Crayola Crayons

About Wax

The unfortunate fact that whales are born with flippers (rather than arms) means that, physically speaking, they are incapable of cleaning their ears. As such, their earwax accumulates over the course of their lives, until it forms a monstrous tumor that marine biologists refer to as an “earplug.” For several centuries, professional whalers were puzzled by these objects, which they would find whenever they cracked open the skulls of their prey, nestled between the mandible and the brain like grotesque, rubbery pearls. And yet, in recent decades, scientists have realized that whale earplugs contain a primitive, chemical diary that describes each animal’s emotional past.

In the case of earplugs, wax functions as an embalming agent, preserving a sedimentary record of hormones and environmental toxins. For Thomas Edison, the ability of wax to facilitate archival storage was especially useful when he began entombing transient sounds in wax cylinders, thereby bestowing an afterlife on auditory events which would otherwise have dissipated without a trace. In other words, Edison’s phonograph resurrected—and in its own way carried forward—the burial traditions of ancient Egypt, where corpses were not only preserved, but also given a permanent home in case their spirits ever felt like returning to the world of the living. As a special favor, some of these corpses were also provided with small paintings—usually made from colored wax—that were intended to remind the deceased of their previous incarnations. In contrast to this, wax paintings in European Christianity did the opposite: Instead of being gifted to the soul of the person they depicted, they were given to the living as a reminder of famous martyrs and departed saints.

One of the most dramatic journeys through the afterlife was conducted by the corpse of Eva Perón. Evita died of cancer when she was only 33 years old, at which point she promptly embarked on a series of sexual affairs with several lovestruck morticians. Later, her cadaver was misplaced, appropriated, and then shipped across the ocean by her political enemies. Because it was in such high demand, several fake corpses were constructed out of wax as a strategy to deflect unwanted attention from her real one—an act of deception which recalls the history of the word “sincerity.” According to one legend, the etymology of this particular word can be traced to a Latin phrase meaning “without wax.” Historically speaking, this story derives from the fact that dishonest sculptors were known to occasionally adulterate their marble busts with wax in order to reduce costs, only to be exposed as crooks when the cheaper material melted in the sun.

Unfortunately, according to scholarly consensus, this connection is itself insincere. However seductive its explanatory power might be, it lacks the veracity that's required to survive the light of historical analysis, melting instead into a puddle of counterfactual slush: briefly evocative but ultimately false.

About the Platypus

Shortly after chewing through its egg and arriving, mouth first, into the world, a newborn platypus loses the only tooth it will ever have. This tooth is commonly referred to as an “egg tooth.” Later, when it has discarded its previous home and begun a new life on the other side of its shell, the young platypus is reclassified as a “suckling,” even though it does not suckle in any traditional sense of the word. In fact, suckling is anatomically impossible for members of the species, given that the female platypus lacks teats. Instead, she releases her milk through small pores in her skin. Then the milk gathers in grooves, where her offspring lap it up, like toddlers licking ice cream cones.

As they mature, sucklings acquire a taste for worms and freshwater shrimp, which they hunt blindly, with both eyes sealed shut. To make up for their lack of underwater vision, they navigate using receptors buried in the skin of their bills, which can detect the muscular contractions of their prey by measuring the electromagnetic disturbances they provoke.

In 1799 a raggedy, dehydrated platypus skin made its way to Europe via boat. It arrived at a time when the continent was being ravaged by a plague of charlatans and pseudo-scientific scandals—a situation which prompted the biologist George Shaw to famously declare that the carcass he received “naturally excites the idea of some deceptive preparation by artificial means.” In light of this suspicion, European scientists demanded conclusive proof that the creature was not the invention of some renegade taxidermist who had sewn the face of a duck onto the body of a mole. Unfortunately, they demanded such a high standard of proof that the planet’s entire platypus population was nearly extinguished by hordes of bloodthirsty zoologists. To make matters worse, once they had satisfied themselves that the platypus was real, it took another hundred years for these scientists to convince themselves that the animal reproduced by laying eggs.

And yet, every year during that century of murder, youthful platypuses continued to hammer away at the insides of their shells, undeterred by the fact that they were about to lose their only tooth to a world that failed to believe in the veracity of their existence.

Wax Museum

Atticus Bergman’s Wax Museum is a platform for releasing new drawings and revisiting old ones. Each edition features one Crayola crayon drawing, accompanied by a few paragraphs of written context. Posts are indexed here and can be seen in their entirety by subscribing to the Substack newsletter or browsing the complete archive. 

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