My book, The Unknown Knowns
, is about a man with a lot of unattainable dreams that are probably better left unattained anyway. Among Jim Rath's goals is to build a museum dedicated to the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis. This is the idea (propounded by Elaine Morgan in her book Aquatic Ape: A Theory of Human Evolution
) that humans acquired their weird marine characteristics (subcutaneous fat, downward-pointing nostrils, near hairlessness) when our ancestors lived in the water.
Jim is a diorama builder by trade. His work demands a crazy dedication to realism. For an exhibit at The Colorado Springs Center for Gender and Power, he once built a tribute to Margaret Sanger that included an historically accurate menstrual rag. He has similar ambitions for his Museum of the Aquatic Ape. It'll be like the American Museum of Natural History but with a submarine monorail and a lot more lasers. Jim never completes his brick-and-mortal museum, but in his imagination he erects The Museum of the Aquatic Ape of the Mind, a purely imaginary institution so mind-blowing it destroys Louis Leakey and the whole phallocentric Savana Theory of human evolution in a sustained blast of ancient aquatic truth.
In the fall of 2008 my wife and I decided to fulfill Jim's dream by launching a Museum of the Aquatic Ape website. The project consumed our lives for the better part of four months. It was pretty much like Mosquito Coast, except set in Brooklyn, and with psychic sperm whales.
Our first task was to build the dioramas. I got a lot of inspiration from a book called Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History. But it was also depressing. I don't have the floor space for a cyclorama, and I suck at taxidermy. So in October 2008 I started hanging around model-train shops, looking for humbler ways to build our displays.
Train enthusiasts are often disparaged as basement-dwelling man-children. We picture a guy in a jumpsuit hunched over a miniature whistle-stop. He's gluing a microscopic brakeman to a tiny coal car. He's painting frost on a pinecone the size of a molecule. But in the back of his mind, he's planning a multi-state killing spree. The miniaturist, in popular lore, is a sociopath. But the model-train folk I encountered were really nice. At Gotham Model Trains in New York City, I told the guy behind the counter that I was building a scale replica of an aquatic city. There were to be glass spires and a coral dome built by a sentient species of polyps. Try this conversation opener at a party and you'll get a swizzle stick in the eye. But the model-train man didn't flinch. He showed me an acrylic product designed to simulate water. He told me about curing times and product shrinkage. He recommended peat moss for the seaweed. He was generous and cool and not a sociopath.
For the next few months, after our two-year-old, Felix, was tucked in bed, my wife and I stayed up late to build the dioramas. We tweezered grains of sand to form boulder fields, made tiny sea urchins out of Sculpey, and molded gelatin into the diaphanous towers of Nautika's Zone of Magic and Progress.
There are parallels between diorama design and fiction writing. Each is about making a world with precision and verisimilitude out of really boring materials. (Come to think of it, that pretty much describes the universe, too.) A writer has parts of speech and sentence structure; the task is to sequence and resequence the words inside the syntax until an intended image forms on the reader's brain-screen. A dioramist gets a box and a sack of art supplies.
One morning, the work was done. The city of Nautika, built on a three-by-two slab of plywood, lay on our baker's rack. Felix came out of the bedroom in his pajamas, looked at it, and said, "That's where Mama and Dada live."
The Museum of the Aquatic Ape website opens its doors this week. There you can read an excerpt from The Unknown Knowns, take an audio-visual tour, and see all the dioramas. I hope it comes close to Jim Rath's insane vision. But I know that for Jim no museum will be bold enough, real enough to match his imagination. No matter how many hours you spend gluing foam-rubber foliage to papièr-mâche mountains, the effect is always kind of cheesy. And for me that's the most painful parallel between dioramas and fiction. The only museum that ever measures up is the Museum of the Aquatic Ape of the Mind.