Goats, Gems, And Other Natural History

I come from a long line of amateur museum curators. Granddad began the collection in his youth on the ranch and, three generations later, it’s still going strong. The piles of natural wonders span a variety of departments – from rocks and shells to bugs and dead plants – and all of them are in the same spot as always, the old bunkhouse with its distinctly “not-handicap-accessible” stairs and a lovely permaculture featuring a large bat population in the chimney.

As youngsters, my brothers and I worked to grow the collection with the addition of tiered parlor tables and ancient license plates as well as by moving the mortar and pestle to a location less likely to cause severe toe trauma. The fossil, rock, bug, horticulture, feather, and shell departments were freshened with new artifacts. Local experts, (mostly aunts and uncles) were brought in to explain the origin of the “prehistoric mud” and the bee fossil.

The centerpiece of our collection was a bright orange rock that we suspected was radioactive. For the protection of the public, it was housed in a lidded jewelry box that we opened only by special request and for only few moments at a time to avoid poisoning us all – third eyes and extra appendages weren’t on our wish lists as kids, even if they’d get us “cool points” at recess!

Our museum also served as a toad, frog, and salamander rescue center. Tallies of our successful wildlife releases were kept on the bulletin board next to the potted plant hangers and my great grandmother’s parasol. On a bad week, you might see several scratched out successes, whereupon the usual explanation would be the problem with a second story museum surrounded by large juniper bushes.

Success meant the animal was returned to the wild without incident. A “failed success” meant the critter returned to the wild of its own volition; i.e. it escaped – down a few steps and onto the deck before plunging to the depths below. Not wishing to deceive the public, our “jumpers” were X’ed off the success list without prejudice, given the difficulty in verifying survival rates among the shrubberies.

Speaking of shrubs also recalls one of our more notorious visitors, Petunia the goat. Named after her favorite food, Petunia made her legendary visit to our humble gallery at roughly 10 o’clock one morning. She had clambered right up the 25 or so steps and let herself in.

At first, we were surprised and flattered to have such a well-known visitor. But our glee quickly turned to horror as she walked right past the rock department and headed straight for the horticulture – specifically, the pressed flowers of exotic nature which had been carefully curated that summer from the gardens below. What seemed like a pretty extensive collection to us equaled roughly two mouthfuls for Petunia. The entire collection was lost.

The whole museum staff stood slack-jawed as Miss P made an exit worthy of the legendary DB Cooper – leaping fearlessly off the decking and into the junipers below. In this case, we were later able to verify the jumper’s survival as Petunia showed up right on time for her evening feeding, adorned in rose petals that had adhered to the juniper sap she picked up during her escape.

As to the damage Petunia had done, the loss of an entire dried-flower collection was nothing to sneeze at without a tissue. Our little museum was plagued by cash-flow issues, relying heavily on grants from family and friends along with what money we could earn by sweeping the shop floor. Unfortunately, that chore had just recently been completed, paid for, and the funds otherwise allocated. We had no capital to invest in a replacement exhibit.

Undaunted, the museum staff launched a “wash for cash” campaign and within a few days we had every operational vehicle on the farm sparkling clean and $20 in the museum coffers for our efforts.

Thusly recapitalized, it was time to pay a visit to our family friend, Mae. Mae’s first husband was a lapidary who had passed away many years before. He left behind an unrivaled collection of sliced agates and other stuff that looked like gold and gems to our young eyes. We decided that I was to negotiate a purchase of as many “museum-worthy” artifacts as $20 would buy.

It’s possible that Mae had been warned of my visit and its purpose as she had just laid out cold drinks and a freshly inventoried array of semi-precious objects. Ten minutes later, the deal was done. I walked out with a collection of new pieces for the museum and $5 to spare. Back at the bunkhouse, this new collection received the highest honor we could bestow when it was arrayed in a wood and glass case that had been built during my uncle’s curation. There was even a cushion of burlap to cradle the gems.

Those unique stones were the last great addition to our museum and now, all these years later, the display case that held them resides with other young family members. The rock slices, dead bugs, arrowheads, and countless other artifacts are all carefully packed away in the infamous South Room of the bunkhouse, where things are saved for the next generation to find and make their own. Perhaps I should put a warning on that radioactive rock stored in the jewelry box.


About the Author

Anne has worked in agriculture since she was old enough to sweep the floor of the family machine shed. She writes about rural & outdoor life from Montana, where she and her husband chase two children. Her experience ranges from picking apricots in 100 degree weather to discussing ag trade with the Ambassador of New Zealand.

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