“Ceci est le combat du jour et de la nuit.” – Victor Hugo’s dying words, France, May 22 1885.
Catia is a molecular cell biologist and lives in world of pipettes, centrifuges, Bunsen beaks and flammable chemicals; under no circumstances would a room with a couch, National Geographic posters and a few cabinets with monkey bones constitute a ‘lab’, but such are the paleoanthropology digs at UCL where I invited her for coffee.
“One of them is real and one is fake right? The colour is different” she said pointing at two articulated human skeletons at the center of the room. “Yup, the one with the hat is real” I said pointing at the yellower one of the two standing erect below the Vietnamese straw hat. She took a sip of coffee and approached the bony mannequin, “so… that used to be a person… I mean, that used to be someone” she said, while staring into a pair of empty eye-sockets. I stared at my friend as if she had spoken a great truth priorly unknown to me.
When you’re around death for too long, you forget about life.
In my field, bones come from one of two places: the ground or a museum drawer; they are either dead or fossilized, they are always disarticulated, and most of the time the heads and the bodies kept in separate places. Sticky bones are unpleasant, coloured or stained bones are neat, and broken ones… well, those can be exciting too. But whichever the case, in my field, bones are always dead, static and mostly inorganic.
We forget, however, that by the time we hold them in our hands, a lifetime of existence has passed through them. Life having been drained from them by the time we come along, bones are but an abandoned battlefield balanced between our calipers. But while we measure and quantify all the geometry and science out of the bone, we often forget about the animated forces that gave them their shape, that made them someone.
When we are being made, our skeleton is one continuous gelatinous frame. Tiny and persistent muscular forces in the womb carve this frame into its proper shape. After birth, gravity and our daily activities in life continue to shape us into adults, into the skeletal form that is so familiar to us from textbooks, labs and nowadays printed t-shirts and hoodies. The weight of our bodies, the amount of strain we put on them, our postures and bipedal stances are what form our curved spines, the angle at our knees and the shape of our hip bones among many other forms. While some of these forces common to us all will make us the same, variations in our individual paths and pursuits will make each frame unique.
Osteoblasts (above) and osteoclast (below)
And this all happens due two opposing forces, through the combination of cells that battle each other invisibly and constantly on the surface of our bones. Like outer space creatures, they crawl and dance on the moon-like surface of our bony substrate building and destroying its matrix. Like diligent builders, osteoblasts asphalt the bony highways while osteoclasts, like giant extraterrestrial tentacled jelly fish, dissolve and melt bone with their toxic acid-releasing arms, leaving porous trenches behind them. Both are sensitive to changes from the outside world, reacting to the forces from our bodies, either adding or removing. Both armies work together, infinitely trying to keep pace, searching for an equilibrium, working together to hold us in place and keep us standing tall.
And through these antagonistic forces, going head to head and hand in hand in the most inner depths of our living selves, we find our strength: being hard and adaptable all at once, resisting the forces of the world and carrying our weight through it. In this battle of the day and night, of light and darkness, of construction and destruction our frames grow and exist, our skeletons constantly reinventing themselves under the input of the world and what we do within it, and carve us into a reflection of who we are and what we do.
“Yes, it used to be someone” I finally said to her. “And so were all the other ape bones in the room next door”.
It is here indeed where the battle of day and night begins.