science writer

+ Meet the Bone Lady

+ Meet the Bone Lady

by Casey Rentz

[published in the Cat's Meow, a newsletter to the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, December 2010]

This year, volunteer Dixie Swift has cleaned more fossil skulls than anyone else in the fishbowl lab. She’s known to be unusually quick at the task, but she wouldn’t brag about it. Dixie rinses and scrapes microfossils, humeri of various animals, and other fossils at the Page Museum and likes them just as well. For her, satisfaction comes with uncovering and preparing a unit of discovery she can pass along to the scientists, and the task takes on a certain sense of preciousness. 

“It’s exciting to find identifiable bones coming out of a mass of asphalt,” Dixie said with a gentle smile as she sat and talked to me about it last week. “These things we usually throw away—they are these amazing visual objects.”

A partial juvenile saber tooth skull is Dixie’s latest scrubbing detail. Before that, she tackled a coyote named “That Puppy”, and a dire wolf named “Orion.” As we spoke about Orion, she couldn’t help but go grab his nearly complete skull, pick it up, and hold it, turn it around and show me every angle. Her quiet voice rose to excitement. She loved the color of the bone—fossilized by asphalt, it was a deep brown color like the other fossils found at Rancho La Brea. She name it Orion, she explained, because it had a sizable pit on its forehead, rubbed into the bone by thousands of years of shifting up against a rock or other blunt object in the earth next to it, in the exact shape of an “O.”

Dixie is a retired and teacher and community leader who has spent her Tuesdays and Wednesdays at the Page Museum for a year and a half now. She is not a trained paleontologist, but has always collected bones on her own as a hobby. Skeletons of sea gulls and other birds hang in flight from the ceiling of Dixie’s house. Remains of her pet iguana, turtle shells, and other bones hang on the walls and rests in file chests scattered everywhere. When her kids were young, they used to complain, “Other kids come home to chocolate chip cookies…I come home to seagulls boiling on the stove.” 

A soon-to-be best friend once brought Dixie a dead possum to clean and keep. The friendship was cemented. Her family saves the carcass of the Thanksgiving bird for her every year, and every time she eats rabbit of chicken breast at a restaurant, she makes sure to get a ‘doggy bag.’

This love of bones is not a flash in the pan. It’s been with her since her early teens. For her 16th birthday, her mother gave her the cervical vertebra of a whale as an object to treasure. 

“A lot of people make objects out of bones, but the preciousness is in the very fact that it’s a bone of an animal,” she says with a nod, leaning back in her chair.

Dixie first visited the Page Museum 2 years ago, saw the volunteers in the fishbowl, and was hooked on the idea of helping out. After washing fossil bones for years, she says, “It feels like such a respectful thing to have done. Then it goes on to the scientists, but I’m just taking care.” Cleaning a skull or finding a sclerotic ossicle amongst a bag of tiny microfossils gives her a sense of ownership or responsibility for the fossil. (Microfossils seemed tedious at first, but eventually she found the same pleasure in them.) Months ago, Dixie spent many days working some of the asphalt and dirt out of the pelvis of Zed the Columbian mammoth; she got to know it so well that when she walks by it out in the museum gallery, she still remembers the shape of all its nooks and crannies.

As much as Dixie cherishes her tasks at the Page Museum, it’s also very purposeful, like the rest of her life. Dixie has always been an activist. In the fifties, she helped Navajo women convert hog barns into dietary centers for their communities. For a while, she worked for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker-founded organization promoting social justice, peace, and humanitarian aid. As a teacher in Compton, she pioneered the school’s first bone library containing 80 bones of various animals plus a molar of an 88-year-old grandmother of a student. In 1989, she founded the Homeland Cultural Center in Long Beach, where, among other ways to encourage cultural preservation, she wrote to prisoners to encourage their artistic style. One used imagery of bones in his artworks. 

When Dixie joined the Page Museum volunteer staff, she welcomed the more delicate and introspective work, but sees it as accomplishing an equally ambitious goal.

"I didn't know there was any other way to be active and significant to the planet than to be in the streets doing community work. But I have found that contributing to the work of scientific research by cleaning fossils is rewarding and really valuable for the work here at the Page Museum." The scientists are the ones who can interpret what the bones mean and construct the history of species and ecosystems on earth, she says. “It’s important to know the history of the planet. It makes us look at ourselves and become more protective of how we’re caring for things now.”

As Dixie said this, I was reminded of a quote by E.O. Wilson: “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.” And Dixie’s favorite way into nature is through bones.

[Dixie gives sincere thanks for giving her the opportunity to work alongside the other lab technicians and paleontologists.]