The Sheraton in Clearwater Beach provides free copies of the Wall Street Journal, neatly stacked on a narrow table near the elevators. We were there in early September, and I picked up a copy of the WSJ Magazine that someone had discarded, as if it were a blow-in card that had fallen out of a catalog. This particular issue was built around a theme of “men’s style.” I flipped past ads for manly cologne and leather messenger bags with my lip curled, until I came to the very last page. Centered under the heading “Still Life” was a photograph of a table not unlike the one in the lobby of the Sheraton. The table contained a display of about a dozen objects—African art, masks, books—carefully arranged. I read that these were the favorite things chosen by a renowned photographer, who described her interests and enthusiasms in a few paragraphs of text beneath the photo.
I would require something more than a table to hold my personal Still Life. I would like something more along these lines:
After we had eaten, he took me up to a south-facing room that was thick with summer light, and there he opened the two pale-blue doors of a large wooden cabinet that stood against the back wall. It was, he explained, a cabinet of curiosities of his own devising… in which examples of natural history (naturalia), precious artifacts (arteficialia), scientific instruments (scientifica), findings from distant realms (exotica) and items of inexplicable origin and form (mirabilia) were gathered and displayed.
That’s a description of writer and art historian Peter Davidson’s collection of favorite things, as described by Robert MacFarlane in the book Landmarks. MacFarlane says that Davidson’s writing, like his cabinet of curiosities, is an attempt “to capture the moment, lost and yet preserved forever.”
The paragraphs of his essays, the verse of his poems: these act as what Thomas Browne in Urne-Buriall…beautifully calls a ‘conservatorie.’ Yet none of these ‘conservatories’ is quite reliable, none fully sealed. All leak a little light.
Davidson’s house and garden are extensions of the cabinet, filled with meaningful bits and collected pieces. “We have gathered things about us which are of the place where we live,” he told MacFarlane.
I have my own collection of jars; the urns in my conservatorie contain photos, postcards, pebbles and shells, all sorts of small reminders of people and places I love. My conservatorie leaks a great deal of light. One jar holds an e-mail that I received from Ernesto this August. I had sent him a message to let him know I planned to stop at the grocery store on my way home from work, and I asked if he needed anything. He responded with a sort of poetic still life:
Get some bananas and Potato chips.
Good chocolate ice cream, to go with that cake.
More bacon and sausage for grilling on Saturday morning.
(Possibly my favorite line in the English language: “Good chocolate ice cream, to go with that cake.” Like a snippet from a song, it runs through my head every time I turn the corner in our local Food Lion and walk past the frozen foods.)
But there are many marvelous things that are impossible to preserve. In August, I looked forward to the Perseid meteor shower with great anticipation, since this year’s shower was supposed to a really good one. On the first evening, I put my mini-trampoline (for low-impact running) on the back deck and tried to get comfortable with my upper body on it and my legs hanging off. Ernesto crammed onto the trampoline next to me, and we gazed upward. We counted three airplanes and two or three meteors. Ernesto wanted to talk the entire time, but his conversation failed to match my mood. I wanted shooting stars, a fathomless universe, mysteries and magic. He bounced his shoulders on the trampoline and said, “I smell the grill.”
We saw about five meteors that evening, and then we decided to get up and go to bed.
At our age, when you rise to your feet after lying pronish on a mini-trampoline with your head thrown back to look into limitless space, regaining one’s balance is a trick. We both staggered a bit, grabbing onto each other (unwise) and the grill and finally the back door doorknob. By the time we fell into the house we were weak with laughing and dizziness.
Not yet having had my fill of falling stars, I prepared more thoroughly for my second night of star-gazing. I own a heavy cotton area rug that I love but which has an unfortunate stain in the center. I situated it on the back deck, and then placed our heavy winter comforter on top. I pulled an old bedsheet from the linen closet to use as a sort of mosquito net and settled into my cozy nest with a pillow.
Ernesto had had enough of the Perseids and declined to join me. Well, he missed out, because it was lovely. The temperature had dropped into the 70s, with a light breeze, and the crickets and frogs made a pleasant sort of white noise. I saw the first meteor fairly quickly, but after the first there were long spells of quiet time. It was hypnotic, and wonderful. In fact it was very much like meditation and fishing, which I also love. After a long spell of quiet waiting, you get an electric moment of total delight—and then a return to more patient, quiet waiting.
That is not the type of life experience that can be preserved in a jar or displayed in a cabinet. I will conserve it here, instead, as a memory, a memory of lying back and looking up into the dark sky while the crickets fiddle, the entire world spins, stars are falling, and I alone am still.