August 2021
Alan Dean Foster

A Chipmunk Ate My Mammoth Hair

The most amazing free show in the US (possibly on the planet) is the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, held every year for more or less the first two weeks in February. It’s a nice, cool time to be in Tucson, though finding a room anywhere in the city while the show is ongoing can induce enough stress to cause a visitor to overheat regardless of the actual ambient temperature.

The Tucson show is a place to admire and shop for things you cannot find anyplace else. A lot of the fine mineral specimens you see in fancy shops around the world are initially purchased wholesale at Tucson. Some of the individual portions of the show are off-limits to those without a resale license, but even so it would take you days just to walk fast through those sections that are open to the general public. Think trying to do Disney World in a day. The best part? It’s all free. There’s no admission charge.

Traders and dealers come to the Tucson show from all over the world to exhibit their wares. Want to buy raw or cut sapphires? There’s a whole room dedicated to dealers from Sri Lanka who bring their product to the show. Nor is it all rocks and minerals. There are areas dedicated to African arts, to (presumably legitimate) archaeological material and, of primary interest to me, those that focus on fossils and related items.

Want to buy a whole dinosaur skeleton? Try the Tucson show. In addition to major dealers, every now and then a couple of guys will show up out of nowhere selling fascinating goods from nowhere. One year one such instance involved an enterprising couple of gentlemen from Siberia. They brought with them mammoth ivory, which is legal to trade in some states and not in others. Even today the trade in ancient ivory is still very much a gray area. (Interesting current information here.

What these two visitors from the Yakutia region of Siberia (which, coincidentally, is also the greatest source of Russian diamonds) discovered is that folks interested in fossil ivory are also interested in acquiring other parts of extinct pachyderms. So in addition to tusks and fragments thereof they had bones for sale and, neatly packed in small plastic bags — hair. Not for nothing were the owners of those tusks called woolly mammoths.

I love our little mountain rats with racing stripes, but I do prefer they keep to their natural environment and leave me to mine.

Like bone and ivory, hair holds up quite well after being preserved for thousands of years in ice and permafrost. It’s not “good” for much. You cannot carve it into trinkets or sculptures. You can’t make knives from it, or clasps, or belt buckles. It has the consistency of horsehair — which is what many who see it assume it to be. But it is truly hair from a long-dead relative of elephants. It is an amazing feeling to hold, to feel, these stringy fragments of the ancient past. To feel the weight of ages crinkle beneath your fingertips. It brings a period of Earth’s recent history to life in a way no painting can ever hope to match.

It seems that chipmunks think so, too.

Located above a garage, separate from the main house, my study is pretty secure against insects and the elements. But not, it seems, against marauding chipmunks. They sneak in via the air conditioning/heater vent. Every once in a while as I sit working at my desk I’ll hear an unexpected, sharp chip-chip. Looking around, I’ll see nothing. But I know the invader is there, somewhere, lurking behind a bookcase or the TV, gracefully cleaning its little nose and eyes, waiting for me to leave for the night so it can go exploring. I love our little mountain rats with racing stripes, but I do prefer they keep to their natural environment and leave me to mine. 

I have also learned, to my distress, that they are not above sampling potential food (or more likely nest-building material) that is somewhat beyond its expiration date.

So I put my sample of Elephas primigenius fuzz in a cabinet and wait for the opportunity to catch and release. This takes less time and effort than one might think, since sooner or later Mr. C. Munk gets bored with his unappetizing new surroundings and emerges so that I can either shoo him out the door or catch him in a pail and usher him downstairs and safely into the nearest dense undergrowth. While carrying out this chore, one that is unfamiliar to my New York friends, I have never been bitten or clawed. But I have been chewed out, if not chewed upon, by my highly excitable temporary guests.

Is it so wrong of me, when I am being chattered at, to occasionally in my mind hear instead the long-lost trumpeting of an ancient and decidedly hairy giant who once trod the earth?

Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster. com.