The other day my son wanted to show me something he had found. As he pulled the small Christmas tin that contained his special things off the shelf , I had a sudden flashback to my own childhood. My own cigar box had contained feathers, a fossil or two, special sea shells, a shark tooth and several small skulls from birds or mammals. As I grew older, the box had to be bigger and contained my “science” stuff, the collection of natural history artifacts found or discovered.
On a business trip to Los Angeles, I walked through a residential neighborhood early one morning after a night of rain. I couldn’t identify the heavy, rich scent coming off the yellow-flowered bushes, but the scent was overpowering, and I left that block lightheaded. In the next, tall trees lined the sidewalk, and the scent became a familiar, mediciny smell, like something rubbed on your chest for a cold, or some strong cough drop. Eucalyptus, of course. Among the debris of twigs and leaves were small wooden conical pyramids with cross-shaped cavities in the base. I pocketed several of these seedpods for their strangeness and to preserve that memory.
Working to clean my garden of dead plants and debris one spring, I found the remains of a black bird, fallen victim to the relentless harshness of Colorado winters or the neighborhood’s preying cats. Last summer’s insects, and the winter snow and spring rains had cleansed it of flesh, leaving only feather and bone. Like a Mandarin fingernail, a beak nearly an inch long protruded from the mess. Carefully, I disentangled the skull and admired its smoothness and the practicality of its design. Light enough to carry in flight, powerful enough to attack, and strong enough to protect.
On an Oregon beach there are few shells, and the ones we find are broken bits, hammered between the waves and the rocks. The rocks themselves share the diversity and strangeness of shells: different colors, textures and shapes. Most are rounded, smoothed by the action of the waves and the sand, but a few reveal recent violence, showing sharp edges and flat sides. Among the earth tones and dark wetness, something glitters. One with the sand and stones, a lump of violet glass shimmers in the sunlight. I beat the waves to it, but don’t escape their wrath. The wetness bothers me less than the coldness of the water, but even with numbing hands, I can feel the sculpted roundness. For years this piece of trash, broken and discarded who knows where, has been reverting to its elemental nature, to rejoin the grains of sand on the beach. I’ll interrupt its progress for a few years, long perhaps in human time, but insignificant in the time of sand.
Leaving the office, I notice a dark, smooth feather against the curb. Busy and important people passed over it all day, ignoring it as they would a penny on the ground. I’m tempted by conformity and custom to follow suit. To interrupt the flow of human traffic heading home is suicidal and risks disapproval from the throng. After all, the feather’s probably dirty; who knows what germs or grease it’s gotten into. I couldn’t put it in my suit pocket, and would feel silly walking among the crowd holding a feather, some ritualistic totem to ward off evil or magic spells like the characters in my son’s video games. But then, maybe it is a totem, not of evil, but of the magic of our own wonder; our curiosity of, and link to, nature. After nine hours in a windowless box, unable to escape the relentless electronic assault of phone and email and fax, I’m about to embark on an hour’s journey along asphalt roads within concrete walls, breathing air tainted with exhaust.
I start my car and turn off the radio. I fix the feather above the mirror, and on today’s drive, I think not about work or the chores awaiting me at home, but about the feather and where it had been. And I think about my own treasure box and all the magic it still holds.
— Written 1993