My Wunderkammer

The American River Ganges

Image via Wikipedia

Every summer in my hometown of Coloma, Calif., hundreds of river  guides arrive to work on the American River, hauling dusty gear and stories from all over the world. There are stories of crocodile attacks on the White Nile in Uganda; near-fatal swims in Chile’s Futalafu; grizzly bears and glacier-fed rapids in Alaska. These tales are such a important part of river guiding culture that they have their own genre — the No Shit Story. “So there I was, dude,” the stories begin.  “No shit — there I was.”

My family runs a rafting company, so one of my favorite No Shit stories naturally comes from my father. As a young man, he fell out of his raft while guiding on the Merced River. He was swept into a hole: a hydraulic drop in a river which recirculates water upstream, washing machine-style. It was what we call a “keeper hole,” the kind that drowns people. As he spun round and round, he realized that the flotation of his life jacket was trapping him in the cycle. In a last-ditch effort to escape, he took off his life jacket, dived to the bottom of the river, and resurfaced 150 yards downstream.

That story is true. But it is also a time-honored tradition among river guides to exaggerate, brag, lie, and talk nonsense when telling stories — especially when talking to rafting customers. “How deep is the river?,” a curious guest might ask. “At least 1000 feet,” or, “chest high on a duck,” his guide will slyly answer.  Based on the lies of river guides,  I grew up half-believing that the white quartz veins in the river canyon’s granite boulders were actually fossilized pterodactyl poop. It took me years to stop making a fool of myself with wide-eyed questions — “Really?” — and start making up stories too.

You might be thinking that this is not a promising start for a science journalist. But I am writing a journalism master’s thesis — all true — about rivers in California. How did that happen?

Lately — probably because I’m taking a course in the history of science — I’ve been thinking a lot about 16th and 17th-century European Wunderkammer, or “wonder-rooms.” These cabinets of curiosities contained both natural and man-made objects: stuffed polar bears and armadillos; assorted corals; various instruments, religious carvings, and works of art. Next to a carefully labeled collection of tropical beetles, you could see a mythical “basilisk” stitched together from bat wings and a lizard. Next to a shrunken human head, you might see a narwhal horn, mislabeled as a unicorn’s. As the collections became more organized, their curators started weeding out fake things from real things, and trying to figure out the relationships between various specimens. Some argue that this was an important step in the development of modern scientific thinking.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the American River, embroidered with facts and stories, was my Wunderkammer.  Now, as I research the river’s real aquatic organisms, I pay homage to the mythical Prout: a hybrid of piranhas and native trout that can devour flesh down to the bone in seconds, and may also be a distant cousin of the North American freshwater river shark.

What was your cabinet of curiosities?