Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Wunderkammer

From Renaissance times until the late-18th century people of rank and wealth kept "cabinets of curiosities," or as they were called in German wunderkammers, "wonder chambers." In these collections, which might take up many rooms, were cultural and natural artifacts returned to Europe from the four corners of the Earth, everything from Zulu spears to stuffed Tasmanian birds. In the 19th and 20th centuries public museums took over the roles of the private collectors, but also as the distant world became more familiar its "curiosities" seemed less exotic.

We need not go to the ends of the Earth to look for wonders. Our own backyards can yield a satisfying cabinet of curiosities. I love this poem by Charles Goodrich, from his book The Insects of South Corvallis:

Winter Seeds

Peas, beans,
haws, hips -- I am
a superstitious man.

That's why
I've gathered all these seeds
and placed them around my desk
to help me germ through
winter's dark:

grass seed half-filling a water glass,
a peach pit seated next to a chestnut,
five acorns leaning together
like tired school kids,
a sake cup brimful with rice.

I light a stick of incense,
finger my beads. A man
could spend his whole winter
arranging seeds,
scrawling proverbs in a tray full of flax,
stacking up kernels of dry corn
like a human spine,

or just listening
to the mind inside a walnut

preparing to speak.