulbous outcrop on one of Jane's bones was. If memory serves, they recovered about 50% of the skeleton which, to this non-archeologist, is amazing. As Jane was being pieced together, there was a debate as to whether she was a tweener T.rex or a nanotyrannus which is a genus similar to the T.rex but, for anyone not familiar with prefixes derived from Greek, smaller. A meticulous comparison was made and it was determined that Jane was the former. Regardless of species, she was much bigger than any homo sapiens sapiens. Here's a rendering of what her head looked like:



Whether or not she had a taste for long pig, I'd still rather not meet this visage in a back alley. A documentary about the discovery and identification of Jane called The Mystery Dinosaur was made and shown on cable (Science Channel, Discovery Channel) in 2006 and 2007. Presumably it will be re-run but I took the initiative and TiVo'd it. I've been waiting to visit the Burpee before watching it so let the viewing commence! Even if you don’t get a chance to watch it, you can watch a couple short videos at the museum about the discovery and how the remains were excavated.

Wandering past a mock-up of a Carboniferous Coal Forest, we ascended the stairs and went from paleontology to geology. This meant memories of grade school science came flooding back as I was reintroduced to the terms igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary. Plus there were lots of neat rocks to look at.





There were also displays about this stuff:



Coal. I had no idea that Illinois had the "largest reserves of Bituminous coal in the world". (Bituminous is the mid-grade variety.) It had been a long, long time since I'd been to see the mineshaft at the Museum of Science and Industry.



Looking at the mannequin, I was reminded of the Uncle Tupelo version of the song "Coalminers" by Sarah Ogan Gunning:

Mining is the most dangerous work
in our land today
Plenty of dirty, slaving work
for very little pay


It also made me think of my great-grandfather, Kuzma. He and my great-grandmother, Parsaka, immigrated from Galicia which was, I believe, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time they came over. I presume they were part of Galicia's Great Economic Migration. They came here speaking Ruthenian, though Kuzma learned English while Parsaka did not. They eventually made their way to Buckner, Illinois where Kuzma worked as a coalminer. My great-grandparents had a boarder at their house named Theodore Urkovich and he too mined coal. Considering that there were 6 kids there as well, it must have been exceptionally crowded.

I stood there for a bit imagining what life must have been like for a great-grandfather whom I never met – what it must have been like for him to come to a new country and to dig coal to support his family.

The third floor of the Burpee is dedicated to the flora and fauna of Illinois as well as to the state's original Native American inhabitants. I realized that I had forgotten every bird call I ever learned while living in the country. Not that I knew many, but I could easily recognize a few common ones. But the exhibit on birds and their calls had me flummoxed. Pointing out that there are deer and squirrels living in northern Illinois isn't news so I'll move on to the Native American displays.

The first one I checked out noted the competing claims of how peoples got from what is Siberia today to Illinois. There was the old Bering Land Bridge theory but also a newer one which posits that those people sailed along its coast. Continuing, I learned about the Mississippian/Cahokian culture and that there were effigy mounds in Rockford, just down the river from the museum. Here you can see The D checking out a wigwam.



And what did they eat? Gourds, amongst other things.



There was also a dugout canoe which, to this 21st centurion, was incredibly small. Not a cat in hell's chance of me fitting in there. Part of it is because I am a typical overweight American but it's also because we are just bigger these days. I'm about the same height as Thomas Jefferson – around 6'2" – and he was a giant in his day. Me? I'm just about 3" taller than the average man. So I can only imagine just how much smaller than me the Illinois natives were.

The D loved this:



The owls are not what they seem…

On the way out we passed by The Shrunken Head with the Andy Warhol haircut.



Leaving the Burpee, The D got a hankering for custard so it was off to Culver's for a gourmet meal and the flavor of the day. I have to admit that my first visit to the Burpee left me mighty impressed. It was much larger than I thought it would be, had some neat interactive bits, and I found the emphasis on local history to be extremely interesting. Plus I got to see fossilized poop.

While I cannot pledge to make Rockford a yearly vacation site, I can see myself going back. The Burpee made for a fascinating few hours and, if there are kids around for the next trip, there are other sites to be seen such as the Discovery Center Museum. There is more to Rockford than can be seen from a quick breeze by it on the interstate.
|| Palmer, 1:58 PM

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