Yeats at 4th & Madison

Girls in small glasses and men in long coats
wait for their buses. Beyond the bank,
behind the courthouse, the highway and hotels,
there are places you and I cannot see.

Stairs lead halfway up a hill. Climb them.
A hedge has no gate. Walk through it.
Leaves spin in the road. Step into the wind.
Piled stones shift in the grass. Stand atop them.

Above the highest step, through the hedge,
carried on the air with the whirling leaves,
balanced on rocks tumbling from beneath your feet,
you’ll find the world that shimmers and glows.

In the space between those buildings and buses,
take my hand and close your eyes. Go there with me now.

Visiting the Space Shuttle FFT & touring a B-17 at the Museum of Flight

A couple weeks ago, I watched NASA’s Super Guppy flying in the crew compartment section of the Space Shuttle Full Fuselage Trainer (FFT). Today, I checked it out while it was being reassembled at the Museum of Flight here in Seattle.

Space Shuttle trainer assembly (1)

Yes, it’s made of wood, but every shuttle astronaut was trained in the FFT, and the last crew even signed their names under the nose — it’s an important part of NASA history. One of the wonderful things about Seattle getting the FFT rather than one of the actual shuttles is that visitors to the museum will be able to go through it, as we can do today aboard the first jet-powered Air Force One, a Concorde, and one of the last B-17 bombers still in flying condition.

As much as I’m anticipating a tour of the FFT, I was most inspired today by a walk-through — more of a crawl-through, really — of that Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. The “Boeing Bee” is one of only a handful of B-17’s still capable of taking to the skies. The bomber was manufactured just up the road from the Museum of Flight, and our docent was a retired Boeing engineer, able to rattle off both technical details and war stories with equal panache.

B-17 cockpit (1)

After squeezing around the ball turret, through the radio room, across the bomb bay, and into the cockpit, it wasn’t difficult to imagine how hellish it must have been for the ten-man crew, flying into German flak and fighters. But with thousands of pounds of bombs and eleven .50-caliber machine guns sprouting from just about every surface, the B-17 dealt death to the world below in equal measure.

Standing there in the July sun outside the Museum of Flight, I thought back to a quote I’d just read inside, from James Smith McDonnell, founder of the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation — builder of both fighter planes like the F-4 Phantom II and space capsules for the Mercury and Gemini programs:

“The creative conquest of space will serve as a wonderful substitute for war.”

Perhaps there’ll be a day when we pour as much technology and passion into the conquest of space as we do into conquering each other.

NASA Super Guppy brings Shuttle trainer to Seattle

We hustled out of the house this morning to Kite Hill at Magnuson Park in the hopes that we could catch a glimpse of NASA’s Super Guppy transport plane as it flew into Boeing Field, loaded with the nose and crew compartment of the Space Shuttle Full Fuselage Trainer (FFT). Though I’m disappointed that Seattle’s Museum of Flight won’t be getting one of the real shuttles, the wooden FFT mockup was used to train every shuttle astronaut, and the general public will be allowed inside it (unlike the real deals in the Smithsonian, Intrepid Museum in New York, and elsewhere).

After craning our necks at every sea plane overhead, the Guppy and its Learjet chase plane quietly flew north on the other side of Lake Washington:

NASA Super Guppy & chase plane over Lake Washington

If you squint just right, you can see the Super Guppy dwarfing its Learjet chase plane. This camera phone photo doesn’t really do the experience justice. With such a long history of aviation, the Seattle sky is full of interesting planes — I’ve seen a B-17 Flying Fortress and a B-25 Mitchell (twice) fly over in the last three weeks. But the Super Guppy carrying Space Shuttle history was something unique. Everyone at the park looked up, shouting for others to look and wondering (if they hadn’t read the paper this morning) what such an odd airplane could be.

Beneath the Guppy’s flight path, the experience was even more awe-inspiring. My friend Mark commented on the photo above, “That’s it going right over my house. It was an incredible thing. Windows rattled, dogs barked. Flying so low an Edgar Martinez pop fly could have hit it, it looked like.” Indeed.

Here’s a better view by The Seattle Times as it lands at Boeing Field:

NASA Super Guppy photo by The Seattle Times
Photo by Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times

I’m excited to see the FFT come together over the coming months at the Museum of Flight, and can’t wait to step through it later this year.

Lessons from the Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture

With a list of favorite museums that spans the British Museum, MFA in Boston, and Cairo Museum, it hardly seems fair for me to hold museums here in Seattle to the same standards. After all, Seattle isn’t a national capitol like Dublin, nor a major metropolis like New York City. Nevertheless, it’s hard for me to set aside certain expectations I’ve developed over the decades for “what a museum should be.”

Burke Museum totem poles 01So far, the only museum in Seattle that hasn’t disappointed on some level is the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, on the University of Washington campus. The Burke isn’t perfect, but there’s a lot to learn among its exhibits.

We arrived shortly after the museum opened at 10:00 and parked for free ($9.50 Mon-Sat) behind the museum. Even the Burke’s first impression is more “museum-like” than MOHAI or SAM, with large fossils lining the walkway and replicas of Northwest Coast totem poles (19th-century originals long-since decayed or rightfully returned to their tribal owners) standing amid the nearby trees. My wife was enchanted by the well-tended landscaping, and it was all I could do to drag her indoors.

In the museum foyer, a long glass case contains the museum’s most treasured artifacts and specimens. They were all lovely, but the only one that left a lasting impression was the skull of an orangutan donated by the Woodland Park Zoo, which sort of just made me sad thinking about the orang who must have died in the zoo and ended up here (don’t get me wrong; I do think zoos have an important role to play in conservation and education). We pressed on.

I was most interested in the museum’s collections of Washington State archaeological artifacts, and assumed that they would be displayed in the “cultural exhibits” that the man behind the front desk (with an impressive mustache) pointed us to downstairs.

The “Pacific Voices” exhibit appears to suggest that there is some sort of unifying culture that spans the Pacific Rim, from the Northwest Coast Indians to the distant Maori, Lao, Koreans, and other peoples who share access to this ocean. Some ethnologists have begun making tentative connections between Native American tribes here in the Pacific Northwest and the Ainu of Hokkaido, but an overarching Pacific culture seems as anthropologically unsound as a single Asian culture.

Taken individually, most of the exhibits in “Pacific Voices” were fascinating — a combination of intriguing artifacts from all over the Pacific and excellent contemporary art with a few models thrown in for interpretive purposes, but several of the sections lacked any meaningful artifacts (the Korean mannequins having a wedding and the abandoned Chinese New Year meal), and it was hard to buy the unifying theme beyond a common body of water. Perhaps I missed a placard clarifying the nuance the curators intended.

As it turns out, what I was really looking for in the museum was all upstairs, in the “Life and Times of Washington State” exhibit. Starting in the Cambrian and Ordovician with trilobites and crinoids, the exhibit walks visitors through the natural and early human history of Washington State, ending with the paleontology and archaeology of the state when it was first populated by the Clovis people.

Along the way, there’s a digression for dinosaurs — required to attract the critical museum demographic of 9-year-olds — even though Washington was mostly underwater at the time. In addition to the usual casts one might expect at a small museum, the Burke has an excellent mesosaurus plate from Brazil (Mesosaurus tenuidens) and complete, articulated mosasaur (Platecarpus tympaniticus).

Platecarpus tympaniticus 01

Perhaps most exciting is an as-yet-unpublished holotype fossil of a new genus of early baleen whale. Other notable fossils include gorgeous crabs from the Lincoln Creek Formation in Grays Harbor County and “stone rose” from Republic.

But it’s ultimately the material culture of my fellow humans that I look for in natural history museums — along with the flora and fauna in their environments — and I wasn’t disappointed. Rounding a corner, a complete mastodon skeleton looms over a low ramp. On the left, Ice Age fossils from mammoth tusks to bison horns. An unexpected find at the Burke: The skeleton of a giant ground sloth excavated while building Sea-Tac Airport in 1961. On the right, a display case contains the East Wenatchee Clovis Cache.

Between sentences as I type this, I’m feeling the weight of my newly rediscovered paleolithic blades in my left hand. On the opposite arm of the chair, I’ve lined up my neolithic blades.

The contrast between the people who made the crude paleolithic blades and the near-modern (on evolutionary time scales) first people of the Americas couldn’t be more clear. (Update: See why my assessment of paleolithic tools as “crude” may be wrong: “Industrial design of the paleolithic“.)

And there’s a clear connection between the smooth, clean lines of my neolithic blades from ‘Ain Ghazhal and these stunning Clovis blades from Wenatchee, Washington. Both the blades and their very presence in America represent the inevitable progress we make as a species.

This brings us full circle to the “Pacific Voices” exhibit I criticized earlier.

Even if human culture of the last thousand years can’t be summarized so simplistically with an idea like “Pacific Rim culture,” there is deep truth to the idea that we really are all one people, with shared history and a shared future. The neolithic blades in my right hand and the Clovis blades at the Burke are proof of our shared history. The diversity on display in the “Pacific Voices” exhibit reflects how far we’ve come as a species since then, but it also reflects the deep divisions between us — especially as illustrated by the religious practices Burke curators have chosen to focus on.

As we look to our future, perhaps there are more lessons about our similarities to be learned from the people of Clovis and ‘Ain Ghazal than from “Pacific Voices.”

Crashing a poetry reading at Open Books

I’ve driven by Open Books on 45th here in Seattle many times, but I’ve either been too busy or they’ve been closed. My wife and I were driving past last night after dinner when I noticed that they were open.

We parked around the corner and walked through the rain, only to see that the store was crowded with people, spilling out onto the sidewalk. I suspected that this was the tail end of a poetry reading, but hey, the cash register was open and people were still looking over the shelves (an inventory of 9,000+ books of poetry, according to their Web site), so I thought I could sneak in and grab the book I’ve been trying to find — one of Wagoner’s collections published after the Collected I have. (Fine, call me a Wagoner fanboy/groupie — he’s a great guy, and I love his poetry.)

Anyway, I pick up the book and make my way back to the front of the store, noticing for the first time that the center of attention seems to be someone other than the cashier. Crap!, I think, It’s the poet herself! (I’d been hoping the reading was an open-mic or something, I guess.) I didn’t recognize her based on any book jacket photos I’ve seen, but then I wouldn’t be able to recognize most of the poets I read (mainly in journals). I edged close enough to read the name on the cover of the books stacked next to her. I pride myself in knowing the national and local poetry scenes reasonably well, but her name still didn’t ring a bell. Now I was in the awkward position of being in line to have a book signed by someone I didn’t know, or to blow past her to buy the book I really wanted.

I opted for a strategic retreat instead. So, back to the shelves, wending my way through the chairs neatly aligned to face the back of the store, back to the front, through all the poetry aficionados looking shy as they asked to have their books signed, out into the rain and cigarette smoke.

I think there’s a poem in all that somewhere…