The Story and the Wonder
Today was my first time to the Natural History Museum. It was near the top of my list of places to go once I moved to New York last summer but life always seemed to get in the way. This holiday seemed like a fitting weekend to carve out a few hours to spend a few hours with dinosaurs and ancient relics of cultures past.
The museum welcomes a sense of wonder; walking past the Asian mammals to the tropical birds, across the African masks to dinosaur bones, under the giant whale, near the mineral exhibit, you start to see how small we are and how vast time is. Entire civilizations have lived and died before my feet even touched Earth.
I started to feel nostalgic for places I’d never been and longed for memories of being a kid, wide-eyed and open to the mysteries of the universe. When you’re young, it feels like the world is yours for exploring. Every rock needs turning over, every tree climbed, every insect put under the microscope. That feeling disappears as we get older and weighed down with everyday life. In the museum, it’s okay to look at rocks again.
Yet walking through the exhibits of ancient civilizations, I was struck by the familiarity. They made tools, created art, and lived together, bonded by their respective cultures. They aren’t much different than us. Since the beginning of time, humans have had an impulse for creating, a desire for beauty, and a need for community. It’s these things that bind us together, and when you’re in the museum, those strings pull just a little tighter, pulling us closer together, allowing us to find our place in the human story. Looking at the African tools, I wondered if its creator thought about these things, if he realized the world is vast and time is long.
As I left, I passed a boy and his father looking at a bird diorama; the father down on one knee, smiling at his son’s excitement. Together, they reveled in the mysteries of the world. I wished I could bottle up that excitement. I want to know the wonder is still alive as I settle into my place in the human narrative.
The Olduvai handaxe is largely believed to be the first great invention. A stone handaxe is like a prehistoric Swiss Army knife—an essential tool with multiple uses like drilling, cutting trees and meat or scraping bark. What’s most interesting about the handaxe, however, is that it is obvious there was a thoughtfulness and care put into it’s construction. It was intentional.
Maybe you could put it this way: the handaxe is the first glimpse in history of conceptual thought. Humans and animals have used found tools since the dawn of time, but with this axe, someone had to imagine something useful within a rough stone. And then craft it.
Looking at a handaxe, Sir James Dyson of Dyson vacuum cleaner fame observes:
What interests me about this is that it’s not really very practical. It’s double-sided, it has a sharp edge both sides, and it’s symmetrical. It’s almost as though it’s an object of beauty rather than a practical object. So I wonder actually if it’s a decorative thing, or even something like a ceremonial sword to make you look brave, powerful, and maybe to pull women.
The handaxe, of course, does have a practical use and has been found all over the world from Africa to Europe to East Asia to the Middle East. The handaxe shows human’s ability to see potential in the world around us but it also shows a desire for beauty, for decoration, for aesthetics. The handaxe is the first great invention and maybe, just maybe, the beginning of art.
See Also: The BBC’s History of the World in 100 Objects episode on the Olduvai Handaxe.
“People are interested only in themselves. If a story is not about the hearer he will not listen. And here I make a rule—a great and lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. The strange and foreign is not interesting—only the deeply personal and familiar”
—John Steinbeck, East of Eden
This is one of those books that’s been on my list to read for a few years now, always putting it off to read something newer to relevant to my interests or shorter. I’d finished the rest of the books on my list that I already own and not wanting to buy another, I knew it was time.
East of Eden is one of the best books I’ve read. I’d say it now sits alongside Lust for Life as one of my favorite novels. And like Lust for Life, the reason it’s so great is because it’s tells one of those eternal stories. It’s about love and loss, jealously and betrayal, success and failure.
The quote above was spoken by the character Lee in the book, someone who continually provided insight into the story and into life and I think that quote is the perfect description of what East of Eden is. It’s a book about the human story.