The Man Behind the Marrow
by Mengya Wu, Chloe Henderson, and Allie Geiger
An old Kawasaki motorcycle putters into view, a milk crate strapped to the back as a makeshift basket. Unsure if the man on the bike is whom we are waiting for, we stand awkwardly in the parking lot of Ace Hardware and look for a sign. He lifts his silver helmet and a smile peaks out from underneath his salt and pepper mustache. The man gives a friendly wave, and we know that this must be Keith, the man behind the project to rearticulate a sperm whale skeleton for the North Carolina Maritime Museum. After a firm handshake, he swings onto his motorcycle and leads us to Bonehenge, the site of the project.
After driving through a stretch of highway and a narrow, bumpy dirt road in the woods, we arrive at Bonehenge – a lone wooden shed hidden in a dusky clearing of evergreens. The sound of the car tires creaking over dried leaves and loose rocks penetrates the silence. Once we step out of the car, the cozy atmosphere washes our nervousness away. We can see a totem painting of a whale decorating one wall and eclectic quilts hanging on the windows. Upon entering the building our attention is immediately riveted to the mass of bones hanging from the wooden rafters in the center of the room. It clicks and sways like a giant’s wind chime and we take a minute to comprehend its form. The vertical ivory colored arcs are ribs, delicately framing a chest cavity large enough for a person to crawl into. The whale’s snaking vertebral disks hang by thick ropes overhead. After we snap free of our hypnosis, we notice the molds of whalebones sitting on racks lining the walls. Newspaper clippings, tools, and jars filled with whale stomach contents blanket the tables. Grinning at our surprise, Keith shrugs off his jacket and motions us toward the whale. As he begins to talk, the story of the bones unfolds.
“On a cold winter day in 2004 we got a call about a live sperm whale at a Cape Lookout beach. By the time we got there it was freshly dead.” Initially, Keith had arrived to perform a necropsy, but encouragement from a fellow scientist prompted him to make use of this “gift” – a pristine sperm whale specimen. After many days of removing the blubber from the bones, Keith and his volunteers buried the whale in the sand by a dune. A few years under the sand decomposed any remaining flesh and revealed the bones. When they went back to retrieve the skeleton, Keith reminisces, “We left the beach with three buckets of fragments and a severely damaged skull.” To take that pile of cracked bones and piece together the nearly complete whale seen today seemed like an overwhelming project to us. Keith confessed that he felt the same: “I was discouraged, but a couple of my volunteers said, ‘Keith we got this, we love jigsaw puzzles.’” And they succeeded. Now, four years later, he brushes the bones fondly and points out the lines where a jigsaw puzzle of skull fragments were glued together with epoxy.
The mammoth hanging on the ceiling of Bonehenge is not merely a jumble of bones; it is a whale. Keith’s hands sweep toward the curve of its spine. “One thing that excites me about this is that it’s diving, it’s kicking, it’s turning. Just about every other hanging whale I’ve seen is just straight.” Keith artistically recreates the whale into a form that simulates real movement, bringing the giant thirty-three foot skeleton to life, and he does not stop there. The realism continues in the unexpected details that other displays lack. Other whale skeletons have flippers with six digits. Keith had an X-ray of a real whale flipper taken to discover the correct anatomy and found that “his” sperm whale has five digits. Shocked, excited, and thrilled, he immediately made this correction and put the bones in their proper locations.
So, why does Keith dedicate so much time in accurately constructing this whale? He is, above all, curious. As a graduate student studying environmental management he was intrigued by the unknown. He began “asking questions and realizing that no one had the answers.” This desire to know led him to study and photo-identify dolphins. As he delved deeper into the field, he discovered that “the largest and most prominent mammals in the ocean, whales, were virtually unknown.” Even after years in the field, Keith still has questions. He wonders how calf and mother strandings are related; he wonders if a physical signature for hearing damage exists in stranded whales; he never stops wondering. The whale skeleton is a part of his journey to find his answers and represents what he has learned. That accurate flipper embodies the discovery of knowledge.
This curiosity is what makes Keith a unique and valuable teacher. He still remembers the desire to find answers, which motivates him to teach. “I want people to ask questions,” Keith said, “and I want to provide them with a resource so they can find the answers, so they want to find answers.” Probing deeper, we discover that Keith enjoys making the project a public experience by speaking with outside groups, giving behind-the-scenes tours and public talks about Bonehenge and marine mammals. “Just hearing someone say, ‘Oh, wow!’ is really exciting to me.” And it is true. Every time we exclaim in excitement, be it at the whale’s preserved stomach contents or a picture of a hundred-pound whale heart, he beams back a proud “I know!” amazed that we, too, find this fascinating. His innate inquisitiveness and passion is overwhelming, infectious, inspiring. His sweeping arm movements seem too small to encompass all that the whale skeleton is, all the excitement he feels.
With Keith leading the project, the skeleton is so much more than a string of bones. It is a dynamic, interactive learning experience. One can investigate the inside of the skull cavity, pick up a jar of preserved stomach contents, and even sniff the musky spermaceti, wax from the head of the whale. Hanging in a museum, the skeleton educates, but it is just an object. Paired with Keith’s narrative, the whale comes to life. Just like Keith, we can “see behind the scenes: the tools, the bone dust, everything.” Keith shares it all with us. More than that, his curiosity kindles the excitement of his listeners and their enthusiasm inflames his own. The mammoth-sized skeleton at Bonehenge ignites the imagination.
Despite being the heart of Bonehenge, Keith prefers to laud the efforts of others rather than highlighting his own accomplishments. He minimizes the countless hours he has spent constructing, educating, and promoting. His arm sweeps from the wooden rafters to the large whale skeleton. “It’s not just Keith,” he states as he gives us another bashful grin. In explanation, he gestures all around, telling us about the community barn-raising that brought this building into existence. He tells us that out of the fifty thousand dollars needed to finish this project, a remarkable thirty-two thousand was donated in the first two years. “You know, back in 2004, if I were told I had to put these whale bones back together, I would have rebelled,” Keith says as he gazes at the walls, “but the people made it worthwhile.”
What does the whale skeleton represent? It is an inspiration for future generations. It has a history, every fixed crack and fused bone a tale of endless hours of work. It is full of detail, each turn of the spine a careful calculation, every space between the bones a testament to thoughtful attention. Each bone represents a donation, a contribution from the community. And behind this mammoth amount of marrow is Keith, orchestrating each step into a symphony of science, art, community, and education.