Anne Fadiman is. In her collection of essays, At Large and At Small, she opens the door to her life of collecting butterflies and, as time moves forward, speaks of a Darwin-like obsession with finding, storing, and labeling all things odd and wonderful.
What do you collect?
Fadiman began collecting butterflies — and her capacity to name them all went well beyond anything I know of butterflies — as a youngster but soon felt guilty for killing them. “I remember,” she observes, “a period of painful overlap, when the light of decency [not killing the butterfly] was dawning but the lure of sin was still irresistible.” She doesn’t mention Augustine, but she might have to good effect.
Anne, if you are reading this blog, I wonder if you might identify this moth for me:
I collect spottings of birds, I suppose. I don’t kill them and convert them into museum pieces, but as soon as I arrive home from a fresh spotting, I find my Peterson’s Guide to Birds East of the Rockies, and put a check mark next to the new bird I’ve seen and then jot down the date on which I saw it on the description page. I’m not obsessive enough to count how many birds I’ve spotted, nor do I study my bird book — as a friend of mine does — to see where I need to take our next vacation in order to find something never seen.
We did, however, see a number of Hoopoes in Italy in June and one of my old friends from England, a Brambling, found me one day when we were walking in Denmark. But I know how Anne Fadiman felt about killing butterflies. I grew up hunting and have knocked out of pure space quails and pheasants and pigeons and doves. But once when hunting deer in college I spied one, fixed it in my sights, saw its beauty and said to myself: “I can’t do this.” I put my gun down then and there and never hunted again.
I shouldn’t however take too much credit. I can’t imagine feeling guilty for catching a fish, skinning and fileting the thing, and gently sauteeing it for dinner. I don’t think it is the killing that bothered me so much as the elegance of a deer. I have no interest any longer in traipsing through rugged fields to scare up pheasants and quail in order to enjoy the downing of what we take as God’s provisions for us.
What God has provided us with, though, is a good writer like Anne Fadiman whose nice little essay set me to meandering about birds and hunting and collecting. Like her, I collect books which I suppose is what provides a little for both of us.