Monday, April 27, 2015

Nature at its most bizarre

There are a few, rare, "Aha!" moments in life: the first time you manage to ride a bicycle, perhaps; your first bite of chocolate; the first time you took a really good photograph.

Now, if you were to say "I was petrified", meaning that you were rigid with fear you would be using a metaphor implying you were turned to stone, from the Greek work for stone, petros.

But what if you literally were turned to stone?  Then, perhaps a few hundred million years later, someone with a curious bent of mind like Wolfgang Grulke might discover you, get interested and, at the expenditure of great personal time and money, disinter you from the rock and exhibit you in a magnificent purpose-built museum.

It was seeing that museum yesterday that gave me an "Aha!" moment.  Wolfe described it as a "shed".  Well if you have a shed in your garden the size of six or seven garages, with purpose-built brick walls, beautifully plastered and lit with downlighters and filled with glass-fronted wooden cabinets then you will know exactly what Wolfgang meant.  It really was quite astonishing: at least as astonishing as the first time I found myself incredibly balanced on a bicycle as it moved along on just two wheels without me falling over.

So who is Wolfgang Grulke?

In one life, he is a retired businessman who was very successful as a "futurist" - the kind of person who spotted trends early and made a living out of showing businesses why these might be useful.

But at some stage during that business life he came across a 300 million year old fossil and became fascinated by the past.  My word, the result of this fascination is astonishing: just as spectacular as chocolate and just as hard to describe to someone who hasn't experienced it.

Here is a display that any museum director in the world would love to have.  Here are hundreds of spiral-shelled creatures, carefully extracted over the course of hundreds or thousands of hours from rock, and brilliantly displayed.  Some are small enough to fit into your hand.  A few with gracious whirls are bigger than a human being.  You can get an idea from the front cover of his book: a creature that looks like a Heath-Robinson device or, perhaps, a spectacular musical instrument.  Incidentally, I wish I had taken those photographs!

Here is the golden ratio; here is previously undiscovered beauty; here is the intersection of art and science; here is, almost, an evolutionary dead-end (but not quite: the Nautilus survives, a modern-day spiral shelled sea creature.)

All this is tucked away in a quiet road in a quiet hamlet in the West Country. I had no idea what was about to happen when Colleen and I dropped in to renew a 30 year old acquaintance: Wolfgang was my manager's manager in the 1980s.  To the extent I had thought about them at all, I had previously assumed that Ammonites were compatriots of the Etruscans and Assyrians who, if I recall correctly, developed a nasty habit of coming down like a wolf on the fold.

Instead of a quiet cup of tea and some reminiscences my mind was blown.  Wolfgang talked about some great collectors of Victorian times: church vicars who made discoveries they struggled to reconcile with their view of a 6,000 year old universe.  It seems hard to believe that any of them developed a collection quite like this.  So if you get the invitation to visit, don't turn it down.

Footnote:  Wolfgang has a delightful house and garden and I suspect that much of it is the result of the labours of his lovely wife, Terri.  The garden in particular is the realisation of what most of us imagine as an idealised "English Country Garden".  But I couldn't help but notice the fond despair in in Terri's voice as Wolfgang took us through a door in the main house along a passage an into a large room where new ammonites were taking over the snooker table.

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