A Non-Travel Essay

One has only to watch a collector handle the objects in his glass case. As he holds them in his hands, he seems to be seeing through them into their distant past as though inspired.

—Walter Benjamin

It is the twist in the red tail’s neck that makes it so appealing. The way I can almost read death in the curve of the spine. Feathers still cling to the open wings, just as some probably still cling to the branches of the pine where the bird was found on East Mountain here in western Massachusetts, where the slope dissolves into a boulder field. My boyfriend, Ben, and I keep it out in the garage because it’s too funky to keep in the house, a sweet sickly smell emanating from between the bones, yet we like to go and look at it periodically. It’s something special to hold a bird of prey like that. Whenever Ben’s two kids come across it in the garage, they always wrinkle their noses and ask, “Why do you guys keep that thing, anyway?” We felt the same about the dead eastern screech owl Ben came home with the first year we were together. We were taking the first tentative steps of our relationship while living sixteen hours apart. He’d found the owl in the attic of a house he was renovating—it was hanging from a shredded curtain at a dingy window—and he put it in a paper bag and left it in the garage, knowing I’d want to see it next time I visited. Some of the feathers were still emerging from the keratin pins—a juvenile. I imagined it hovering like a moth at the window’s dim light, looping itself over and over into the lethal threads of ruined curtain. So close. When I saw him next we tried to untangle it, but the strands were wrapped too tightly around the neck, around one wing.

I ended up taking it back to Michigan with me, the paper bag on the floor in the backseat. I drove it across the unending flat expanse of New York State, over Niagara Falls, across southern Ontario. I took the eastern screech owl into the Midwest. We turned right in Port Huron, driving north over the Mackinaw Bridge until I was home—or at least at my current version of home—on the shore of Lake Superior. In Michigan, I occasionally took the bird out and tried to unwind, but it made me think of Ben, so far away with so much snow and ice between us. But I still liked to take it out, marvel at the bill nestled in the downy feathers, the sharpness on the talons of its gnarled-twig feet.

 

When I finally did move into Ben’s house, many of my things were thrown haphazardly together into various boxes, and when I was recently rummaging through a bin of photos I came across a piece of petrified wood. I had found it in western Wyoming on my very first field job in the summer of 2003. From pre-dawn to noon I would wade through sagebrush searching for nesting sparrows. By late summer the eggs had hatched and the young had fledged. Birds no longer adhered to their territories, and my work was winding to a close. I grew bored and spent the remainder of my mornings wandering aimlessly, exploring. At first glance this landscape was mind-numblingly boring, a flat expanse of Artemisia tridentata, with only the occasional greasewood shrub to break up the monotony. But I soon learned to attune my eyes to various microcosms—a dense thicket where sage grouse liked to hang out, a small ravine of crumbling dirt where I watched a badger nose around. I found a low flat area where the sage was sparse, and it was there where I found several pieces of petrified wood, most no bigger than my wrist. They were made of smooth, grayish chert, and on some you could still see knots and where branches had been. I brought a few pieces out of Wyoming with me, along with a beautiful coyote skull—one I had found with no bullet hole. There were several coyote carcasses throughout my research site, killed the previous year most likely, with loose hides still clinging to bone. Some skulls I could hold up and see a circle of the Wyoming sky shining right through. Sheepherders kept a close eye on this range all the way to the base of the Wind River Mountains. I spotted the men often, modern-day cowboys in V-8 trucks, honking and herding hundreds of hellishly bleating sheep down to the late-summer trickle of the Big Sandy River. When I came across the coyote carcasses, I imagined a rancher, bored with his own early-morning duties just like me, training the scope on a panting coyote, elbowing his buddy and saying, watch this.

The petrified wood now sits on a windowsill. I like to pick it up and feel the crusty lichen that grows in the grooves. I flip it on its end, try to count the rings at the cross-section. I try to remember the lay of the land, the snow on top of the Wind Rivers, even in June. I wonder how many years since the wind blew the dirt and unearthed the petrified wood. How many years did it sit there, unnoticed by humans, trampled by sheep or pronghorn?

 

The summer I moved in with Ben, we came across a mysterious skull in the woods. It was a transitional point in my life—living for the first time with a partner. My first time in a relationship with someone who had kids and also my first time living with kids. It forced me to change my lifestyle—I had to think grounded. I couldn’t travel on just a whim, because it wasn’t just me anymore. I became a part of a web: what I did affected Ben, and what affected Ben affected the kids. My life was tied to theirs, even if the strings attaching me to them were longer and looser and I could drift out a little further. But I was still tethered and accountable to others; I had a family again. To quell my urges for exploration Ben and I dug into the woods around our house. I became a micro-explorer. It was a humid and overcast afternoon that we were bumbling through a dense thicket, smearing mosquitoes across the backs of our necks, when I stepped on the skull. I picked it up—it was discernibly canine, yet long and flat with a peculiar crest and stained a deep mossy green. We took it home and put it on top of the computer in the kitchen as we tried to identify it.

“What is that?” the kids asked when they saw it sitting in the kitchen. “And why is it in the kitchen?”

“We’re not sure yet,” we said. “But we’re trying to find out.”

They would sigh and roll their eyes. “You guys are so weird with all your dead things,” they always said.

They were like that, too, when Ben and I would go for hikes up mountains. “Why do you want to do that?” One just peaking in his adolescence, the other just entering into hers, they had a strangely concrete grasp of the way things should function. They were people who were just coming to know their place in their world and perhaps weren’t prepared to have what they had just figured out toppled all over again. Dead things should be left for dead. That’s why they’re dead. With a similar confidence, they welcomed me into their lives. One thing they never had to learn was what love looked like, and when I entered the picture it was almost like everything found the symmetry it had been seeking. The household was now half male, half female, half adult, half child, and we all felt a little relieved, however subconsciously, at knowing our places in this world. It was like we had all come home.

And we never did identify what animal the skull had belonged to, and it took shape in our imaginations as some mythical beast. In some ways, I liked that, because it added mystery to a place that I might otherwise not find so mysterious. New England was quaint and easy, already tamed, but here was this small piece that refused classification.

 

Years ago, a friend mailed me a giant clamshell full of tiny vertebrae from Georgia’s Cumberland Island. He had an uncanny ability for locating relics. He’d bound the clamshell with twine and attached an address label directly to the ridged surface, and he was disappointed when a month later I told him the shell had actually arrived in a bubble envelope, my name and address written by someone else’s hand. He had found the vertebrae all together in a little heap along with a skull in some tall grass near a river. In a letter curled in with the bones he told me how the dolphins would swim from the ocean right up narrow little streams. Another time we were backpacking in southern Arizona and he’d stuck a tiny fox skull in the side pocket of my pack. I didn’t find it until the evening, when we were making camp and boiling water for tea. It must’ve been half buried because the orbital bone was packed full with earth. It sits on a sill beside my desk, and every time I move it a little bit of red dirt still falls out.

 

The box full of sea stars and urchins were found on the coast of Baja, the Gulf of California side. I keep the box latched and on top of a mantel. The box is pretty enough, but what’s inside only appeals to some. Some people find it gross or weird, like my parents who once asked “Why do you have those?” But I just like the way they look, the way they remind me of Baja’s bleak mountains and dry desert that stretched to the sea. I had driven there with my friend Anna while I was going to college in Arizona. It was a two-day drive to Bahia de los Angeles; I was tagging along as she did research for her senior thesis about different communities on either coast of the peninsula. We spent some afternoons on the beach, and since I was afraid of stingrays I stayed out of the warm water preferring instead to wander the shore looking for treasures, bits and pieces, as close as I could get to the life in the sea or sky. We found a small rocky alcove where a recent exceptionally high tide had left all these littoral creatures stranded on the rocks, like a grotesque invertebrate carnival. The bodies were completely dried, and all rested as though they expected the next big wave to sweep them back again. My favorite was a brittle star with five Medusa-like tendrils for arms. The arms were dried in upward curves, the animal caught in media res, as though permanently seeking a rock to scuttle beneath.

Each time I open the box I remember the guard who stopped us at a checkpoint on our way back north. He was young and slender with a baby-smooth face. A boy with a gun in a uniform, and he scarcely looked at our passports, instead gazing at our newly found treasure scattered across Anna’s dashboard. “What are those?” he asked in Spanish. And I struggled to answer and finally said, “Cosas del mar?” looking up at him. Things from the sea. My basic traveler’s vocabulary didn’t contain the words for high tide, invertebrates, or desiccation, not even for stranded or unusual or damn lucky. But I did know beautiful. “Hermoso, no?” I asked, holding up a sea urchin. I’m not sure that’s what he would have called it, and a few moments later he snapped out of it and was waving us on, but I remember that moment of transfixion—he’d no idea what these things were, that they had lived and died just a few miles from where he stood.

 

When I told Ben’s son that the bird skull he was holding once belonged to a booby, he said, “A what?” “Not that kind of booby,” I said. I explained the bird, its dagger shaped bill, the way it dives from the sky so it can plunge deep enough to eat the kind of fish it prefers—clupeiformes, or anchovies. The booby skull was smooth and white, fit for an O’Keefe, and at the time it sat on a shelf next to a 14-inch-long pelican skull, a cormorant skull, several canine skulls, and a jar of feathers—red tails, golden eagle, macaw.

He remembered. He had heard of this bird. “Can’t they dive from like eighty feet in the sky into the water?” he asked.

“They can,” I said.

He touched the tip of the booby bill to the palm of his other hand, as though testing it for sharpness. He wrapped both hands around the skull and pointed the tip of the bill skyward, making the Star Wars light-saber noise: “Vszhoom, vszhoom.”

“It’s not a toy” I said, and made him put it back on the shelf. “That’s not what it’s for.”

The year before Anna and I drove to Baja, I had spent a month in Sonora, on the other side of the Gulf of California, at my college’s field station where I studied coastal ecology. Several times throughout our stay we spotted clouds of blue-footed boobies over the water in a feeding frenzy. We knew that whenever we saw the mass of birds a pod of dolphins wasn’t too far away, the two species mirroring each other in groups by the hundreds, the boobies taking advantage of the schools of fish the dolphins churned up. Birds’ bodies washed up on shore often, and occasionally I could find clean and perfect bones that I would slip into my backpack, hoping they wouldn’t break.

 

Sometimes, I have to remind Ben’s daughter that she used to keep a fingernail in a little pouch that she carried around her neck. I can’t remember why it had fallen off, slamming her finger in a car door maybe. That was before my time. But she couldn’t seem to get rid of it, and she liked to take it out periodically just to look at or to use it to chase her brother off. I’m sure a psychoanalyst might have a field day with that—something about her not being able to let go of a former identity, that as she developed beyond the age of reason and into adolescence she clung to a younger childhood form of herself. And Ben’s son is fully aware of his sunglasses obsession—how he “accidentally” ordered thirteen pairs with an Amazon gift card on his birthday. Whenever he ends up with a little bit of chore money he buys sunglasses or some other frivolous adornment like chains for his belt or fingerless gloves. As he drifts into teenagerdom he seems compelled by a hundred different brands of coolness, each pair of gaudy sunglasses a new way for him to define himself. Recently, retrieving a book, I knocked the booby skull of the shelf myself, breaking it in half. I was surprised to not feel very much—it was, after all, just a skull. What was it worth? I always thought I had kept the objects, hoarded them like fetishist, to remind myself of the places I’d been (or I suppose even the places people I knew had been). Perhaps I was inspired by millennia of nobility who surrounded themselves with exotic treasures from the world over. I often wonder what medieval kings thought when explorers returned with Narwhal tusks, and I imagine the fascination is somewhat akin to the way the mystery skull kept me wondering. There was this curiosity, a need to explain the unknowable—whether the experience of death as with hawk, or the elusive nature of the beast to begin with. But within a collection also comes control—kings who kept labeled collections of plants and animals from Africa, Asia, and the New World and arranged them to represent their dominion in miniature. They could point to their little wunderboxes, cubby by cubby, and go mine, mine, mine. I feel that way sometimes when I look at the jars of river rocks from the Huachuca Mountains, the cast of a wolf track from Alaska. There are the tiny blue-and-gold macaw feathers that shimmer iridescently when I turn them in the light. There’s the tiny wooden disc I found on a beach in Belize with two eyes and a nose drilled into it—a little talisman that I’m both scared to hold onto to and scared to get rid of, although no evil has fallen on me yet. Each object contains a story that somehow represents a piece of me.

When I moved in with Ben most of these things went into boxes that now sit in a closet. Four people and a dog crammed into a two-bedroom house leave little room for displays of collections. And the boxes have been moved around so many times now that sometimes I go to open them and I find an object in pieces, turning to dust. Some of my memories start to wither with the objects, but I find that I don’t care as much as I thought I would.

And maybe I just should have let Ben’s son play with the skull. He’s too old now; he probably wouldn’t care. And whereas he still has a light saber obsession, he’s not as quick to admit it. I probably should have given it to him. Hell, let him break it if he wanted to. At least he hadn’t been grossed out by that one. And really, what was it for? It was just a thing that reminded me of a place—not equal to the original experience at all. Perhaps I’d been too insecure to value my own journeys, my own adventures, and I kept the pieces as proof. But really it was just a pretty little thing that I liked to look at. Really, it wasn’t for anything much at all.

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