It all started with a sycamore ball…then an acorn, an oak leaf turning, a wisp of goldenrod. Just one or two small treasures at a time, laid out on a porcelain tray on a bookshelf near the old cord phone.
I was living in Washington, D.C., apartment-sharing near Capitol Hill with a woman in her 90s, trading light caregiving duties for a rent I could afford on an intern’s wages. My roommate was a poet, Quaker, novelist, activist, and grandmother who loved theater, aesthetics, and lengthy conversation.
We mostly kept to our respective ends of the apartment, meeting in the kitchen from time to time for tea. I would run errands, cook, buy groceries. A few times a month I sat at her computer and helped her piece together her memoirs. She would leave notes, books to borrow, and sometimes a plate of cinnamon toast by my bedroom door.
But my favorite of all our exchanges was the Nature Shelf. She was the one who began it, picked a flower while she was out one afternoon and laid it, stem and all, on a little leaf-shaped tray. I thought of that flower while I was running the next morning and carried home a sprig of chamomile, my first addition to the impromptu display. Every few days one of us would swap in something new: a pebble, a branch, a bit of bark. She didn’t get outdoors as often as I did. She told me my pickings helped her to feel what the world was doing, how the seasons were changing.
A few translocations later I found myself in Yellowstone, then Canyonlands, then rural Georgia. Throughout these chapters I lived and worked more outdoors than in; while I remembered the Nature Shelf with a smile, perhaps I didn’t feel like I needed it in these more consistently outdoorsy situations.
But now I live in New York City, and the Nature Shelf was just about the first thing I established when we moved into our apartment. Soon we’ll be moving again, and despite a need for babyproofing I fully intend to restore this fundamental, whimsical collection.
On a windowsill that roosts pigeons and looks out on a brick wall, artfully or haphazardly arranged, are these: tiger lily seeds, hemlock branches, field corn kernels, pussy willows, and a single turkey feather, from the farm my family recently sold; birch bark and gull-cracked shells from my old wildlife refuge; more shells from meanders at Coney Island, Newport, and Rockaway Beach; a sprig of sagebrush collected during a grad school reunion on Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake; a twig from my favorite gingko tree in Fort Tryon Park; wave-washed stones with white veins, brought ashore on Genova’s beaches by the warm Ligurian Sea.
One sill over, a basil transplanted from my mother’s garden spices the air it shares with a philodendron I named ‘Phil’ and have been nursing since graduate school. Between the two, a jade plant spiders out of its voluminous floor-pot: I gifted this creature to my aunt once when I was leaving town and couldn’t bring it with me, then re-inherited it years later, after she died.
Sprinklings, mementos, totems: my Nature Shelves risk the importation of insects into a city apartment already crawling with them. They clutter the view, collect dust. But I won’t let them go.
Collecting is a sticking point in conversations about conservation and environmental education. Beyond regulatory prohibitions–more than one of my specimens was collected in a national park and thus ought not to have been pocketed–most outdoorsmen and women strive to abide by leave-no-trace principles, which include the maxim, “remove nothing.” We look back with some scorn on the colonialist, capture-minded “conservation” tactics of the Victorian and Rooseveltian eras, when critters of every taxa were killed, plucked, pinned, glued, and stuffed.
I try to keep my collecting to a minimum, to heed the relative abundance of each treasure-to-be and leave scarcer bits where they lie. “Take only pictures,” after all. But the tactile helps, ethically itchy as it may be. I hold the rocks and touch my adopted home shores in Italy. One whiff of sagebrush transports me back to the immensity of the inter-mountain West. And the shells remind me of the permanent impermanence of my most recent, elemental attachment: the Atlantic.
How do we remember place? I strive to do it in words, in stories. But for now, for each of these stories, there’s also a solid and tangible reminder, holding space and collecting blessed dust, on my latest evolution of Nature Shelf.