Today I watched as someone walked straight past a feather and didn’t pick it up. Apparently, or so my friends tell me, this happens all the time. It was a jay’s feather – you know, the ones with the patches of iridescent blue – how could you not pick that up?
I added it to the five deliciously smooth conkers and dead, but very fluffy, buff-tailed bumblebee already in my pocket. All are en route to my cabinet of curiosities.
Sometimes I feel like a species on the brink of extinction. In the 16th century, collecting curiosities was commonplace and wholeheartedly celebrated. Friends would have travelled miles to admire my baby horseshoe crab shell or nightjar tail feather. Now I hide them away and don’t tell a soul.
If a fascination for curios is catching then I caught it from my mum, she would never have walked past a jay’s feather. After she died I inherited a small black purse containing her ‘special things’ – a brightly painted boomerang, a mouldy green threepenny-bit, a tiny black pig with a curly tail and a cat with ruby eyes set into silky black stone. Did I mention she was quite superstitious?
At least historically I’m in good company. My curio-collecting hero, John Tradescant, wasn’t a stuffy old aristocrat returning from his Grand Tour, he was a normal bloke, a gardener, sent around the world by his boss to collect exotic plants. He did bring back plants, but he also acquired the remains of a dodo, whale ribs and the hand of a mummy, along with several thousand other curios. His collection became so famous it was housed in a building in Lambeth known as ‘The Ark’ – the first public museum in England. In 1683, after he died, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford was built to house the collection. Not a bad legacy for a gardener.
I can’t help but run a finger over the rough sloughed skin of a grass snake…
Opening the glass fronted doors to my own collection, and carefully positioning the conkers, bumblebee and feather inside, I can’t help but run a finger over the rough sloughed skin of a grass snake that gently curls round a bottle of red Australian sand, and a one-inch carved Japanese fisherman with a cormorant perched on his shoulder. To the right of the snake three shiny white skulls – two adult badgers and a cub – rub shoulders with ammonites, a hand made miniature brass kettle and a cow’s tooth.
There’s something intensely satisfying about curios. The objects are fascinating in themselves, but actually it’s the stories behind them that gives them their meaning. They become part of you, part of your history, part of who you are, a physical diary of adventures.
As I close the doors a hazelnut shell, gnawed by a woodmouse that lives under a piece of corrugated iron in the garden, tries to escape but is stopped by the jay’s feather. Such unlikely bedfellows, but now I look at them they are strangely perfect together.