Photo credit: David Barry
A paleobotanist, an archaeologist, a religion scholar, and a therapist walked into a bar.
The first movie I ever saw in a theater by myself was Waking Life
. It was 2001 and I was in college and I was yet again on uneasy terms with my playwright boyfriend. I went to the film angrily, as a way of making myself seem like a scarce resource. I haven’t watched the entire movie since that lonely, defiant night. I don’t remember much about it. But even now, when I’m observing an expert talk about something they care about, I perceive the speaker with the ever-wavering animated lines that characterized Waking Life
Writing a book is a ferociously solitary endeavor. It’s you in the dark cave of your brain for thousands and thousands of hours, with brief candlelit visits from just a few courageous travelers — a partner, a sibling, a friend.
When I started writing my novel The Need
, I knew that my protagonist, Molly, was a scientist. I knew that she was working at a site where they were delving into the layers of the earth, a site where otherworldly objects kept appearing, including a version of the Bible in which the pronoun for God was female. I knew that her discoveries at this site gestured toward other possible realities. But I didn’t know much else about her work life, even after completing a full first draft of the book in the spring of 2017.
I was desperate to know where exactly Molly worked and what exactly she did.
I needed to invite someone else into the cave.
Through my in-laws, I know a woman whose daughter is a paleobotanist (for the uninitiated, among whom I used to count myself: paleobotanists study plant fossils). In August 2017, we got on the phone and talked for over two hours. I left that conversation with nine pages of typed notes — and a new concept for The Need
The Paleobotanist explained to me that it is possible to come upon fossils that do not match anything alive today or in the known fossil record, giving rise to certain basic questions: Where do I place this? What is it most closely related to? How does this discovery change what I thought I knew?
The fossil record remains (and will always be) incomplete. And fossils can, at times, be so mysterious as to gesture toward an alternate understanding of the history of life on Earth.
So there it was: the lynchpin of The Need
, courtesy of the Paleobotanist.
I needed to invite someone else into the cave.
Speaking of alternate realities: “My advice to any heartbroken young girl is to pay close attention to the study of theoretical physics. Because one day there may well be proof of multiple universes. It would not be beyond the realms of possibility that somewhere outside of our own universe lies another different universe. And in that universe Zayn is still in One Direction. This girl may like to note that in another possible universe she and Zayn are happily married.” — Stephen Hawking
Throughout the year, I asked the Paleobotanist questions: What is your favorite unsolved paleobotanical mystery? What is a realistic number of fossil specimens to find per day? In what situations might the concerns of paleobotanists and archaeologists overlap?
In the summer of 2018, the Paleobotanist and I sat on the porch of my in-laws’ home in torrential rain, my laptop propped up on my knees as I modified various details in the book in response to the Paleobotanist’s insights. She had read The Need
, and she had things to say. I watched her talk, magical lines wavering around her as around the experts in Waking Life
I will limit myself to sharing three of the many things I learned about paleobotany that I wasn’t able to use in The Need
1) In the 1800s in Colorado, a woman named Charlotte Hill — a homesteader/wife/mother and a self-taught naturalist — collected thousands of fossils. Research expeditions came through and acquired her fossils, many of which were significant finds, though her contributions did not receive much public acknowledgement. But she did have a fossil named after her, Rosa hilliae
, in 1883.
2) There’s a paleobotany site called the Red Hot Truck Stop Locality, so named for the nearest attraction.
3) When a paleobotanist names a new fossil, that name becomes the authority after the scientific name. But what a paleobotanist publishes now could be reinterpreted later; fossils are frequently renamed. The Paleobotanist, who is in her early thirties, has named six fossils — though one of those names has already been supplanted.
Then I needed to talk to someone who could speak to how a scientist would respond to the collision of human artifacts and plant fossils at a single site. The Archaeologist is a PhD candidate at UC-Boulder, and the sister of a former creative writing student of mine.
The Archaeologist’s own biggest question at the time I spoke to her: What tips a society into urbanization? Why would semi-nomadic people give up their autonomy to live in a densely populated area? Is it perhaps because of religion?
The Archaeologist mentions an article about the recent revelation, through DNA analysis, that the skeleton in a Viking warrior grave in Sweden is female rather than male.
The Archaeologist explains that, because the precise location of an object in situ can reveal nearly as much as the object itself, it is an ongoing challenge to protect archaeological sites from rodents.
My questions are varied: Is it possible to carbon-date Native American potsherds? What would you do if you were at a site and found contemporary objects? In what situations would archaeologists wear latex gloves?
“Hopefully this isn't information overload. I love archaeology!” the Archaeologist signed off one of her emails.
I needed a few small fragments; I am given a treasure chest.
I’m curious to know what God does in the Hebrew Bible that is literally, physically male.
The Religion Scholar says:
I ask: If the pronoun for God were female, would any passages of the Bible fail to make sense?
The Religion Scholar explains that, in the Hebrew Bible, God is not literally sexed or gendered; the male pronoun can be thought of as a place-holder: “it indicates when it is God who is acting or speaking. The use of the male pronoun speaks to the nature of language and culture, not to the nature of God.”
If God is the source of all, the Religion Scholar says, how can God be male or female or human? “God transcends all dualities, including male-female. If we say that God is a particular kind of being or thing, then God would be one amongst other beings or things in the world.”
She continues: “Ascribing human attributes to God is a way to express and make accessible the transcendent, infinite reality of God in the world… We experience powerful forces in the universe and in order to make sense of our experience and to enter into a relationship with these forces, we ascribe human qualities and characteristics to them.”
In the Hebrew Bible and in the teachings of the Rabbis, she says, the "Shekinah" (the presence of God in a specific locality) and “Wisdom” are both feminine.
In the Middle Ages, she says, Julian of Norwich referred to Jesus Christ as “the Mother.”
Among scholars, she says, it is fairly mainstream to acknowledge the gender ambiguity of God.
The dynamic quality of someone quietly speaking about their area of expertise: this must be one of the most beautiful sights on Earth.
And, finally, the most difficult: at the core of The Need
, a bereaved mother.
The Therapist is a dear friend of mine. She is many months pregnant and we are walking the tree-lined streets of Ditmas Park. Her father is critically ill and will not live to see his grandson. My sister died when my daughter was a newborn. My questions for her are painful, and close to home.
Do the stages of grief really go in order: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance?
She says: These do seem to be the stages of grief, but they can come in any order and are nonlinear and impermanent. You can shift among all of these states. Acceptance is not final and permanent.
What behavior might one expect from a mother who has lost her children?
She says: A mother in grief might wake up and go to work like normal. A mother in grief might try to do something violent to herself or to someone else. Any behavior at all would be believable and possible.
She says: A mother in grief is likely to experience magical thinking, and out-of-body sensations.
We cried together as we walked.
A paleobotanist, an archaeologist, a religion scholar, and a therapist walked into a dark cave, holding four candles.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of, most recently, the novel The Need
. Her collection Some Possible Solutions
received the 2017 John Gardner Fiction Book Award. Her novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat
, a New York Times Notable Book of 2015, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the NYPL Young Lions Award. Her collection And Yet They Were Happy
was named a notable collection by The Story Prize. She is also the author of the middle-grade novel Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green
. Helen has received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and the Italo Calvino Prize in Fabulist Fiction, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic
, The New York Times
, and Tin House
, and on Selected Shorts
. She is an associate professor at Brooklyn College and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, artist Adam Douglas Thompson, and their children.