Outside the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum, there’s an installation. In a still-bubbling lake of asphalt, a mammoth drowns to death while a crying baby mammoth reaches out its trunk. This is one of the most depressing pieces of statuary I have ever seen.
The La Brea Tar Pits and its museum is a fun place to go as a kid. They have all sorts of fossils from the Ice Age—which is why my elementary school didn’t do a dinosaur unit, so much as an Ice-Age mammals one. From a list of possible topics that included mammoths, dire wolves, and sabre-tooth cats, I got. . . the ground sloth. Not that it mattered. The plight of the giant sloth is not the main thing my visit to the Tar Pits left burned into my brain.
No, what haunts my dreams, to this day, is this:
I don’t know who thought this tableau of sadness was necessary, but it’s wonderfully scarring to the psyches of children. That is a baby mammoth watching a parent drown in tar. And I’m so glad the anguish on their faces is so perfectly rendered that you can’t possibly pretend anything else is going on. Look at the way the drowning mammoth seems to be flailing! This is not a quiet and peaceful death it is going to.
And, in an extra bit of fun, the Tar Pits are basically a landmark. The entrance to the museum is actually far inside the park, and these figures are right near the street. It kind of colors the museum when every fossil makes you remember that the animal it once was probably died in the same way as the mammoths at the entrance.
You will see this scene of agony and misery, every time you drive down Wilshire in Los Angeles. Which was fun for five-year-old me, since it was right on the way to someplace I had to go a lot as a child. Nothing like driving past this every time I went to my mother’s office to make me think about my parents’ inevitable mortality.
The full installation has the screaming and dying one in the lake pit, the screaming baby, and a strangely nonchalant one behind the baby. And thanks to an influx of Disney movies as a child, I knew exactly what was happening here: The mother was the one drowning, and the father was one who did not give a fuck. It was Bambi, but with mammoths.
I had no way of knowing that, by the way. The one safely on the bank doesn’t have, like, a giant penis to indicate its sex. But we all know that, in the origin story of life, the mother always dies. Sometimes both parents are dead, but the mother is always dead. Armed with The Land Before Time and Bambi and Cinderella and The Little Mermaid, it is impossible to not project those kinds of stories onto these mammoths.
In my child mind, it was a happy family of mammoths that was suddenly destroyed when the mother stumbled into the tar pit, changing the child mammoth’s life forever. Or, in days when flights of fancy took me further, the mother had waded in to save the baby, and was paying the price. Even then, the cavalier expression of the—again, completely fake—male mammoth pissed me off. Do something! I thought at a hunk of fiberglass.
To this day, I find it absurd that these figures are still on display. For one thing, that is a lot of anthropomorphizing of creatures that lived tens of thousands of years ago. For another, the accumulated therapy bills must be monumental at this point. There’s no context for it, since it basically sits in a park, that people walk and drive by all the time without actually entering the museum. I cannot possibly be the only child who ended up crying over it.
And here’s the thing: I was totally right about the sexes. When I asked the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum about them, I was directed to information from Los Angeles’s La Brea Tar Pits and Hancock Park by Cathy McNassor, which says that the two adults were commissioned by Howard Ball in the 1960s. He had previously done work for the New York World’s Fair, Hollywood, and—wait for it—Disney. I was told the male was positioned in 1967 and the female “depicting a sinking scenario” in 1968. There’s no info on who decided to add the screaming baby—but presumably that person is a sadist who gathers strength from children’s tears.
Originally, there were going to be a whole bunch of recreations in the park, but that dream was never realized. Which is shame, because maybe then the one we got would just be one tragic moment among a panoply of different ones. Instead, this horror stands alone.
Despite being an adult and knowing that mammoths likely didn’t speak and have adventures, I’m still unnerved by the Tar Pits every time I go past them. Which is, thankfully, much less often than when I was a child.
Photo credits: Tar Pits by Pattie/flickr/CC BY SA 2.0; La Brea Tarpits by John Verive/flickr/CC BY SA 2.0; La Brea Tar Pits 2 by daryl_mitchell (cropped to show the baby in detail)/flickr/CC BY SA 2.0
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