On the practice of collecting specimens from nature

NOTE: Take another look at this one–I’ve revised!  I initially wrote this post last night, sometime around 2:00am.  I woke up this morning and thought, hmm, I should take another look at that.  Good thing I did.  The writing teacher in me prevails.


While on our road trip, we visited a friend in Ventura: Catherine.  She collects strange and beautiful objects: specimens, I’d call them.  Bits and pieces of the natural world.

This sun-bleached jawbone is in her backyard.

I was enchanted by them.  I’m always enchanted by these types of things.  I was thinking about it today, wondering why.  Why are these things fascinating to me?

First of all, I can’t deny that the fascination is at least a little morbid.  It’s like the impulse that makes people want to slow down and look at the wreckage of a crash on the highway: I can’t just walk by the carcass of a bee or beetle.  My curiosity gets the best of me–I want a closer look at the fuzzed legs and the antennae and those strange eyes.  I have to stop, scoop it up on a leaf, and take it home. I keep a collection of them in tiny gem jars above my workbench.

Part of my collection.

When I was in high school, I went to an arts camp called Interlochen.  And later, in college, when I worked there as a camp counselor, a middle schooler read a poem aloud that she had written and I began to feel poetry tugging at me.  I remember only part of one line from that poem, and I think I will always remember it: “the secret brittleness of bones.”

The hinge end of the jawbone.

So maybe that’s another reason specimens call to me–they’re secrets, whispering themselves to me.  When I come across a secret–the bleached jawbone of an animal in a friend’s backyard, the body of an insect, the remains of an animal in the woods, an urchin skeleton–I have to lean in.

Who doesn’t like to be told a secret?

Part of Catherine's butterfly collection.

Catherine has a butterfly collection.  I love it so much that I want to…to…keep it, or live beneath it, or eat it, or something.  I have that kind of  feeling when I look at it.  They’re so beautiful.  But of course, they’re also dead, so the beauty is something else, too–something sort of sad.  They’re beauty’s shadow.  The underside of beauty.  Beauty “from a certain angle,” as my friend Maureen might say.

Do you love such things as much as I do?  Why do you think that is?

Whatever the reason, I love finding the left-behind bits of the wilder inhabitants of this planet.  A feather, the wing of a dragonfly, the tiny husk of a yellow-jacket.  When I find one, I’m reminded that I’m just one of the many creatures on earth, and I feel my curiosity rising up.  I love that feeling.


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