Dr. Clutter’s Cabinet of Curiosities: Part 1
by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA
Up on the second floor of our house, I have in the hallway a sizeable cabinet, with 3 shelves and a glass front, for which I paid the extraordinary sum of $25. It is well-used, but in nice condition and serves as a highly cluttered display for natural history items ranging from minerals, fossils and crystals to sea urchins, glass sponges, starfish, shells, and even a feather star or two plus other odds and ends that make opening the door an event of discovery. If cluttering were one of the Seven Deadly Sins, I would be done for; neatness is not one of my virtues, yet oddly my chaos is rather well-organized most of the time in that I can usually find what I want which, at times, amazes even me. Recently, however, I decided that it might be an enjoyable project to do a photo inventory of my cabinet of curiosities and share the results with you. However, I’m willing to make a sizeable wager that a single essay won’t be sufficient to cover the contents, so screw your courage to the sticking point (whatever that means) and prepare yourself for a series of rambles.
First, I’ll give you a few pictures of the cabinet as it is now to give you a sense of the scope of this wee project. First off, I’ll show you a view of the entire cabinet.
Next, I’ll show you 8 views of the shelves to give you an idea of how this has become more a storage cabinet than a display cabinet.
For me, no collection would be complete without at least one specimen of Euplectella aspergillum, the amazing glass sponge known as the Venus Flower Basket. However, I won’t go nattering on here about it since I have already written several essays about it, so I’ll just provide you the links and a couple of images.
If you hunt around on the Internet on the sites that sell shells, you can find sources for a specimen at less than $10, so don’t get bamboozled (a lovely, fun word) into spending $25 or $35 or more on eBay for one. This applies, by the way, to a number of common starfish, sea urchins, and other types of dried sea life as well.
While we’re on the subject of the beautiful Roman goddess of Beauty, another must for my collection is the Venus Comb Murex shell. What an exquisite treasure to contemplate.
As you can readily see this is not something that you can use as a hockey puck; it does require quite careful handling or you can do what I do, buy 2 and keep one for display and visual joy and vandalize the second one to try to extricate some of its secrets. Are the spines hollow? Do they possess a toxin to discourage predators? I must confess that I don’t know, for I haven’t yet been able to push myself to take one apart.
Another group of remarkable shells is that of the genus Tibia. Especially impressive is T. fusus with its formidable-looking, but fragile, lance. If you look carefully, you will notice that there is fluting along the edge.
A charming little morsel is the “strawberry” shell which not only has the vivid color, but the black spots where the seeds would be. I read somewhere that the strawberry is the only fruit which has its seeds on the outer surface.
Another small marvel is the elegant Wentletrap which derives its name from the Dutch word for spiral staircase which as you can see is a vividly apt description.
At the other end of the scale is the giant Tridacna found along the Great Barrier Reef. It can reach a length of 6 feet and weigh up to 450 pounds–a bit too big for my cabinet, so I don’t have one and you’ll have to look them up on the Internet. My largest shell is a conch which is relatively massive, heavy, and thick and, on the inside, displays an erotically pink hue and form.
Another shell that I think should be in every collection is that of the cephalopod, Nautilus. In fact, you should have two, one that is whole and a second one that has been sliced in half to reveal the beautiful demonstration of the Fibonacci spiral of the internal chambers. I will show you 2 examples of a sliced shell.
Shifting gears for a bit, let’s take a look at some remarkable mineral specimens beginning with a highly geometric pyrite–a cube. This is not cut and shaped, but occurs this way naturally, although pyrites can take on a variety of other forms, many of them geometric. These cubes are specimens which I find quite fascinating.
There is another mineral which is chemically identical to pyrite, namely, marcasite and often certain small stones in rings and bracelets are marketed as marcasite, but they are in fact pyrite. Marcasite and pyrite are polymorph pairs, they have the same chemistry but different forms of crystallization and different symmetries. A distinctive form of marcasite is the “cockscomb” form. Marcasite can ruin a collection, because it slowly oxidizes and gives off a smell of sulfur as it forms sulfuric acid and causes the specimen to gradually crumble.
So, I’m not going to show you marcasite, but I do want to show you 2 more examples of pyrite. The first is one that was often sold as marcasite, namely, as a marcasite “dollar” or “sun”. These came from a coal mine in Illinois and recent X-ray studies have shown them to be mostly pyrite. In any case they are quite striking.
The other is somewhat similar, but much thicker and has a showier display of crystals. It is a wonderful specimen from China.
There is a rumor that the Illinois coal mines are now flooded which would mean that the value will increase since the supply has been cut off. Truth or fiction? Perhaps someone knows, but I don’t. However, this reminds me of the title of Goethe’s autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit “Truth and Fiction” and I suspect that that is an apt description of much of what we call “information”. In any case the “dollars” are most impressive and to the uninitiated often appear to be fossilized sand dollars.
Sometimes it’s fun to be fooled if we’re not cheated and later discover the deception. Smoky quartz is an attractive addition to a collection but, caveat emptor, there are unscrupulous dealers who will take pieces of clear quartz and subject them to radiation thus creating faux smoky quartz.-----Oh, NO! I should never have raised this issue! This is going to mean a major digression which I love and which annoys the hell out of some of my ex-friends, ex-acquaintances, and ex-students and even more especially my pedantic ex-colleagues. However, fair is fair, so I’m giving you notice and will also indicate when the digression has concluded.
Does it really matter if the Smoky Quartz is “genuine” or if it has been artificially given its color by subjecting it to radiation? If the piece you acquire is beautiful and brings you pleasure, then shut up and enjoy it. Some wealthy people buy absurdly expensive jewelry containing incredibly costly gemstones and then have a copy made with “paste” stones for fear of theft. So, the original is kept in a vault where only the owner gets to see it occasionally which might reduce the insurance premiums quite a bit. So, what’s the point? Also there are some mass art forgers like van Meegeren who has fooled some “experts” and museum curators and made a lot of institutions rather nervous about the authenticity of some items in their collections. While he focused on Jan Vermeer, there were other forgers around producing paintings by other artists and museums got quite paranoid about their holdings. If a museum spends ten million dollars for a painting and only years later is it discovered to be a forgery, then one might argue that, at least, in some instances, “authenticity” is a dubious issue and that the concept of uniqueness–that is the misguided drive to own the one and only copy of a particular work of art–creates an absurd economic inflation regarding the worth of such items. Gallery owners and art dealers count on this as they promote their “artists of the month”, all of whom, they claim, will provide their owners with solid investments and stunning profits over time. Much of this is, of course, an elaborate “cultural” scam full of outrageous pretensions and nourished by a condition which the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, described as “elephantiasis of the ego.”
There is a wonderful story which I heard years ago regarding Picasso. He was, of course, one of the most prolific painters in history and often worked on multiple canvases in a single day and, as a consequence, some of them were never completely finished, but the number of works he did complete is staggering. One day in Paris, a man brought a painting to a dealer who he knew was a friend of Picasso. The owner of the painting who had purchased it from the dealer was having some doubts about its authenticity. The dealer assured the patron that it was an authentic Picasso, but to placate him the owner agreed to take it to Picasso to get his official confirmation. The dealer did so; Picasso took one look at it and said: “It’s a fake!” The dealer was aghast, in no small part because his own reputation was at stake. A few days later he took another painting to Picasso. Again Picasso pronounced it a fake. The dealer challenged him and said: “Wait a minute. This painting is from my own personal collection and I watched you paint it.” Picasso shouted dismissively: So what! Sometimes I paint fake Picassos myself!”
Unfortunately, we have created a “culture” which in some social (read “economic”) strata, individuals are obsessed with acquisition and ownership and often have little appreciation of the value of what they possess. Sometimes a small elegant thing with little intrinsic value can be a source of enormous pleasure like a sea urchin, a butterfly, or a colorful mineral.
Or even in a man-made “mineral”, in this case, Bismuth.
These four items above are all residing in my cabinet of curiosities.
END OF DIGRESSION
Oops! This is getting way too long and I have quite a few more images to put in, so I’ll cut this off here and turn the rest into Part 2 and try to get it done in time for both Parts to appear. That way you can read Part 1 and take a few days break and come back to Part 2 at your leisure.
All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.
Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at http://rhowey.googlepages.com/home where he plans to share aspects of his wide interests.
Published in the October 2015 edition of Micscape Magazine.
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