The grand and awkward moose is the most impressive creature I've ever seen. Although I've spotted quite a few cows––the female moose––on my land and in the woods around it, I've never seen a bull moose with a large rack. It took my first visit to the delightful Montshire Museum of Science to see this engaging specimen. The Montshire is a small natural history museum, located in Norwich, Vermont, a relatively new institution with many hands-on activities especially engaging for children. Another natural history museum in Vermont, The Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium, is a very different sort of place, a step into the 19th century, which I wrote about here.
The special exhibition that got me to the museum was "From the Mountains to the Sea: Plants, Trees, and Shrubs of New England", a juried show of work by members of the New England Society of Botanical Artists (see some examples below). But before going upstairs to the exhibit, I wandered around on the first floor, amid excited children enjoying the displays of native fish and amphibians. This Yellow Perch with bright orange lower fins was swimming about in front of an audience.
A Green Frog peaks out of its hiding place, blending in with the green life around it.
I loved seeing the Painted Turtles, which look like fierce prehistoric beasts, scary yet very decorative.
Bobbi Angell, Blue Flag; copper etching
A very different mood was in evidence in the exhibit of contemporary botanical drawings, one of loving and precise attentiveness. The aim of the New England Society of Botanical Artists is to "increase public awareness of the significance of preserving New England's native plants." This lovely etching seems to owe a great deal to the art of Japan in its simple yet dramatic composition.
Susan Sawyer, Black Ash, Five Winter Twigs; watercolor over graphite.
A seemingly mundane subject becomes fascinating by the small differences from twig to twig, with the group standing together, slightly leaning and curving, a harmonious quintet, with one amusing little pushy outgrowth.
Beverly Duncan, Autumn Remains - Pignut Hickory; watercolor and pencil on parchment.
The dried remains of leaves and nuts and insects achieve an eloquence through Duncan's careful looking and recording.
Kelly Leahy Radding, Nodding Ladies' Tresses Orchid, Schreber's Big Red Stem Moss, Running Clubmoss, Common Haircap Moss, detail; watercolor on parchment.
I love the delicacy of this drawing and its detailed observation. I learned that botanical drawing has a long history, with accurately drawn plants beginning most notably in 1530, with Otto Brunfels' Herbarium vivae eicones, illustrated with woodcuts by Hans Weiditz. Weiditz drew his plants from life, instead of copying older images as was the practice previously. Many books were produced in later years, some for practical reasons such as medicinal plants, but many for the sheer beauty of flowers. This show was full of ordinary beauty, found in things often overlooked.
There were other kinds of beauty to be seen upstairs at the Montshire, especially in their insect collections. The somewhat faded display of moths was quite amazing: 2000 species in Vermont! I loved the spotted black and white moths with their dramatic designs (click to enlarge).
While I was bent over the beetle display, enjoying the brilliant coloration and varied designs, I was joined in admiration by a 10 year old boy who enthusiastically pointed out his favorites. It was wonderful to see the kids having such a good time noticing things, learning about the world around them.
A very popular exhibit was of a non-native species of ant, a Leafcutter ant colony (some great photos at the link). The ants cut up leaves, carrying pieces many times their size to the fungus garden where the leaves are chewed and made into a paste; this paste becomes a fungus that the ants feed on. The organization of these ants is quite remarkable.
Walking outside the museum, I saw many water displays, all closed down for winter but watched over by a text from Leonardo da Vinci on water, "the driver of nature". He saw water as always changing: "Now it brings a conflagration, then it extinguishes; is warm and is cold; now it carries away, then it sets down......" (click on image to enlarge so you can read it). Water is all important and we are too careless with this precious resource.
The flowing water of the Connecticut River is alongside the museum, where I could see it from a very different vantage point than from that bridge in the distance which I cross to get to Hanover, NH. I could almost imagine the river wild as it was a few hundred years ago, with only native plants gracing its banks.