Life-sized Fear

Forget Disney. Nevermind Six Flags. When it comes to Van Meter family vacations, the geekier the better.
No surprise, then, how our Chicago vacation turned out. We ate Chicago style pizza, saw the Cubs lose, and managed to check a few other must-do items off our list. But we spent most of our time and money at the Field Museum.

Like any world-class nature collection, Chicago’s Field Museum has plenty for a curious family to get excited about—totem poles, ancient Egyptian relics, an incredible array of dinosaur bones. But for Jonathan, our youngest son, the highlight came in the darkest corner of a special display.

The exhibit featured bio-luminescence, the ability of animals to generate their own light. The most visible examples are lightning bugs, but those are far too common for Jonathan’s interest. Literally his entire life, he has been captivated by deep ocean animals. The world of his imagination is populated by hatchetfish, angler fish, and most of all Vampyroteuthis infernalis—the “vampire squid of hell.”

At age seven, Jonathan can tell you almost anything you need to know about the vampire squid. It is a living fossil, the last of its kind, not quite octopus nor squid. It lives at preposterously low depths, where sunlight never reaches and the water contains barely enough oxygen to survive. When threatened, it raises its arms to fan out the cape of skin between them, releasing as it does a light-producing bacteria that confuses predators. Its undersides are equipped with fearsome looking spikes, and its dark maroon color gives it an even more devilish appearance.
Seen up close, the Field Museum’s model of a vampire squid brought out the creature’s dramatic appearance. Other children stared up at the display with wide eyes, goosing each other and whispering “Boo!”

Jonathan was unimpressed.

“It’s too big,” he said. “Vampire squid only grow to about twelve inches long. And the spikes on their arms are not bone. And they don’t swim like that.”

It was hard not to be a little deflated by Jonathan’s reaction. Zachary and I were thrilled with Wrigley Field and dinosaur bones, which Jonathan cared nothing about. If he was going to make a memory on this trip, it would be at this apparently disappointing exhibit.

A moment later, however, Jonathan made the best of discoveries. The last room—one that the day camps and pre-school groups blitzed through without stopping—contained dozens of actual specimens, preserved in jars. And in the center was a real vampire squid. For Jonathan, this was rapture. We waited almost an hour while he examined the “vampire squid of hell,” finally prying him away with vague promises about the gift shop.

I can’t say exactly what Jonathan learned from that vampire squid specimen. Likely, he only confirmed things he’d already gleaned through countless library books and internet searches.

For his proud (and equally geeky) father, the lesson was a bit more philosophical. The vampire squid’s appearance, coupled with the mysteries that continue to surround its life and behavior, make it an object of fear. When we blow it up to three times its size and hang it from the ceiling, it’s not hard to imagine it wrapping those arms around our heads and sucking out our blood.

But that’s the imagined fear, and not the reality. In fact, it is a small and delicate creature, a peaceful scavenger, and object of wonder. It may be from the dark and the depths, but it is certainly not from hell. It is part of this fragile earth, same as we are.

It makes me wonder what else I have misunderstood, and what my fears look like in actual size.

One thought on “Life-sized Fear

  1. I used to have dreams (not nightmares) that my parents would forget me in the field museum and I would get to spend the night there going through the exhibit. My favorite was always the nitrogen freeze demonstration. How wonderful you all were able to have these experiences as a family this summer! Joslyn

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