Your friend has the keys to the basement collections of the Natural History Museum in Boston. He snuck us both in after hours, grinning and jangling his key ring like the keeper of the city’s secrets. First to the orchids, dried and mounted between heavy sheets of paper, each partnered by a hand-painted watercolor of the flower’s organs and roots.
Then, to the spirit collection: leaves, blossoms, seeds in bottles of ethanol. Here we found orchids swimming ghostly and translucent, smaller than the wings of a fruitfly. Above the space-saver cabinets which slid on tracks like the ladders of an old library, we fondled seed pods as big as Sunday watermelons: “Coco de mer,” your friend coos affectionately to the seed, and I note how much it resembles a lady’s buttocks, more curvaceous than my own.
Finally, tucked away on the lowest and dimmest floor: the wood lab, where specimens of porous twigs hide like dark licorice in dusty jars. Your friend shoved a block of petrified cedar out of the way with his boot, “only at Harvard would we use a three-million-year-old fossil as a doorstop.” He opens the door to the stone lab, where we pour over shelves and drawers of carboniferous ferns and bird feathers. We spend so long with our noses in drawers of mineralized plants that when we leave the building, we sneeze fossil dust all the way to the bar, where we toast to science and wash the old stone ferns down with beer.