The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 105/A Bundle of Bones

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And a very large bundle it was, as it lay, in disjecta membra, before the astonished eyes of the first learned palæontologist who gazed, in wondering delight, on its strange proportions. As it rears its ungainly form some eighteen feet above us, Madam, you may gather some idea of what it was in its native forests, I don't know how many hundreds of thousands of years ago. You need not snuggle up to me so, Tommy. The creature is not alive, unless it is enjoying Sydney Smith's idea of comfort, and, having taken off its flesh, is airing itself in its bones. Megatherium was a very proper name for it, if not a very common one; for large animal it was, beyond any dispute, and could scarcely have been much of a pet with the human beings of old, unless "there were giants in those days," and enormous ones at that. How Owen must have gloated over that treasure-trove! Captain Kyd's buried booty would have been worse trash to him than Iago's stolen purse, beside this unearthed deposit of an antediluvian age. Its missing caudal vertebræ would outweigh now, in his anatomical scales, all the hidden gains of the whole race of pirates, past, present, and to come. Think of those bones with all the original muscle upon them! Why, they would outweigh all the worthy members of the Boston Society of Natural History together, unless they are uncommonly obese. Where could Noah have stowed a pair of such enormous beasts, supposing that they existed as late as when the ark was launched? Sloth, indeed! I am inclined to think the five or six tons of flesh these bones must have carried round might reasonably permit the bearer to rank, on a priori reasons, among the most confirmed of sluggards, even if Owen and Agassiz and Wyman had not so decided on strictly scientific, anatomical grounds.

My dear Madam, does it ever occur to you, when you wonderingly gaze on the strange relics around this hall,—these stony skeletons, these silent remnants of extinct races, that you are face to face with rock-buried creatures, who lived and sported and mated, who basked in the sunlight and breathed in the air of this world, hundreds of thousands of years before you were thought of? who rested in the shade of the trees which made the coal that warms you to-day? who trod the soft mud which now builds in solid strength the dwellings which shelter you? who darted through the deep waters that foamed over a bed now raised into snow-capped mountains? who frolicked on a shore now piled with miles of massive rock? whose bones were petrifactions untold ages before the race was born which built the Pyramids? Do you really understand how far back into antiquity these grim fossils bear you? Can you really conceive of Nature, our dear, kind, gentle mother, in those early throes of her maternity which brought forth Megatheria and Ichthyosauri,—when the "firm and rock-built earth" was tilted into mountain ranges, wrinkled by earthquakes, and ploughed by mighty hills of moving ice? And yet in those distant days, which have left their ripple-marks and rain-drops in the weighty stone, there was life, warm, breathing, sentient life, which, dying, traced its own epitaph on its massive tomb. Shakespeare, Cæsar, Brahma, Noah, Adam, lived but yesterday compared with these creatures, whose stone-bound bones were buried in the sands that drifted on the shores of this world centuries before the first man drew into his nostrils the breath of life. Does the thought ever occur to you, that, ages hence, some enthusiastic student of nature may puzzle his brains over the bones of some such humble individuals as you and I, and wonder to what manner of creature they belonged? Or that, perched upon the shelves of some museum in the year 500000, they may be treasures of an unknown past to the Owens and Wymans of that day?

You wish I would not talk so?—Well, Madam, let us leave this mausoleum of the past, and come forth into the life of 1866; and let us see whether all the disjecta membra of extinct being are ranged around the walls of this classic hall, or whether we may not find something akin near our own snug and comfortable homes. I think I know some hardened hearts which have ossified around the soft emotions which in earlier years played therein. And, bless you, Madam, I meet every day, in my down-town walks, some strange animated fossils, more repellent than any I ever beheld in the Natural History cabinet. These bear the unfamiliar look which belongs to a fabulous age, and rest, silent and unobtrusive, in their half-opened cerements. The others wear a very familiar form, which belongs to our day, yet they are the exponents of a dead life which animated the buried bones of barbarism. The innocent Megatheria and Ichthyosauri crawled and paddled and died in their day; but these living fossils have the vital forms of the life above ground, while they bear within the psychical peculiarities of extinct beings. They creep about on the shores of time with the outward shapes of their fellows, and, when buried in its rising waves, will leave undistinguishable remains in their common tomb; and future explorers will never trace therein the evanescent peculiarities in which the two were so unlike.

Bones! Why, the whole earth is a big bundle of them. They are not only in graveyards, where "mossy marbles rest"; they are strewn, "unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown," over the whole surface of the globe, and lie embosomed in the gulfs of the great, restless ocean. Who knows what untamed savage rests beneath us here? Don't start, my dear Madam. I have no doubt that, when Tommy plays bo-peep round the big tree on the Common, he is tripping over the crania of some Indian sachems. Goldsmith's seat, "for whispering lovers made," very likely rested on some venerable, departed Roman; and many a Maypole has gone plump through the thorax of some defunct Gaul. If the old story be true, that, when we shudder, somebody is walking over our grave, what a shaking race of beings our remote ancestors must have been!

My dear Madam, down in the green fields, the flowery meadows, the deep woods, the damp swamps of the balmy South, are there not spread, to-day, in grievous numbers, the bones of the noble, true-hearted heroes who went forth in their strength and manhood to meet a patriot's fate? Will not the future tread of those they ransomed be light and buoyant in the long days of freedom yet to come? What will they know of the hallowed remains over which they bound with glowing, happy hearts? Some little Peterkin may find a bleached remnant of their heroism, and the Caspar of that day will surely say, "It was a famous victory." Madam, you and I would be content to have the children of the future gambol above us, if we could know their blithesome hearts were emancipated from thraldom by such deposit of our poor bones under the verdant sod. The stateliest mausoleum of crowned kings, the Pyramids that mark the resting-place of Egypt's ancient rulers, are not so proud a monument as the rich, green herbage that springs from the remains of a fallen hero, and hides the little feet that trip over him, freed by his fall. Let us rejoice, then, Madam, that we belong to that nobler race, which no curious explorer of the far future will rank with Megatheria and Ichthyosauri, or any of the soulless creatures of past geologic ages.

Backbone is a most important article, Tommy. Professor Wyman will tell you that backbone is the distinctive characteristic of the highest order of animals on this earth. When your father used to pry into all sorts of books, years ago, he found out that he belonged to the Vertebrata, which, Anglicized, meant backboned creatures. And yet do you know that there are crowds of men and women whose framework would puzzle the good Professor, with all his learning,—people who are utterly destitute of that same essential article? Carry him the first old bone you may find, and, I warrant you, he will tell, in a jiffy, to what manner of creature it belonged. But wouldn't he look bewildered upon a cranium and a pelvis which perambulated the earth without any osseous connection? Backbone is the grand fulcrum on which human life moves its inertia. But wouldn't Professor Rogers, facile princeps in physics, rub his nose, and look in wonder, to see peripatetic motion induced without a sign of a fulcrum for the lever of life to rest upon? And yet these anomalies are plentiful. They are everywhere,—in houses, in churches, in stores, in town, in country, on land, at sea, in public, in private,—extensive sub-orders of mammalian Invertebrata. They crouch and crawl through the world with pliant length. They wriggle through the knot-holes of fear and policy, when their stouter-boned brethren oppose them. They creep into corners and cracks when the giant, Progress, strides before them, and quake at the thunder of his tread. They cling, trembling, to the old mouldering scaffolding of the past, and look bewildered on the broad, rising arches of the new temple of thought. They stand quivering in the blast of opinion. And when Mrs. Grundy passes by, they back, like hermit-crabs, into the first time-worn old shell of precedent they can find, and hide there, shaking with dread.

My boy, strengthen well your backbone, that it may bear you upright and onward in your career. Walk erect in this world with the stature and aspect of a man. Tread forth alone with fearlessness and conscious power. Bear up your God-given intelligence with unbending pride, that it may look afar over the broad expanse of nature, and gaze with even eye upon the mountain-heights of eternal truth. I am using words too big for you? Well, one of these days you will understand them all, when your little backbone has gathered more lime.

Bone has done some remarkable things in this world. There was that little feat of Samson, in which he flourished the grinding apparatus of a defunct donkey. It has always seemed to me, Madam, that that same jaw-bone must have been either prodigiously strong and tough, or else the Philistine crania must have been of very chartaceous texture. There are the bones of the eleven thousand virgins,—the remains of ancient virtue, and loveliness, and faith. Though, if all the stories of travelled anatomists be true, there must have been some virgin heifers among them; for many of them are certainly of bovine, and not human, origin.

And then, Madam, do not the poor bones which have been strewn, for ages, over the rolling earth, play sometimes a nobler part in their decay than in their prime? The incrusted fragments, carefully treasured up in halls of science, reveal to the broadening intelligence of man the story of earth in its young days of mighty struggle, and tell of the sandy shores, the rolling waters, the waving woods of a primeval time. Turning back the stony tablets time has firmly bound, he views upon their wrinkled sides its nature-printed figures,—relics that have there remained, locked in the rocky sepulchre, built of crumbling mountains, washed and worn by tides that ebbed and flowed a million years ago. Now, opened to the eye of human thought, their crumbling forms bring tidings of a distant, wondrous past, when they were all in all of sentient life on earth. The thought they could not know, their dead remains have wakened in the minds of a far nobler race, which was not born when they lay down and died.

When travellers over far-reaching deserts are lost in the great waste that shows no friendly, guiding sign, they sometimes find, half buried in the shifting sands, the bleaching bones of some poor creature which has fainted and fallen, left to its fate by the companions of its journey. Then, taking heart, they cheerier move along, secure in the forgotten path these silent relics show. Thus over life's drear desert do we move, seeking the path that leads us on direct, and often guided in our wandering way by the chance sight of lost and fallen ones, whose sad remains our errant footsteps cross. Not always clad in soft, warm, beating life do our bones perform their noblest purpose. Beauty may lure to ruin, but, the witching charm removed, decay may waken sober thought and high resolve. Poor Yorick might have set King Hamlet's table in a roar and been forgot, if, from his unknown grave, the sexton had not brought him forth, to teach an unborn age philosophy.

My dear Madam, I am really getting too serious, philosophic, and melancholic. I had no idea, when I asked you down to the Natural History Society rooms to see the great Megatherium, that I was either to bury or resuscitate you in imagination. But I must have my moral, if I draw it from such a lean text as crumbling bones. Let us hope that what we leave behind us, when our journey over the drear expanse of mortal life shall cease, may serve to guide some future wanderer in the devious way, and lead him to the bright oasis of eternal life and rest.

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.