The very best part of fourteen years as an elementary school parent were the field trips. Are all California public schools as open and enthusiastic about off-site learning, or did we just get lucky??? It seems there wasn’t a mission, museum, or state park in a three-county radius we skipped, from fall’s monarch butterfly walks and county fair pig races to winter’s elephant seal viewing to spring’s steelhead release into local rivers. Each year, the teacher had at least five or six trips lined up, and I drove on every one of them, happy and lucky to learn right along with the kids.

It was on one of those school outings that I learned about middens. Our group trotted single-file along a dirt trail lined with live oak trees dotted with woodpecker holes on one side and duckweed-covered wetlands on the other, where snowy egrets waded and dived for food. Our docent gathered us around her in a field and pointed out a raised mound near her feet where blue-green bunch grasses grew from between broken bits of shell.

“That’s called a midden. It’s an ancient trash heap left by the Native Americans,” she informed us. “Archeologists sift through these to learn more about what they ate and how they lived.”

The kids appeared to be unimpressed. I was fascinated though, completely taken with the realization that we were standing on wild land still bearing traces of people who came before us. Way before – hundreds, even thousands of years ago – parents stood on this very spot, creating briny feasts for their children from local oysters and clams and discarding the shells in a pile. I still visit that spot, savoring the connection to long-ago parents.

So it’s no wonder to me that of all the beautiful, thought-provoking, and just plain strange items on display in Museum of Modern Art, this is the piece that caught my eye:


A midden, I thought immediately. How odd and sort of cool. I snapped a photo then wandered away in a New York City sensory overload daze.

A few days later I was back at home, sorting out thoughts and impressions of my 2-day trip. I realized I was so taken with the piece I hadn’t bothered to read the curator’s liner notes. Thanks to Google – the search “moma mussels” let me straight to the Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers. This is “Pot of Mussels,”  a work he created  in 1968 from, well, mussel shells, a kettle, and wax. He was as a poet, too, and I found this ode he wrote that contextualizes the piece in its own way:

The Mussel
by Marcel Broodthaers
translated by Michael Compton

This clever thing has avoided society’s mold.

She’s cast herself in her very own.

Other lookalikes share with her the anti-sea.

She’s perfect.

Mussels are the national dish of Belgium, which could be one reason they served as Broodthaers’ muse. The interesting point, though, is how different lowly piles of shells can be. Practical trash heap? Connection with the past? Acclaimed art piece? Dinner? What do you think of when you saw Broodthaers’ Pot of Mussels?