A new play,Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England, takes the controversial closing of the Natural History Museum at Amherst College in 2001 as its subject. That neat, brick box, called the Appleton Cabinet, was subsequently converted into luxe student dorms. In the play the woolly mammoth skeletons that reside inside serve as emblems of historical time, personal evolution, and our own artfully-concealed yet always-stirring animal natures. When I attended a reading of the play I had no real scientific knowledge of woolly mammoths and also a surprisingly clear image of them. I pictured them as clumsy, plundering beasts that made their home in snowy nether regions.
What was missing from my vision were the animal’s most salient feature, their enormous, gravity-defying, corkscrew-twisted tusks. Our images of woolly mammoths are fantasies, not so different in their speculation than our images of unicorns and mermaids. In dioramas the woollies are typically depicted as friendly, hairy elephants, and in scientific illustrations as noble monsters. My favorite image might be the skeletons themselves, which make them seem like big horses with fancy tusks. It’s a happy fantasy.