Its time will come. Each year, 50, people visit Cumberland Island National Seashore, most of them accessing what is one of the largest barrier islands on the Atlantic Coast via ferry from Saint Marys, Georgia. They come for the famous live-oak groves, deserted stretches of pristine sand and soaring dune fields. It is unadorned and has only one window; sitting inside, you could just as easily be in Nevada, or downtown Atlanta.
The "museum" is actually a research collection, not an exhibition for visitors. There are no public programs; in fact, getting to the Cumberland Island Museum requires a mile hike, much of it through a federally designated wilderness area. There are bones by the barrelful.
Bones bagged and boxed and stacked ten feet high. Bones on the porch, bones in the attic. With few exceptions, they have been collected, cleaned and preserved by Ruckdeschel. Once a week for the past two decades, she has monitored the entire mile stretch of Cumberland beach for the washed-up carcasses of turtles, marine mammals and birds.
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She necropsies each dead turtle, porpoise, whale and manatee; more than 1, in all, to date. She documents the other vertebrates she finds, too, like that double-crested cormorant the vulture eyed hungrily, and eventually ate. She picks up litter.
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She has driven an all-terrain vehicle the equivalent of motoring from New York to Los Angeles seven times. Three years ago, he retired and moved to the island. Now they are partners in life and work, environmental activists for the national seashore, and caretakers for its dead. I trip over a bucket containing backbones. We step into a small office, and then she opens an interior door. The room is a riot of plywood shelving and secondhand cabinets. From every horizontal surface glint makeshift specimen jars containing the remains of critters and other things Ruckdeschel has found.
One shelf is packed with bottles of snakes, each reptile coiled like a spring, milky-eyed. Another shelf groans with the weight of porpoise skulls. A Tang bottle holds alligator hatchlings, asphyxiated in a collapsed nest. The two biologists lead me through the catacombs, bathed in fluorescent light.
Those, Ruckdeschel answers, are the stomach contents of birds. Here a snow goose. There a sandwich tern. Here three species of shearwater. The fetus of a dwarf sperm whale. I am giddy, delirious, and not because of the smell of isopropyl alcohol. When I was in Mrs. Frogs, baby opossums the size of a dime, sand sharks, bats—I spent hours gazing at their eternal poses.
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At home, I assembled my own collection. King snakes and bullfrogs and rhinoceros beetles. Pickle jars by the score, displayed like the Little League trophies of my pals. So now, walking into the Cumberland Island Museum, I seem to glimpse a boy with his face pushed up to glass doors, his passion for living things sparked by things no longer alive, except in their power to inspire. There are banana boxes, liquor boxes, tomato and peach boxes, each now burdened with brown grocery bags.
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