Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Advent 2022, Dec 13, Sarah Fawn Montgomery, Museums of Natural History: Essay Collections as Curation

Exhibit One

I’ve long collected what’s been buried.

As a child, I spent afternoons digging with my tiny pail, later with an industrial shovel because plastic was no match for my obsession. I dug everywhere—my brittle California yard, the salty beach shore, the elementary school sandbox. I was desperate to get beneath the surface.

It was exhausting, dirty work. Digging marked my hands and clothes, left dark halfmoons under my nails. Sometimes I found treasures—pebbles, pennies, minerals, bones. I found old dog teeth and bullet casings, mucked feathers and sand dollars. I made up a story for each discovery. At the end of each day, I carried my collection home and displayed my findings in the windowsill like a natural history museum.

Nothing much has changed. I’m still digging, still collecting artifacts. I’m still telling stories by uncovering what has been buried.

My latest essay collection, Halfway from Home, is a curation of the self. Uncovering the stories from my past that led me to leave a chaotic home at 18 in order to chase restlessness, claiming places on the West Coast, Midwest, and East Coast, I examine how difficult it is to move forward when you long for the past. With my family ravaged by addiction, illness, and poverty; the nation increasingly divided; and the natural worlds where I once sought solace under siege by wildfire, tornados, and unrelenting storms, I turn to nostalgia as a way to grieve a rapidly-changing world. Excavating the stories and scars we bury, the essays in this collection examine contemporary sorrow, searching for how to build a home when human connection is disappearing.

I wrote this book at the start of the end of the world. Like many, I could not leave my home or see my family, and I watched as the social, political, and environmental landscapes I knew disappeared seemingly overnight. I was buried by grief and so I wrote to dig myself out.

Exhibit Two

It is not possible to essay without the act of digging. The genre asks us to uncover the self by mining through the strata of memory, to uncover the story by going deeper.

Essaying requires the same techniques as excavation. You must work slowly and proceed with caution. You first map out the area you hope to uncover, while acknowledging that what is beneath the surface is likely to sprawl in all sorts of unexpected directions, tree roots and mineral veins running jagged through the tidy plot at the surface.

Begin by removing debris you will not need, distractions that threaten what you hope to uncover. Apply just enough pressure to break beneath the surface but not enough to damage what you uncover. When you do strike something—a memory, an image, an idea, a version of the self you thought long buried—brush away the soil carefully. Do not try to remove the artifact yet. Instead, survey the site to see where it has rested all this time. Consider the surroundings.

When you finally begin the work of moving earth, remember to sift through what you plan to discard. Do not ignore what you were not looking for. Most minerals only shine when they are polished. Geodes must be split in order to discover what they hold, just like trees when searching for amber. Do not leave these riches behind.

Like excavation, essaying is not without its dangers. The walls might collapse. You might be struck by falling debris. You might begin the important work of uncovering only to find that what you are searching for is already damaged, or worse, that you damage it in your quest. You might find that the artifact you are searching for has already been taken by someone else, or is lost altogether.

If you find yourself buried beneath the rubble, remember your tools and training. Veer off the path to discover a new way. Tunnel yourself free.

Exhibit Three

Nonfiction writers are often accused of navel-gazing, of curling in on themselves like a fetus until their story is as small and insignificant as a bellybutton. But this ignores the fact that the navel once tied us to another body, and then another, an endless tethering back in time that leads to ancestors buried underground which thus ties us to fossils, to precious ore, to the microscopic organisms that lead to both deterioration and preservation.

In order to tell our stories, we have no choice but to consider how they are part of a richer landscape. We cannot consider our personal histories without also telling the stories of our family trees, the ways they fork and split, the tangle of roots beneath the surface, which spread unseen up to five times as wide as the radius of the canopy. And because these roots work with the soil’s fungal networks to share messages and nutrients between trees of many species, we must consider how our stories are linked to many communities. Positioning the story of the self this way—one of humility rather than hubris—counters the claim that ego drives the essay.

To broaden the story beyond the self, we must essay to uncover the artifacts of our lives but also those of others. We unearth family secrets, painful experiences, our own shames. We dig up the histories and selves that once were but that have been buried with time or violence perhaps our own willingness to forget or change. We dig up what was once buried in order to examine the ways the story has decayed while out of site, in order to understand what remains. We gather the artifacts; we make sense of the relics.

In this way the essay is an exhumation. You participate in your own unburial. You uncover what you have concealed—sometimes for your own survival—and through that act, you have the opportunity to offer yourself understanding and forgiveness. Perhaps navel-gazing is not such a terrible comparison for the work of essayists after all, for the belly button is the first human scar and we write the world through our wounds. To display the scars of the self in an essay, as in a museum, is to claim a place above ground, in the light.

Some of the earliest fossils of animal life are ammonite. Extinct shelled cephalopods, they bore the distinct intelligence of contemporary creatures like squid and octopi, the kind of intellect that rivals our own. Like humans today, ammonite have been found across the earth, of interest precisely because of their diversity and rapid evolution. Much like humanoid remains, they are important, too, for scientific dating of the geologic record and for what they teach us about how animals responded to climate change. In natural history museum displays of bright gemstones and stuffed exotic animals, however, it is easy to miss these small brown fossils.

But look closely and you will see these fossilized shells are tightly curled in on themselves, a spiral reminiscent of our own in the womb before we first unfurled.

Exhibit Four

It is not possible to essay without the act of display. We catalogue the artifacts we have uncovered—those we were searching for, those that revealed themselves along the way—and curate a narrative. We write these stories because we believe they will be of beauty and utility to observers from other places, times, and lives.

Like excavation, curation requires careful craft. The display you create changes with time and context—personal and political, national and environmental. It changes as you view it from many angles, enter from different directions, move through the museum clockwise or counter, in the early morning when the artifacts are bright beneath the lights or late evening when the setting sun illuminates even fingerprints on the glass. Remember that while you can construct the display and the story you hope to tell, you will have little control once the patrons arrive.

As the curator of your natural history museum, consider the following: Who are you inviting into your display? What do you hope viewers will do with this story? What might they do once you relinquish control? What hope or hurt could happen?

More important: Who have you forgotten—or refused—to welcome? Who is erased from your display? Who have you silenced? Is this your story to tell at all? Much can be said of colonization and the conquest of curation. Artifacts are stolen. Artifacts are sold. Artifacts are displayed by those far removed from the lives of those they seek to honor. Like stories, artifacts can be used for personal and political gain. If weaponized, they can be used to wound.

Both the essayist and the archivist bear tremendous responsibility. By selecting which artifacts to display and which to file away, and by writing the placards that accompany the objects you have the power to shape truth. Museums offer opportunities for witness, and while it is wise to consider the possibility of your work, it is also prudent to consider the peril.

Exhibit Five

While writing Halfway from Home, the act of digging through my past brought up all sorts of nostalgic memories to the surface. I wrote about my childhood treasure hole, my father hiding gemstones and small ceramic animals for me to discover. I wrote about going berry picking with my family when my parents could not keep the cupboards full, how they managed to make something from nothing and feed us from that fruit.

But as I dug, I discovered darker truths. Addiction tangled the roots of our family tree. Abuse was carved into the bones of our women like scrimshaw. Early members of my family made their living by contributing to the violent legacy of environmental conquest in America.

The story of an artifact does not exist free from the bedrock that surrounds it, so I wrote, too, about the natural world. I wrote about the childhood wonder of pulling starfish from the coastal California tidepools and the adult horror of watching as my home state burns each year. I wrote about fleeing my chaotic childhood home to seek solace in the grassland prairies of Nebraska, where roots stretch endlessly underground to survive the roughest conditions, but how this vital ecosystem weakens with climate change. I wrote about finding an unexpected home in Massachusetts where the forest fungal networks share resources between species to protect the community even as throughout the pandemic humans would not do the same. I wrote to discover what it meant to live before the world was dying, when the tides were gentle, when monarchs clustered together for warmth each winter, when history was a hope rather than a hurt.

And I wrote to uncover how to live now. The grief I felt lifted as I unearthed the stories for my essay collection. The more I wrote, pulled stories up from where they were buried to be visible at the surface, the more the ache receded. You see, excavation and the essay are used for exploration, but they can also be used for restoration, perhaps even rescue.

Writing this book was no different than the love and labor of my childhood. I dug, uncertain what I would uncover once I got past the surface of memory, surprised by what had been buried—by others, by myself. I pulled ideas and images from the darkness, dusted them off, and displayed them in the light.

Sarah Fawn Montgomery will be joining Sonya Huber for our next digital salon event, "Essays and Embodied Voices," on December 16th. See here if you'd like to join us over Zoom for the salon.


Sarah Fawn Montgomery's latest collection, Halfway from Home was published with Split/Lip Press this November. Essays from this lyric essay collection on nostalgia, climate change, and searching for home during emotional and environmental collapse have appeared in Bellingham Review, Crab Orchard Review, Fourth Genre, New England Review, Southeast Review, Sycamore Review, and Zone 3. Several have been listed as Notable in Best American Essays. Dinty Moore calls this collection “intensely intimate” and Kwame Dawes says it is “a work of urgency, sensibility, and immediacy.” Sarah Fawn is also the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press), as well as three poetry collections. She is currently an Assistant Professor of creative writing at Bridgewater State University.

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