The Nature Shelf

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.





4 thoughts on “The Nature Shelf

  1. Claudia LIpschitz

    I love the idea of a nature shelf and I will start such a tradition with my 5-year old granddaughter Carmen. Now, with autumn around the corner and leaves and seeds on the ground, there will be plenty to collect.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When I lived in Michigan, but wanted to be in the West, I kept many such small altars… red rocks from the Utah deserts, bones I had found while wandering in the Yellowstone area…. Now, living here, I don’t feel that need as much, but if you come into my home, you will still find little altars here and there… Memories of times spent in the temple of the wild.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hilary Vidalakis

      Little Altars Everywhere … I once read a novel by that title.

      I too like to think of them as altars. Best way to decorate a place. Memories that also beckon us back 🙂


  3. Neysa

    I bought a fun little owl at a local flower/gift store here in Bozeman (I NEVER do that, but also bought a small bird there which has “leaves” for wings and tail – made of the same pottery, but instead of the “veins” of feathers, it has the leaf shapes and their veins) for my bathroom. I walk almost daily, usually around Bozeman Pond, and find all kinds of treasures, though usually of the kind that end up in the trash, recycle bin, or donated to a thrift store. But my owl sits in a corner on my bathroom counter and has quite a collection of “tail” feathers from my walks – a flicker, three ducks, a magpie, a raven, what is probably that of a dove and, yes, one that could be an owl. That last I allowed myself because a year or two ago, we have a family of great horned owls living close to a nearby condo complex and they were seen frequently. Mostly, I leave things in place and keep them only in memory, but now and then…. I, too, need something to refresh that memory. Shells from New Zealand beaches or from those of Costa Rica; a small, green stone I found on a hike in the mountains of Arizona not long after my husband died; a pressed maple leaf I only see now and then, since I can never remember which of my books it lives in. So, thank you for this gentle piece of writing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s