“The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price.
If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever I would stagger barefoot across a hundred deserts after any lunatic at all.”
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
In 2006, I traveled with my partner Iván to Natural History Museum, London to behold one of the few giant squid specimens open to the public. I wanted to study the specimen for my dissertation, a collection of literary essays about sea creatures. During the flight from Spokane, Washington, I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and slipped into Dillard’s plunging current. If she simply wrote about exploring Tinker Creek, I might’ve kept my head above water, but she dives deep into the nature of nature. From the translucent fringe of a goldfish fin and a parasite’s lifecycle to the mystery of consciousness and the burden of self-consciousness, Pilgrim is a theodicy that embraces different routes to God: via positiva and via negativa. Separating the omnipotent God of the first half of the book from the unknowable God in the second half of the book is a chapter titled “Flood.” I hadn’t yet reached that chapter but still didn’t know how I’d catch my breath and slow my reeling mind in time to see the squid, so I just kept reading.
Like the squid, Dillard demanded certainty in shapeshifting, in the burst of cosmos that over billions of years evolved our kidneys. I held my breath, kept reading, and reached for the “tree with lights”— the tree Dillard describes as “transfigured” and “buzzing with flame.” The tree that when found “was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.” Too overwhelmed to consider the glance’s source, I recalled Architeuthis, the sea beast whose old name “kraken” means “uprooted tree” and whose eyes—the largest in the animal kingdom—glow like fire in the ocean’s deep. In that moment, my squid and Dillard’s tree fused into a single purpose: This was going to be a trip about learning to see.
Iván and I arrived after museum hours and checked into our hostel in Willesden, a neighborhood for pilgrims since the 15th century. Willesden was home to the Black Madonna, which Lollards burned during the 1538 restoration, and a holy spring rumored to sight the blind. We lodged there not to restore sight but to save money. The hostel was affordable and teemed with long-term boarders who smoked pot and strummed guitar. In similar spirit, Iván and I ditched our packs and journeyed to Oxford Circus where young Brits karaoked American pop songs.
In the flickering shadows behind the dance floor, an older man asked where I was from and where that was in relation to New York. “North Idaho,” I said. “Nearly 3,000 miles west of New York.” He said he knew America was big but didn’t know it was that big. “I didn’t support G.W.,” I said. I wanted to explain how I saw things. He said he liked jazz and took stage to sing “Unforgettable” before dancing with a shaggy-haired blond who reminded me of someone from home.
On the hostel’s roof-top patio, we smoked cigarettes and drank beer. Clothes hung damp on a line. Iván stretched his arms. I yawned. It was too late for our nightly face-washing and tooth-brushing rituals, so we did what I imagine the people before us had done. We felt our way to the room in the dark.
The next day, en route to the museum with Pilgrim in my camouflaged purse, I spotted a giant squid unfurled on a tower-tall banner depicting a flood; I inhaled, hoping to be knocked breathless. The squid was bulked thick as a yew. Ten rusty tentacles seized a four-door sedan like a nest of anacondas. I snapped pictures but nothing transfigured. This wasn’t the squid I was searching for.
It wasn’t the museum’s advertisement for the squid exhibit; it was an advertising ploy from an insurance company. Behind the squid stood a life-sized representation of Nelson’s column. Water lapped the soles of Nelson’s boots. The sandy bottom of this alternate reality included a half-buried bus and a question: “What if things change?” A forecast of change is a forecast of profit when banking on insuring the unsure, but the flooded context presented another question: “What if things don’t change?” One doesn’t have to reach far for the flood’s cause: transport based on oil, a depleted ozone, melting ice caps—all that climate change implies.
If the Trafalgar squid was a tree, it wasn’t a yew. It was a boojum, Fouquieria columnar—a desert tree that when touched, according to the Seri, will cause formidable winds.
Plant trees to make rain. Roots tap water that foliage exhales as mist, seeding the clouds until they hatch, turning a tree into a rain forest. The water cycle perplexed me as child, until I realized everyone was drinking dinosaur pee. Earth has had the same amount of water since asteroids brought it here 4.2 billion years ago—a story that rings as improbable as a meteor colliding with Earth and banging out the moon, forever changing the tide. But now the cold retreats and oceans invade. I stood at a crossroads. Cars sped by from the wrong direction, and I needed to cross the street.
Commanding a tenth-mile of Cromwell Road, Natural History Museum, London was a cathedral spangled in blue and gray terracotta. Instead of saints, animal reliefs accented arched windows and entryways, and a pair of two-hundred-foot-tall towers marked the main entrance. Hoping the squid would surprise us, Iván and I waded mapless into the thick crowd and for twenty minutes fought the mob gawking at the robotic T-Rex that made kids cry. Finally, we hit our stride and toured halls steeped with mammals, invertebrates, fossils, and rocks. Sea shells mirrored Greek gods. Constellations sparkled beneath our feet. We imagined multi-ton meteorites raining in the desert of a younger Earth but didn’t see the squid. We couldn’t believe we missed an animal the size of Archie so sought the information desk for help.
A cardigan-wearing brunette said the squid resided in the Darwin Center, which was closed during the construction of the “cocoon,” an eight story egg-like building into which the museum would expand. I never thought to plan for this possibility. Disappointment fluttered in my gut. Omitting fancies about metaphorical insight, I explained seeing Archie was crucial for my dissertation. The attendant handed over the curator’s contact information. It was Friday afternoon. She’d be out until Monday. I left her a voicemail. Iván and I would fly out Tuesday.
I planted my feet on Westminster Bridge, where Big Ben marked time on one side of the river and London’s Eye, a 450-foot tall Ferris wheel commemorating a modern Britain, marked time on the other. Iván studied a map as one of three grinning teens pitched a set of keys on to the bow of a tour boat crossing below. As they sprinted away laughing, a British woman nearby gasped, “Those boys are Arabs. I think those boys were Arabs.” I considered the boys pranking teenagers and was disturbed the woman identified them by their ethnicity. The profiling happening under the guise of “random” protocols at airports had surfaced and streamed into the international consciousness. This was a monster of a different kind.
At the hostel, the Australian sang Dylan songs while the Irish marine told Iván and me that Iraqi soldiers had yanked feeding tubes from babies’ mouths before stealing their incubators. He didn’t mention the story was propaganda used to persuade the U.S. into the Gulf War, nor did I mention it. His anger kept me from explaining how I saw things. I turned my attention to the South African, one of several boarders who was on ecstasy. He was conversing with people who weren’t in the room, unless he saw what was invisible.
Morning bells rang and anxiety rose like a leviathan in my chest, urging me to email the curator. To occupy our time while awaiting a response, we visited Bodies…The Exhibition because I assumed it was the work of Gunther von Hagens, who had recently plasticized two giant squid. Although those squid were to show in Heidelberg, Germany that May, and even after I read that Bodies…The Exhibition wasn’t affiliated with von Hagens, I still found myself irrationally hoping a cosmic accident had landed them in London somehow. Inside the exhibition, splayed muscles revealed ligaments and bone and wiry white tendons threaded down fibrous biceps the color of the rarest red meat. One body palmed a basketball and leaned forward, frozen mid-dribble. Another conducted an orchestra. The body posed like The Thinker had an exposed brain, illustrating the embodied mind. Thankfully the mind doesn’t operate the organs, otherwise I would’ve keeled over, unable to see beyond the giant squid’s shadow.
Nor could anatomy and psychology reveal the tree with lights. Though the bodies exhibit was fascinating, the surreal poses were overwhelmed by a cold composition preventative of illuminated vision. The tree and the squid continued to evade me though I could feel their looming presence. I also neglected Dillard’s first rule: “Although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought.”
Still no word from the curator, I returned to the natural history museum Monday afternoon, while Iván, annoyed and doubtful I’d see the squid, went to the British History Museum. I hoped the cocoon construction was mysteriously suspended. I hoped the attendant with an unruly ponytail would bend museum rules, but she gave the same answer as the other attendants, “Sorry. The Darwin Center is closed.” For the first time I believed this squid expedition was destined to end like most squid expeditions, all search but no catch. I walked towards the giant sequoia round to contemplate metonymy and try to convince myself this was the more powerful end to whatever I’d write—that the squid really is the mystical kraken Tennyson writes about, the beast that lives in the depths and only surfaces upon death so to go no further than the margins of our perception. After all, the monsters that survived their ascent were human-made—monsters that mirrored the worst parts of ourselves.
But I hadn’t considered Tennyson’s poem in my present context. I fused the squid with Dillard’s tree not because I imagined the dead white squid pictured on the museum’s website, but because I imagined Architeutus with purple flesh pulsing through water as “a chance-like apparition of life.” Halfway to the sequoia, I resolved not to give up seeing Archie.
To what end was I striving? Did I believe Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was Pilgrim at Natural History Museum and with one (dead) squid encounter I could spend a lifetime of days? I didn’t ask the information desk or myself these questions. I asked the male attendant in a blue collared shirt if I could speak with the Darwin Center’s curator.
“Shh,” he whispered. “She’s right there.” He stood from his chair and pointed to a petite woman conversing with a guest. When she finished talking, he introduced us.
I considered the sequence of missteps that led to this moment of potential fruition, and my voice shook when I said, “Nice to meet you.” The curator said she planned to call and schedule a visit but was doubtful I’d see the squid before my morning departure. Then she phoned a coworker. I held my breath until she hung up the handset and said I was in luck. “Oh my gosh,” I said, my voice still shaking. “You have no idea how much this means to me. Thank you. Thank you so much. Really. Thank you.”
The curator did little more than smile at my pathetic thanks, until she introduced me to Lisa, a redheaded zoologist who was happy to leave her post for a trip to the Darwin Center. We traversed the construction zone and entered another building, where we walked through several security doors and rode an elevator to the basement. At the end of the hall, Lisa opened a door into a room where turtles, otters, and sharks floated in jars lining the shelves. “Here’s Archie,” she said. From the tip of its mantle to the extremities of its clubs, the 28-foot-long specimen was the length of a London bus and spanned half the room. I didn’t admit I imagined the squid would be bigger, though Lisa explained the amount of formaldehyde in Archie’s case was toxic. Scientists who opened it needed a high-powered ventilation system and a rubber suit and mask. The formaldehyde was the pale green color of an Easter egg pulled too soon from vinegary dye. It also leached fat from the squid’s skin, causing its eyes to sink under a lipid blanket.
I got a heightened view from the stepladder. Although impressive, Architeuthis didn’t ignite every cell in a rapturous blaze and illuminate eternity. Eight bloated arms lolled from the squid’s torpedo-shaped mantle, which slumped like a deflated pool toy. I stepped off the ladder, and Lisa said she was amazed such a long, slender animal could control its limbs. I agreed. The squid’s tentacles roped well beyond its head and arms, as if its clubs escaped its own reach. For a moment, the squid appeared to be something other than itself.
As we left, Lisa pointed to specimens Darwin collected during his Beagle voyage. “He preserved them in whiskey,” she said. “He thought if it was good enough for the captain, it was good enough for his specimens.” Whiskey, it turned out, was the spirit of the day, another fact I didn’t admit was more interesting than the squid.
Though I have monomaniacal tendencies, my persistence was out of character. I’d rather shroud myself in ink and leave a store empty handed than ask an employee for assistance. But this persistence, inspired by Dillard and the hope for rapture, also came from the acknowledgment of my future self—the self I’d always be learning to live into, the part that changes before the mind catches up, like the construction zone between the museum and Darwin Center, or the gap between tube train and platform that needs to be minded. I believed seeing the squid would help mend this gap and help me transition into who’d I’d become. If given a glimpse of eternity along the way, all the better for overcoming my irrational fear of death.
It’s only a coincidence my obsession manifested during the G.W. era, but history is a river into which the personal and political flow, making one vast body that changes course before the last drop springs from the fountainhead. In this sense, my personal anxieties were not so different than the nation’s anxieties. Post 9-11, the U.S. was feeling its way through the dark and panicked about what it would become.
When I visited the giant squid in London during G.W.’s second term, I thought it would be my only chance to see the creature. But rising ocean temperatures cause giant squid to be caught and preserved more often. Their exhibition isn’t as big a deal as it used to be. For example, the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. acquired two squid as part of a 2008 military mission called “Operation Calamari.” I ran into the squid in 2014, three years after I finished my dissertation and had forgotten about them.
The female squid that stretched across Ocean Hall caught me by surprise. I was finally knocked breathless—not by the squid but by the surprise of familiarity, the strange current that carried my younger, squid-obsessed self. I was The Thinker living all my years at once. Had my skull split open, you’d have seen an elevating river and heard the girl I used to be say something cryptic and wry: The taller you are, the harder you fall. I now realize that deep down, I always knew the squid wasn’t a tree but a forecast of a sea change. I felt it in the pace, pull, and pitch of the current.
Thankfully I kept my head, unlike the squid, which appeared to be blasted by a land mine. Flesh threads attached arms to mantle, and its eyes were missing, as were the eyes of the other squid, a 20-foot-long male mounted on the wall. The male stretched vertically like the Trafalgar squid but lacked the life needed to clutch a red sedan. Had a procession of tourists not blocked the view, I would’ve paid my respects a little longer.
Tina Mitchell is coeditor of Kept Secret: The Half-Truth in Nonfiction (Michigan State University Press 2017) and cofounder and editor of The Turnip Truck(s). Her work has appeared in Whale Road Review and elsewhere. tinamitchell.info.