Daily Archives: October 14, 2015

John Wenzel

John and I were roommates in Somerville, back in 1979-80.  I had finished college and was working for an architect in Boston, and John was on a hiatus year, doing fieldwork in entomology and working as a bartender in various places (including the original Legal Seafood around the corner in Inman Square), before returning to Harvard to finish his degree.  John pretty much took over the freezer in our apartment, and if you were looking for ice cream you had to move all the film canisters filled with wasps out of the way.  Even at that young age, John was notable for the adventures he had had and the stories he could tell.  (We weren’t always sure how much of any story was true, but they were damn good stories.)  We learned how serious John was about entomology when it was time to pick a graduate program.  The best school was Kansas, and the second-best was Berkeley.  John went to Kansas, and didn’t get to eat any good Chinese food for years.

John went on to a distinguished academic career, eventually as a professor at Ohio State.  But after decades in the field, he realized he wasn’t as interested in the direction in which it was headed.  So he quit to try something different.  He is now the Director of the Powdermill Nature Reserve in southwestern Pennsylvania, (http://www.carnegiemnh.org/powdermill/), which is the environmental research center of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, about 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.  It is an extremely beautiful area (and hence the location of Fallingwater and many other country estates of the Pittsburgh elite), and John’s work now includes overseeing the largest bird-banding operation in the country (which Greta will blog about), thinking about big issues of ecology, and initiating a wide variety of studies and research in this area, such as whether they can establish a stand of American Chestnut trees on the reserve.

John showing us an American Elm.

John showing us an American Chestnut.

We spent an amazing few days with John and his wife Donna, who is also an entomologist.  John drove us to obscure places around the countryside to see extraordinary sites and buildings (while Donna was helping out at the local town festival), and put us up in a great old log cabin on the Reserve (much more commodious than our trailer).  DSCF0769

Donna made us a wonderful home-cooked meal, and we went into Pittsburgh with John a couple of times.  His institutional connections and tremendous gregariousness came into play here, as he seems to know everyone in town, and he took us behind the scenes at both the Carnegie Museum and the National Aviary.  Greta has always been very interested in natural science, and this may have been one of the best weeks of her life – tagging along with the bird-banding crew early on a Sunday morning,DSCF0737

visiting the raptor yard at the aviary and holding a falcon,DSCF1060

getting to observe and talk to the archaeologists who are reconstructing fossils in the museum.DSCF1378

the jaw bone from the first identified Tyrannosaurus Rex.

the jaw bone from the first identified Tyrannosaurus Rex, in the storage locker.

and most strangely, visiting the room at the museum where vast numbers of reptiles and amphibians are stored in glass jars:DSCF1394

We’re supposed to be home-schooling Greta this year, but I’m afraid that in the general rush of travel and things to see, we haven’t been as diligent as we might be (although the State of Oregon doesn’t seem to have any standards for this at all).  But this past week made up for it – Greta learned more science than she probably would have in all of 8th grade, in a much more engaging way.  She also talked to many scientists, and learned what their careers were like and how they had ended up doing the detailed work they did.  It was a fantastic educational experience for her, one that might have a profound effect on her life.

John and I hadn’t seen each other in almost 30 years; we reconnected about a decade ago through the wonders of the internet, and it was a pleasure to spend this much time with him.  Although his initial expertise was in what I thought of as a pretty narrow area, John had always been one of the most broadly knowledgable friends I’ve had.  That knowledge has grown much deeper in the past 35 years, as he has been to almost every corner of the world (acquiring a lot more good stories to tell), and he has gained a perspective on life and the world that I appreciated and enjoyed hearing.  One of the great pleasures of this trip has been seeing (and introducing Greta to) long-lost friends, people I’ve always enjoyed and admired.  With John this was especially acute, as it was clear how all the qualities he had as a young man had matured, bringing him to this accomplished, meaningful and very entertaining  life.

The Carnegie Museums

Backtracking to Pittsburgh for a post, as the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History must be mentioned.  There are three things about this complex that are great:  the natural history museum, the art museum, and the architecture.  But the best thing is that they are all together;  Greta could look at dinosaurs and animals while I looked at art and architecture, and neither of us got cranky.

First, the Natural History Museum was remarkable, even by Greta’s high standards.  As I mentioned in the post about my friend John Wenzel, who runs the Powdermill nature center for the museum, we went behind the scenes to meet the curators, etc.  As he points out, it is one of the greatest archaeological collections in the country;  many other museums display casts of the fossils that are in the Carnegie.DSCF1447

a whole drawer full of rhinoceros kneecaps

a whole drawer full of rhinoceros kneecaps

the amazing Alcohol Room, two levels of glass jars full of amphibians and reptiles

the amazing Alcohol Room, two levels of glass jars full of amphibians and reptiles

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the prairie dogs are everywhere (along wi the bison)

the prairie dogs are everywhere (along with the bison)

my favorite thing in the bone storage area.  My post-its usually say things like cheese and coffee, or a phone number with no name.

my favorite thing in the bone storage area. My post-its usually say things like cheese and coffee, or a phone number with no name.

Second, the art collection is one of the best in the country.  You may recall that many of the best paintings in the National Gallery were given by the Mellons;  they obviously kept a lot of good things home in Pittsburgh too.  Perhaps the most interesting circumstance that determines the collection is that starting in 1896, the museum sponsored an annual (then biennial, then triennial, etc.) exhibition of contemporary work, and they often they acquired important entries.  So there is a fantastic collection of late 19th-century American and European paintings and sculpture.  Many of modern western civilization’s all-star team, but many less well-know artists who are quite interesting.  Here are a few images, without getting all lecturey about them:DSCF1475

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Caitlin, I think

Caitlin, I think

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Third, the architecture is superb.  The original Beaux Arts building is opulent yet under control, with grand halls and stairs:DSCF1321

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In 1970, Edward Larrabee Barnes (an architect about whom those under the age of 50 have not heard) designed an excellent addition/remodel/insertion, with elegant galleries and a beautiful entry/lobby/courtyard.DSCF1513

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I could have spent a week in this museum, the collection is that good.  Highly recommended, and Greta still needs to blog about the Indian food around the corner.