We’re on the Capital Mall in Washington, DC at the National Museum of Natural History climbing the steps past the broad shouldered columns holding up the pediments and green dome. It’s a theatre of the natural world. I’m with my two boys, Noah and Eli. We are being ushered in before opening time. In my five student years in DC, I’d visited this place plenty to marvel at the minerals and animal dioramas and I’d dependably end up gawking at the Hope Diamond. But always I felt the invisible proscenium of audience and players. Twenty years later we had a backstage pass. My son, Noah, now a student himself in DC, was a volunteer docent at the Museum’s biggest draw, the Insect Zoo. The director, Dr. Sally Love, the vivacious talk-show entomologist, who regularly freaked out funny-man hosts on the late night circuit with foot long walking sticks and giant beetles, had created the zoo as a hands-on experience. Who wouldn’t love a tarantula when pretty Dr. Love with a heartthrob smile held it out to you?
We are led through the zoo and into the non-public research area and offices to meet Dr. Love. We feel special. She is just like on TV. When introduced, her attention is focused on our little party but I notice the two on-duty docents in the background. They are stiff with shyness but seem to beam with a little brightness just to be near the bug doctor. They are volunteers working one day a week to be close to the world they adore, the bugs so perfect and resilient, and to also be close to Dr. Love, the dramaturge of invertebrate life, spokes-model to the bugs.
My son’s co-docents were central casting insect people. One was a rail, skinny like a walking stick, with big black frame glasses and restless spidery fingers. The other was a short round guy, sloping shoulders and head tucked down. A beetle. Both of ’em in white lab coats, readying for the day with groups of school kids. Their job, as was Noah’s, was to let the visitors have contact with some of the creatures; to let folks hold some of the hardy living specimens, like the 3-inch hissing cockroaches of Madagascar. These insect nerds specialized in getting the shy girl to bravely hold a tarantula in her palm while the big football guys nudge and shove one another. Great mantises looking like withered brown leaves crawled across the white sleeve of the bean pole docent, the patent leather beetles long as a finger proffered into the willing palm of a visitor.
We got the run of the place with special access and badges to go with. We peered into the glass enclosures to witness Rhinoceros Beetles fighting slow motion duels with their great snout hooks. There was a living Peripatus, the velvet worm that we were allowed to feel crawl across our palms. It’s a living fossil, a precursor to both earthworms and insects. The Peripatus, blue with double rows of pale pink polka dots, had 16 pairs of un-jointed stumpy legs that moved in waves gracefully scootching from one hand to another. It was soft. It felt like touching the dried skin covering a still wet blob of paint.
We felt anointed – stepping through the proscenium of a big institution, seeing the inner-workings of a piece of official theatre, and be star struck by Dr. Love. Adding to the thrill that day was seeing the two on-duty docents. They could be alienated nerds, souls and bodies crushed by shyness, habit or history, but alive and generating good spirit with the kids. In this staging of the natural world, the true soul acts best by being close to the thing he best loves. And so at the Insect Zoo the docents became stagehands to this theatre of invertebrate life.