Thursday, November 29, 2012

#80: for The Wagner Free Institute of Science

(commissioned by The Wagner: The opening will unveil a new exhibit about the history of lighting and electricity at the Wagner and will feature special guest and PEW Fellow, Poet CAConrad. CA will read from his latest book of poems and lead guests through a writing exercise featuring the Wagner.)

Fear of the dark motivated prehistoric human beings to discover and invent ways of holding onto light through the night. We take light bulbs and electricity for granted, but for centuries we have found many means to harness different materials to make light: wood, animal fat, wax, gas, electricity, etc. Take time to make notes about the various ways you have made light so far in your lifetime: electric ceiling lights, flashlights, oil lamps, campfires, candles, etc. All your notes will be used later to construct the poem.

Take time to write about fear of the dark. For instance prehistoric humans, why were they afraid of the dark? Do you believe those fears have transferred through the centuries to us? Are horror movies for instance a form of revisiting those fears? Have you ever been afraid of the dark? Have you ever been at home during a blackout due to weather? Take notes about these things.

Aye Aye !!Along with our desperation to see throughout the night comes our very human motivation for discovering our origins. Seeing our way through the dark comes in many forms. One of the great treasures of Philadelphia is The Wagner Free Institute of Science. This 19th century museum retains the study and work toward discovering the intricate paths life on Earth has taken. It’s one of the most exciting places to visit, to become absorbed with the ideas of how and why our many kinds of bodies evolved the way we did.

In 1865 when the museum first opened, skylights let natural light into the building to illuminate the specimen cases. Take notes about the structure of the museum room with this in mind. Look closely at how the building has been designed to gather light. Since 1865 the building has gone through many different phases of installing light fixtures from gas to electric, all to allow us the best possible view of the specimen cases.

Take notes about how the specimens themselves needed light when they were alive to grow and thrive. Take notes about light feeding plants, feeding bodies, bodies consuming plants and other bodies, all with the fierce need of light to survive. Think too of the life in the deepest parts of the oceans, where most life on Earth lives. These creatures often create their own light. In fact one of the world’s leading oceanographers, Dr. Sylvia Earle, says, “Bioluminescence is the most common form of communication on Earth.” If part of your body could glow in the dark, which part and how would it help you? Take notes.

Later at home look at your hands in different kinds of light, use a ceiling lamp, use candlelight, and use a flashlight. Let your hands be the last specimen you study after an afternoon at the Wagner. What do your hands tell you about our evolving use of light? How many generations of humans have come before you? How many of them had flashlights and electric ceiling lights? Carry your notes with you for the next couple of weeks to build and shape the poem hiding in your notes.